And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You'll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.
Lyrics of ‘Danny Boy’
“I’m Alex Drake, and quite frankly, your guess is as good as mine.”
When Alex Drake wakes up in 1981, after being shot in the present, she assumes that this world is a riddle for her to solve, the days passing here representing seconds in her own world while the doctors in 2008 struggle to save her life. DCI Gene Hunt runs his police department like an action film of that time, translating his love of Western films into the 1980s (the Quattro is his horse, and he enters the story with guns blazing). While Alex struggles to comprehend the rules of this place, both in terms of adjusting to the misogynist and occasionally outright racist past, and identifying the riddle that she is meant to solve to allow her to go back, considering the people in this world mere constructs of her own mind, and not taking life there seriously, becomes increasingly difficult. The constructs become friends with their own stories, fleshed-out characters who seem too complex to be nothing but creations of her own mind. The process works on two levels – Alex trying to figure out what is happening, what reality means, how she can understand this place and her own situation, and the viewer trying to do the same thing along with her (on the first viewing at least, the second one is interesting for other reasons). The show works on both levels. It’s a crime procedural that stands out because of Gene’s methods (a crime procedural that works like all the stories that Gene cares about), methods that are constantly called in question by the threat of “change”, both in terms of the police department being reformed and the world around them transforming itself (the Thatcher years, the city of London itself chewing up old neighbourhoods and traditions). It’s also a mystery, with the world that Alex left behind constantly sneaking into the narrative, through dreams and the programmes on her television, reminding her that in addition to the cases she is confronted with, she also has to solve the greater mystery of her presence there.
At least that’s the first two seasons, in which police corruption in this world works as a metaphor for a spreading infection in Alex’ body, her mind seems to serve up terrible answers to questions that have plagued her for her entire life (the death of her parents, impossible to prevent but solved at last), and the objective is getting back to her daughter, waking up after completing whatever task she was set. For two seasons, this is mainly Alex’ story, everyone else’s happens on the fringes of hers, but things start to change, as Alex cares more and more about these people who are supposedly not real, as the memory of her life before starts to fade. It’s quite an achievement for the show – fleshing out the characters, making the viewers care about them more and more just like Alex does, but equally never making the show any less weird. One of the more subtle alienating effect is achieved by how limited the characters’ ability to move is. Apart from the investigations, which take them around the (pre-gentrified) Fenchurch area of London, they are limited to the department itself (with its eerie checkerboard ceiling, other police officers who barely ever speak a word, and palpable lack of outside), and Luigi’s, an Italian restaurant with endless supply of booze (Alex’ apartment is in the same building). It’s not until the final season that the characters are allowed to move outside these confines, and then it serves to make a point, since it comes with them questioning themselves, searching for answers (to the extent that suddenly, space becomes literally endless, when each of them has a vision of stars).
Ashes to Ashes is successful because it works on both these levels; the cases work, ranging from fun to serious, occasionally making points about the contrast between 1981 and 2008 which Alex’ perceives, the progress of history – and the mystery works, the idea of Gene having created this place as a version of purgatory for police officers who were killed, because it’s based on well-developed and beautifully acted characters, it doesn’t exist for its own sake. The show doesn’t take all of its own options too seriously, which is maybe why it is so much better than other shows that send their characters into purgatory. It takes the characters very seriously, and the idea that Gene, the creator of this world, has done this both for himself and as kindness for others, allowing police officers to do what they do best (solving riddles, catching criminals – even if his own fantasies add a very unusual and entertaining edge to the police work – “If I can’t look after my own, then I’m nothing”). It is more playful with this world as an allegory, the struggle for the souls, the good/evil dichotomy that starts appearing early and is then made literal once Gene and Jim start their war. The show never has to make either of their roles explicit, because the viewer’s guess is as good as anyone’s, but it has loads of fun toying with the concept (Jim’s closet is “too hot” for anyone’s comfort; if you pay attention, he gets Alex’ anachronistic references – one to Jeffrey Dahmer, who was only apprehended in 1991; the elevator to the other department that he tempts the others with goes endlessly down, and if you listen closely, there are screams coming from below; and of course, in the end, he is told to go to hell) – equally, “God!” / “Don’t call me that” exchange between Alex and Gene is tongue-in-cheek, you can make of it what you want (if Gene created this world, then that’s exactly what he is, if only for the purpose of the story and not in a greater sense – “Sorting out the troubled souls of her majesty’s constabulary”). Ashes to Ashes is brilliant because it makes you care profoundly about the characters, so it can afford to play with its own mythology.
It makes sense to think of the final season as a struggle between Jim and Gene, Jim trying to tempt Alex, Shaz, Ray and Chris away from Gene’s influence, but the compelling part of the story is each of their struggle to know themselves. If this is the Land of Oz (it’s also many other things, the world Alice finds at the end of the rabbit hole, a biblical purgatory, a shared construct of the idealized reality in Gene’s head), then there’s nothing more important than Shaz finding her courage when she realizes that she has the strength to exist in this world, Ray finding the heart to forgive himself for choosing a different path than the one that was laid out for him by his parents, and Chris using his brain rather than blindly following orders. It’s a character-driven story, and the conclusion of that story comes once the characters are allowed to know themselves, since part of the grace that Gene offers is forgetting the past (it applies to him as well; he has forgotten that he was once an inexperienced officer getting caught in an ambush, being buried in a field in nowhere, his uniform on a scarecrow), the way each of them died. Alex’ role in it is more than just another person Gene saved – she challenges him from the beginning, questioning his insistence that everything has to stay the way it is. Since Ashes to Ashes always works as an allegory, that means insisting that the department should stay the way it is – the old maverick ways, always – but also keeping Chris, Ray and Shaz exactly where they are. There is a brilliant shift at the end of the second season, when Gene has to go away for a bit after he is suspected of intentionally shooting Alex, and suddenly, things do start to change. Ray takes more responsibility once he is no longer in Gene’s shadow, Chris starts to comprehend complicated concepts and thinks for himself – and most compellingly, Shaz is confronted with all the anger and rage that she used to suppress because she couldn’t remember, the anger of having died senselessly and too early (her moment of grace comes when Gene promises her that she will make it into CID, a promise she reminds him of again and again, but of course, Gene is desperate to keep things as they are). Alex works as a catalyst, someone who constantly questions Gene’s methods, but it turns out that this isn’t a story about them as antagonists, since they are both deeply concerned about the well-being of the others – the story shifts once Alex starts to realize that they feel real, sees them as actual people rather than constructs that her mind made up, especially when she returns to a place that she thinks is “her world” and suddenly finds it to be flat and less real.
Ashes to Ashes’ series finale is one to measure others by, a perfect ending to the story that has all the elements that made it compelling but also solves the mysteries rather than leaving them open. In the end, Alex, Shaz, Chris and Ray have to leave Gene – the allegorical way into the pub after a case is solved is the passage, self-knowledge followed by salvation.
2008-2011, starring Keeley Hawes, Philip Glenister, Montserrat Lombard, Dean Andrews, Marshall Lancaster, Daniel Mays, Geff Francis, Steve Munroe, Joseph Long.