Can we, before we get going, offer one piece of advice: if at all possible, watch the final episode of Ashes To Ashes again. As soon as you can.
Such was the intensity of the final hour of the show, and the ultimate conclusion of the Gene Hunt story, that we found a second viewing enriched an already terrific episode still further, and helped deal with a proportion of the questions that we’d wager are spinning around in your head.
It also allowed us to pick back up on things that didn’t register so pertinently the first time round. Take the first ten minutes of the episode, and the clues are all there: Chris hears music. Shaz sees the screwdriver that she’s been stabbed with. Ray is grabbing his neck at one point. “We’ve lost sight of who we are” Gene Hunt said in the first 10 minutes. Boy, he was bang on the mark there. The next 50 minutes after that proved it.
That second viewing too doesn’t half help too in wrapping your head around the two big questions that are floating around come the end credits rolling for the very last time: who is Gene Hunt, and who is DCI Jim Keats.
It seems easier to answer the latter first, given that it’s not long into the episode before Drake twigs that Keats isn’t all that he seems. And Daniel Mays’ performance gradually goes more and more off the chart as he becomes the devil-like figure that Internet speculators have been predicting he would be. At the very least, we’ll peg him as a hell hound, intent on taking the wandering souls of Shaz, Ray and Chris on one last elevator ride downwards (complete with lovely screaming sound effects in the background).
The devil tempts, after all, as does Keats as he tries to lure Alex Drake to his side. And let’s not forget too that the two police officers we’ve seen die in this series have both been in Keats’ arms as they’ve done so. The death of Viv in episode six, and Keats’ reaction, makes a lot more sense right now.
So where does that leave Gene? Is he a God-like figure? Given that he’s been in denial for the five series that we’ve known him, we’re going for the undercover guardian angel, watching over the key characters of the Ashes world, and eventually guiding them to their ultimate destination. Even if he has been in denial about his role in everything in all the time we’ve known him.
What all this also allows writer Matthew Graham to do is to turn the whole thrust of the series round. For three years of Ashes To Ashes, we’ve been following Alex Drake as she tries to discover why she’s been put in this world, and what she’s got to do with relation to Gene Hunt to get out of it. As it turned out, she had no job to do at all, short of reminding Hunt who he actually is. Instead, it’s Gene’s job to ultimately look after Alex. We’ll come back to that shortly.
The episode’s opening set the tone wonderfully well, with about the most sinister game of It’s A Knockout we can remember sitting through (and we watched that gruesome one with the royal family in it, too). But it’s from this springboard that a jam-packed episode gets down to business very, very quickly.
We were surprised, for instance, at just how relatively speedily we got to the grave we were teased with last time, and the discovery that it’s Gene Hunt’s body sitting in it (although we did get a few minutes of very wounded Gene first, courtesy of Alex’s rejection of him the night before).
And as we tried to wrap our heads around that, the revelations just didn’t stop coming. Gene Hunt is dead! More to the point, Gene Hunt knew he was dead in his heart of hearts, yet hadn’t helped Drake in the same way he helped Sam Tyler! Why?
Yet as we thirsted a moment to tie those strands up, in came Jim Keats again, with the shackles very, very firmly off. His messing with the mind of Alex Drake gets turned up still further here, and while the three of them fight out a compelling battle of words, the focus soon shifts back to those three Betamax videotapes back at CID.
If our head was hurting already, it was soon going into overdrive. We meet Chris, Shaz and Ray appreciating that the world around them is changing, and they’re beginning to lose faith in the Guv himself (shame on them!). And as they try and wrap their heads around the inevitably quite muted crime of the week story, Ray both takes charge, and ultimately, takes the lead in discovering the truth about them all.
Courtesy of three videotapes, out comes the shocking truth that’s been staring us in the face for years. Shaz, Chris and Ray? They’re all dead. They’re inhabiting the same world as Sam Tyler and Alex Drake, and it’s brought home to them in devastating style. Ray’s death in particular brought such a massive lump to our throats, fully explaining the underlying sadness to the character that’s been there right from the start.
Which is a good chance just to take a breather and acknowledge the quality of the acting. I’ve always loved Dean Andrews’ work in these series, and you have to say that he, Marshall Lancaster and Montserrat Lombard don’t put a foot wrong here. Keeley Hawes too is in blistering form as her world crumbles around her, pretty much breaking our hearts come the final scene (it’s almost inconeivable now to recall just how criticised she and the character of Alex Drake were once upon a time), while Daniel Mays has been the find of the series.
But step forward Philip Glenister. His portrayal of Gene Hunt over these past five years has been utterly masterful. Yet here, he finds even more to invest in a character we’ve spent 39 hours in the company of already. He absolutely smacks it out the park.
Remember how haunted he looked in series two episode seven, when the revelations about Chris came out? Double it here. His dismantling and putting back together of his character in a flat-out hour was masterful work. It’s the kind of acting performance that they invented award ceremonies to reward. And it’d be criminal if his mantelpiece wasn’t groaning by this time next year.
The same can be said for the writing team too, who in that scene with the three videotapes convey so much through so little. Arguably it’s a little too quick if you wanted to be picky, as given the weight of the revelations being banded around, an added moment to help them sink in and deal with the character’s reactions would have been appreciated.
Yet there was still so much more business to get through here, as the episode was far from done.
That’s because, for the last time, we got to see Gene Hunt ultimately rally his troops, sending goosebumps along our arms as we realised that it’s something we’ll never see on the telly again. It almost brought a tear to the eye right there.
There was little doubt that Chris, Ray and Shaz would come back to him, to be fair, but that’s beside the point. Because we got to see one last blag busted, one last set of bad guys sent down, and one more case solved by the gone-but-not-to-be-forgotten Fenchurch CID office.Weight
And that’s when the episode got really, really heavy. Because as they walked to the pub to encounter The Railway Arms, it all of a sudden became clear what had to happen here, and it hit us like a slug to the guts. For there was Nelson, greeting them all as if we were still in the Life On Mars days. Only this time, Gene had led them there one very last time.
You’d have to have a heart of stone, if you’ve followed Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes from the start, not to be moved as they, in turn, said their final goodbyes and went through the doors, only to disappear in a subtle flash of light once they’d slammed shut. It was desperately sad and quite brilliant in equal measure.
And still we weren’t done. For the last revelation was saved for Alex Drake.
Just how broken did Keeley Hawes look when she realised what Gene had known: that she was never going back to Molly? That she died at 9.06, and that her journey too was at an end? It was a brilliantly handled moment of television, and the goosebumps were back as she too took her final walk into the pub. It was brilliant drama, and genuinely moving.
Which just left Gene Hunt and Jim Keats, with the implication being that they’d return to do battle again. Thus, fittingly, the series closed on Gene Hunt, about to rule the roost over another bunch of CID recruits, with a fresh story about to start that we’ll never get to see. A fitting end, and one that brought the curtain down on one of the most exhausting hours of television drama we can remember.
But heck, it was exhausting in a good way. It simply packed so much into one hour of television, that we were left a little bit reeling when it all came to the stop. Hence the advice right at the top of the review: watch it again. In fact, watch the series again and see how so many of the clues were there for us all along. Because this was clearly no ending devised in the pub half way through. It’s clear from episode eight that those in charge of the show knew exactly where all this was heading from the start. The evidence can be found over five series of terrific quality TV drama.
As we noted in the spoiler-free review we published a day or two back, it’s inevitable that not everyone is going to be satisfied, and different people are going to come up with different interpretations to ours. But it’s hard to argue we didn’t get what we promised, and it’s hard to think of a more satisfying way to tie up both Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes in such an understandable, logical way that didn’t seem to cheat in any shape or form. Bluntly, it all makes sense, start to finish, whether you like the ending or not.
We, frankly, loved it. It was a tough episode to watch at times, and it demanded a level of concentration we’re simply not used to seeing from the usual television dramas we get.
But then, Ashes To Ashes never was the usual, run-of-the-mill show. From the infancy of Life On Mars, to the stunning end of Ashes series one (was Geoffrey Palmer the best guest star the show ever had?), the gripping narrative of series two and the gob-smacking revelations of the show’s ultimate ending, it’s always been a bit special. And there seems little doubt that it’s going to be setting a standard for a long, long time to come.
So cheerio then, DCI Hunt. It’s been one hell of a ride. And pity the next TV character who comes along and is referred to in the script as ‘the Guv’.