ASHES TO ASHES - Series 2: Episode Two

BBC1 - 27th April 2009 - 9.00pm

"Operation Burning Ring! Tip off! Tasty as Jane Fonda in a bap..."

"This motor's more a part of me than me own ball-sac..."

"Is there a musical called 'Paint Your Wagon Shit-Coloured'?"

"They'll tie you up as a sex slave and make a rabbit-trap outta yer knickers..."

"A hot cow's arse isn't my idea of a power drink..."

Whilst the central plot, a do-gooding Doctor bumping off the violent gypsy boyfriend of the underage young girl he's had sex with and made pregnant, isn't a particularly strong one it is quite obvious that it's simply a means to an end in packing the episode full with the more interesting material about Gene and Alex. It's a question of taking sides all round really - which side Gene really is on and whether Alex is on the wrong side whilst Ray Carling symbolises the way we were all having to make decisions about which side we were on during the Falklands War as well as an articulation of our xenophobia toward both the Argentinians and what would eventually become known as New Age Travellers living in the UK in the 1980s. The xenophobia directed at the Romany camp is as much about the bile and jingoism (summed up in that 'Gotcha' headline from the soaraway Sun) that seemed to possess seemingly right minded folk in 1982.

...trapped in a bungalow in Margate

All that is significant therefore takes place around the central plot, moving us through a narrative exclusion zone as murky as the one that sank the Belgrano. Writer Matthew Graham continues to flip the series over into something colder, bleaker and darker. There are layers upon layers here, beginning with the terrifying notion that Alex is beginning to forget her 2008 origins and can't even remember the face and the name of her own daughter, the disturbing notion that Gene really is corrupt and is being influenced by the brothers of the Lodge, that the messenger from the future is also part of this set up and that Ray, by the end of the episode, still genuinely is one of the brothers and is someone whom we simply can no longer trust at all and isn't quite the rough diamond we've all grown to love. It makes your blood run cold as the episode systematically moves the goal-posts of the established 1980s pastiche of Series One and asks you to question Gene's motives and it isn't until the last ten minutes that Gene reveals his plan, and relieves the tension, determined not to end up like his predecessor Garrett, trapped in a bungalow in Margate.
...his slimy trail of corruption weaves its sticky way through the narrative
Graham also reminds us that the matter of Kevin Hales, the cop-killer from last week's episode, is still very much in Alex's mind despite Super Mac and Gene's attempts to divert her from re-interviewing the suspect. This scene between Alex and Gene really starts to play on your loyalties to the characters and begins the slow unease that permeates the rest of the episode. Super Mac, brilliantly played by Roger Allam, finally makes his mark on the series and his slimy trail of corruption weaves its sticky way through the narrative, from the kiddy cover-up story for Gene's dangerous driving to his willingness to let 'brother' Dr. Battleford go free for his crime. Of course, with the story delving into the world of Freemasonry there's a lot of symbolism flying about in the story and feeding into all manner of conspiracy theories often accusing the Masons of being behind an occultist New World Order. The imagery at the start of the episode where Alex can hear the helicopter and spins round beneath a series of skyscrapers certainly nods towards the Masonic obsession with architecture.
a 'magical ride to the wrong side of the wardrobe'

The use of the Masonic conspiracy here can also be seen as an allusion to the murder or suicide of Robert Calvi on Waterloo Bridge in June 1982. A major figure in international banking, he was in charge of an organisation that laundered money made largely from the heroin trade for the mafia. He knew the dark financial secrets of the Vatican. It was the City of London police that suggested suicide after an investigation that lasted no more than a week. It has long been suggested that it was a masonic influence that led the City police to issue this conclusion, a claim denied by them. This influence in the story is then countered by the Tarot reading given to Alex by the old woman, which Gene pronounces as a 'magical ride to the wrong side of the wardrobe' (sides, again) but which forces Alex to admit that there may be 'more than one real world'. The Hanged Man, as applied to Gene, is a greatly important card in Tarot, symbolic of relinquishing power. Symbolically, Gene does give up control to Super Mac but only in order to overturn the corruption he can see in the force.

What is also worth noting is that this is a thoroughly male conspiracy within the police force, forcing Alex to take sides in the investigation against Gene but also reminding her, via the messages on the computer screen that there is a further dimension to her plight as she fights for her life on the other side of that screen in 2008. The feminine power of intuition and insight seems to be closing down for Alex at one point here, as emphasised in that wonderful visual motif of the ceiling lights going off as she runs out of the office after losing her temper with Shaz. It's a chilling scene and after the male bonding between Gene and Super Mac meeting in the sauna we see a distraught Alex, drunk, resolving not to 'join' Gene's world just as he resolves to 'join' Super Mac's world of the lodge. The 'devil made flesh', Super Mac, then materialises in Alex's nightmare as she struggles to take sides. Again, very disturbing imagery that superbly documents her battle with reality in this episode. When she interviews the pregnant Alva, her losing grip on reality reveals itself in the form of a slippage as she pronounces her daughter's name as Milly rather than Molly. You get the sense that her struggle for life in 2008 is now directly affecting the way she operates in 1982.
...the symbolic removal of those crocodile boots

As HMS Sheffield sinks, there's the confrontation between Gene and Alex in his office. Keeley Hawes goes full tilt and puts in a superb performance whilst Glenister make a virtue out of the comedy inherent in oxtail soup. Her pleading to him, 'please let me in' and his point blank refusal maintains the tension of the episode's obsession with 'sides', where characters are either arguing about the Falklands, fighting different sides of reality or changing sides in order to get the measure of the 'devil made flesh'. It's a fascinating kaleidoscope that powers the episode, reaching its height when Gene phones predecessor DCI Garrett and then, in a visual parallel to the earlier scene with Alex, leaves the office as the ceiling lights gradually shut down. An iconic moment all done to Phil Collins 'In The Air Tonight'. The great shock for us and for Alex is not only to see Gene at the Masonic meeting but to also see Ray standing guard as the Tyler (giving up his power to a Tyler which is a wonderful play on both the Masonic figure of the Tyler that guards the door to the meeting of the Lodge and, of course, our old friend Sam Tyler). And like the Hanged Man of the Tarot reading, Gene is stripped of all power with the symbolic removal of those crocodile boots.
'Come on, Eileen!'

Finally, Alex puts the pieces together and realises that Battleford, an effectively twitchy performance from Joseph Millson, is actually the killer. What's also great is that Alex puts her faith in Chris and this offers Marshall Lancaster an opportunity to make such a great impression in the episode with a warmth and innocence that's absent from our other characters. This leads to that superb revelation by Gene that he's joined the Masons to weed out corruption. 'You're playing with them?' 'No, that's just the way I'm standing' had me roaring with laughter and relief that our Gene Genie was back on side, as it were. Glenister is superb, full of anger and righteousness. Whilst Ray tries to stir up trouble with the gypsy camp, Gene is dragged into helping Alex deliver Alva's baby. 'Come on, Eileen!' indeed. Which brings us to this episode's wonderful use of music, using songs very carefully to underline many of the themes within the episode itself. I also hope that they're going to develop the way that Gene and Alex must now bluff about their professional relationship in front of Super Mac and, presumably, Ray, in order not to destroy Gene's cover. It should provide further layers to a very rich double act. And how ironic that the episode closes with OMD's 'Messages/Taking Sides Again' as Shaz and Chris get engaged, Gene and Alex have that flirty little moment in the office and the computer flashes up the 'ETA Crash Team 2 minutes' message.

Doesn't matter if the story about Battleford getting Alva pregnant isn't the strongest element here when you get Glenister and Hawes burning up the screen and making these characters sing, tons of symbolism and allusion, visual and aural games and a deepening mystery. Perhaps not as joyous as last week's but it pays off beautifully and confidently. More please.

Series Two Reviews:

Episode One review

Series One Reviews:

Episode Eight review
Episode Seven review
Episode Six review
Episode Five review
Episode Four review
Episode Three review
Episode Two review
Episode One review

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9 Responses to “ASHES TO ASHES - Series 2: Episode Two”
  1. I've enjoyed the first two episodes greatly so far (though "Come On Eileen" was a bit much).

    As you may remember I was not too overly impressed with the first series of A2A but this is good, solid stuff.

    The mention of Tyler was almost Who~esque in a "Fires of Pompeii" fashion. Quite a surprise.


    PS. Disappointed you didn't mention Alan Jackson from The Sarah Jane Adventures though...

  2. Yes, the 'Come On Eileen' bit was rather gratuitously outrageous. But it made me hoot just for the sheer cheek of it.

    Did acknowledge lovely Joseph Millson even if I didn't flag up SJA. He was rather good as the seedy Dr. Battleford wasn't he? Loved all the Tyler references too.

    I think this series is much more palatable for those LoM viewers who didn't like the first series. I'm a big fan of A2A Series One but I do acknowledge that they struggled by going too far into parody and pastiche. They've pulled it back and the performances are also much more likeable as a result too. Fab stuff.

  3. Millson was rather good. Did a nice turn on Survivors too.

    Was rather sad to see him leave SJA (though he did return now and again).

    Hunt seems less of a parody this time around (for me) and Hawes is as trouser~tighteningly lurvely as ever.

  4. Yes, he was great in Survivors. He just needs to get the lead in a major series and he could definitely be a contender. Loved him in SJA and Series 2 was all the poorer for not having Alan present.

    I've loved Keels since Tipping The Velvet and although she doesn't tighten my trousers (Joseph Millson will do very nicely for that) I still think she's gorgeous. A little unfair she was pilloried in the press for her performance in A2A Series One. By the last few episodes she had completely nailed it.

  5. he is a handsome man, no question. Wonder if he'll be back for S3? S'pose we'll find out soon enough.

    Keels went almost totally unnoticed by me. Never saw Velvet or Spooks.
    Although I didn't really like her character (too much self reference and a bit smug) in S1 of A2A, I certainly thought she was solid. For me, she wasn't the problem but it's interesting that the press had to focus on someone - and they wouldn't be mean to the Gene Genie!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hi Frank,

    Great review as always- the episode was a treat, and cements the value of series one for me as going straight into ever increasing darkness of the Metropolitan police force circa 1982 wouldn't have worked without showing the light that prefigured it.

    Series 1 was definitely 'all about Alex,' and this episode reinforces the way that series 2 is 'all about Gene,' especially in reference to the real world crossover at the end of the first series.

    But Matthew Graham should still be congratulated for the ambiguity of the ending: we presume that everything Gene says at the end to Alex is true, but is it? He still goes along with Supermac, and remember that the end of Life On Mars dealt with accusations of Gene's corruption.

    The whole episode was about corruption, from Alex's memory, to the Doctor, to Gene to the computer that Alex was using. And if the whole series is about Gene (and, in my opinion, the redemption of the Gene Genie), then what is the motivation of the shadowy man from the present day...

    All the best,
    Lee C.

  7. Hello Lee C,

    That's a very perceptive view of the episode and the trajectory of the series. It seems to me that you've put your finger on where this series might take us.

    The more I think about it the more shocking it would be for Gene to go bad and the whole business with Alex at the end to be just a smokescreen.

    Roll on Episode 3

  8. Conleth says:

    I have to say this is one of the best reviews I have ever read for a TV show. Of course it helps that A2A has become very rich in tapestry but still your prose is excellent whilst your perception on where the show is headed is extremely astute.. I just bookmarked ya ;)

  9. Well, thank you Conleth. Very kind comments.

    You can also use the Follow feature to keep up with the posts on the blog.

    Welcome aboard.

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