Can the Ashes to Ashes finale manage not to be rubbish? Judging by its predecessor, it’s unlikely, but the show is on a high.
When Life on Mars concluded I wrote (here, in the comments) how much I hated that Sam committed suicide, not just for the act itself, but because of the choice it represented:
Gene Hunt is a mysoginist, homophobic xenophobe. Sam Tyler was the €œmoral compass€; it was through his eyes and with his disgust that we saw Hunt€™s actions. This was important, because Hunt€™s actually portrayed quite sympathetically, and the setup in the opening episode (€œwhat happened to gut reaction, Sam?€) show that Sam has something to learn from him
and that was the counterpoint to vicariously enjoying Hunt’s brutish excesses, abandoned because
the audience responded better to great music, fast driving and kicking down doors than responsible policing.
Matthew Graham admitted that he changed the ending because he couldn’t bear for Sam to return to 2007. He, like Sam, had become seduced by his own (white, male) fantasy world.
Ashes to Ashes seemed at first to be a paler imitation of its predecessor. The show seemed increasingly to rely on Hunt’s appeal as he moved from the supporting to the starring role. The location and period shift seemed a little less intense than the essence of 1973 Manchester which had been isolated and distilled to the point where you could’ve bottled it. The coma DI Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) found herself in was, of course, similar to Sam’s. There was no longer a mystery, with the teasers (the red girl in the first series) that hinted at a clever twisty ending (that in fact never came).
But with three series, rather than just the two for Mars, the show has grown stronger. While the first series tried to create a timey-wimey paradox for Alex like Sam had, by the second series the emphasis had shifted to police corruption. The strong female lead (and both in terms of her ’80s costumes and her amazingly confident performance Hawes has stolen back the starring role) has shifted the gender balance and made Hunt’s misogyny and prejudice far more personally threatening and more difficult to just shrug off and ignore in the name of “getting results”. By series three, the crusade against corruption has even eroded her trust in Hunt (partly thanks to the efforts of Discipline & Complaints’ DCI Keats) to the point where she suspects (even if we never do) that he may have murdered Sam Tyler. The show has become so confident in its own right that it is happy to refer to Sam, to show clips of Sam, and to even make the fate of Sam the central arc of the series. And (perhaps because I actually remember it) the 1980s setting really comes down to life – even down to the digital watches that beep on the hour.
At the start of the third series (spoiler if you haven’t watched series 2) Drake is back in the future (having been shot by Hunt) and it is so far from clear what is going on the that the usual opening narration is replaced by a brilliant terse “My name is Alex Drake, and your guess is as good as mine”. This turns out to be the multi-layered coma that the Lone Locust suggested (again in the comments) that Sam should have been at the end of series 2 of Life on Mars. Following the strong opener, the impressive feat of reigniting the mystery back in the ’80s setting was accomplished with the mutilated policeman and the main characters beginning to “see stars”.
Episode 6, though, was brutal and unpleasant, and the subtlety of Keats’ character (and in particular that scene, so beautifully played by Daniel Mays, in episode 4 where he comforts Louise as she dies in his arms) is cast aside. With plenty of its own loose ends to tie up, not to mention a few from Life on Mars, last week’s penultimate episode seemed to perhaps be trying to punch above its weight with a plot concerning an ANC “terrorist” cell (I still think it’s too light hearted a show to pull this off). It was a good episode, though, setting everything up – and even referring back to Nelson (the mysteriously omniscient barman chum of Sam’s at the Railway Arms back in Manchester) – for a finale which could not only wrap up Ashes to Ashes but provide a magnificent conclusion to the Sam Tyler saga that it never had in Life on Mars.
Or it could be rubbish.