If I’m still thinking about last night’s TV while chewing on the breakfast croissant it is sadly often because I can’t put my finger on where it all went wrong. It’s a special TV show that keeps you thinking about it after the finale because it all went right. And so Ashes to Ashes has turned out to be a bit special.
SPOILERS (if you haven’t seen the finale – or indeed any other episode – of Ashes to Ashes)
For a show in which figuring at the twist so ingrained into the premise that it features in the opening narration, I was surprised to be surprised by the final twist when it came, especially when it made so much sense. Gene Hunt, though he has forgotten it himself, is dead. He died as a young man in 1953. Hunt as a skinny rookie, fancying himself as John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart, just makes so much sense of the caricature: the character we know is precisely as big as the ego of that cocky young copper who himself cuts considerably less of a dash, and Hunt’s immaturity is because he is immature. The tragedy of his demise, while being partially a consequence of his over-confident arrogance, was really death by inexperience. This puts his brutality and prejudices in an entirely different context: viewing his more unpalatable acts or pronouncements as belonging rather than to DCI Hunt, the swaggering hero, but to the “skinny lad” who fancies himself but who has so little common that he walks into the barrel of a shotgun.
The single revelation also explains the starts that have been appearing to the others throughout these series. The videos of their deaths is particularly moving because they motivate their entire development as characters. Each death is poignantly pathetic, a “small” death, but utterly tragic. I found Monserrat Lombard’s portrayal of Shaz’s final moments, bent clutching the knife to her stomach as Wonderwall plays, particularly moving. Instantly all the anger, fear and disillusionment that we have been watching motivate her in the construct world was given an extra dimension.
Despite my fears, the episode wrapped up both Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars pulling together loose ends and adding to what has gone before rather than contradicting it. Sometimes a duff ending can make it impossible to enjoy re-watching old episodes; watching Ashes to Ashes with the foreknowledge of how it all ends will be a different experience – but in a good way. Even the disappointment for me that Alex was unable to return home (“why do so many dramas have to be bittersweet” asks Feeling Listless) was properly foreshadowed the series 2 cliffhanger which we now understand to have been her death.
Despite the simple yet comprehensive resolution, one area where there still seems to be some ambiguity is the character of Jim Keats. This post at the Guardian suggests that it was Graham’s intention that Keats actually is satan. The lift down (to police hell?) seems to support this notion. However, I can’t help seeing Keats as being more of an alter-ego to Hunt (like – sorry SPOILER warning again for if you haven’t watched the latest Doctor Who – like the Dreamlord to the Doctor in Amy’s Choice). We don’t know what he’s doing there in the police purgatory, but neither of them enter the pub at the end. And if Gene is the Ferryman, it was only through Keats’ intervention that Alex and the others realised and were forced to confront the truth about their deaths. If Hunt’s role is to construct a the policeman’s purgatory in which the dead and the dying can find comfort, Keats’ is to force them into some kind of acceptance so they can move on to the Railway Arms.
Oh yes, and what about Sam Tyler? Initially slightly disappointed that he didn’t make a cameo appearance, I cannot see how that could have worked. He is gone, and in retrospect we see his character as particularly deeply flawed: repressed, angry, disillusioned and unable to maintain a real relationship in the present he returns to the construct world, to his imaginary girlfriend and to pick up his fictitious but exciting career mid-shootout. At least we know he eventually found happiness in the saloon of the Railway Arms.