ASHES TO ASHES - Series 3: Episode Four / Review


Gene: 'OK, you got me Bols. It's a massive bleedin' conspiracy between me, Linda Lovelace and Shergar. And you just rumbled us. So, well done you. Have a Smartie.'

Gene: (on Daniel Stafford) 'Slashed his rival across both cheeks, then gave him a gentle shove out of a window, 15 stories high. Bounced higher than Dolly Parton's fun bags.'

Wilson: (to Alex) 'Nice tits, by the way...'
Alex: (to Gene) 'Did he just say...'
Gene: (to Alex) 'Man's a cripple Bolly. Have a heart.'

Terry: 'Shouldn't believe what you see or half of what you hear, Mr. Hunt'

Gene: 'Right. It looks like young Danny boy's going down faster than a five pound prossie.'

Gene: 'It's only a bloody garden!'

Chris (to Louise about the dangers of working undercover): 'A bit like Batman and Bruce Wayne. Is he a bloke in a cape pretending to be a millionaire playboy? Or is it the other way round?'

BBCHD - 23rd April 2010 - 9pm

Well, we're half way through. And straight away composer Ed Butt gets us in the mood with a lovely, haunting refrain from the Life On Mars theme tune as the pre-titles play out and Jim Keats threatens to expose Gene Hunt. And as we are 'half way on this life's path', on this allegorical and Dante-esque journey of the soul, what better time to underline the 'contest' between Jim and Gene.

After a drugs bust reveals that D16 have an undercover officer, Louise Gardiner, working on Gene's patch, the team investigate the Stafford family and their determination to take over the drugs scene, the rivalry between father and son and the perils of working undercover. I hope we've all been keeping on eye on how Keats is now using Chris to chip away at the edifice of Gene's kingdom. He's obviously identified Chris as the weakest link in the team (well, he has previous form as we know from last year). On one level the story peels off the layers of the relationship between an officer, Gardiner, and the criminals she's working with, suggesting that the woman has developed a sort of Stockholm syndrome towards the Staffords where the father Terry, having shown some kindness and tenderness towards her, has made her submerge the anger she feels in response to these criminals and towards her boss DCI Wilson.

On another it also examines the relationships between men and women, that between Shaz, Chris and Ray ('you're like a bloke with tits' says Ray, 'I am not!' retorts Shaz), between Louise and Terry. Chris still has a light shining for Shaz but in her firm rejection of anything beyond friendship his sympathies become complicated by Louise's apparent vulnerability. There are also some rather pointed remarks between Gene and Alex about Louise and the Staffords that keep that little frisson between them cooking: 'Well, when a girl like that wiggles up to you, you're gonna tell her anything to get her knickers off' as Gene wryly comments. Note the moment's pause from Alex at the end of that comment!

Louise's complex allegiances offer a fascinating view of how undercover policing carries a tremendous responsibility, both emotional and psychological, for those involved in undermining and disrupting crime by preventive infiltration of criminal organisations. As this involves the skillful manipulation of human relationships, the episode shows that the psychological connections between Gardiner and the Staffords have a vital role in the effects of undercover work on vulnerable personalities. Gardiner's role playing and her sense of self-hood become entangled to the point where she becomes empathetic to Terry Stafford after being abandoned by her DCI, Wilson. It's further complicated by the relationship between the two Staffords and Louise's self-harm that muddy the investigative waters. The episode underlines Wilson's failure to manage Gardiner, her stress and the post-operation psychological syndromes that then lead to dire consequences.

As this sub-plot explores the mental toughness that the job requires - not just Louise's, but also that needed by Chris, who then allows his out of control feelings to get the better of him, Alex and Gene pay a visit to Shorty, a smackhead, suffering from cold turkey, slumped in a dark tunnel. Director Alrick Riley once again hints at Gene's symbolic nature here. As he questions Shorty about the feelings on the street about the Staffords attempt to control drug trafficking, he is again silhouetted against the glare of sunshine reflecting off the windows behind him. Following up from last week's analysis, I'm now fairly confident that Matthew and Ashley are using the Divine Comedy as an influence here.  If Gene is some kind of figure of salvation here then it does tie in with the Inferno where 'salvation' is symbolised by the image of 'the sun behind the mountain'. Nothing could better describe the figure of Gene Hunt caught in the shadow of the sun.

Further to that visual allusion, Shorty offers a cryptic message to Alex. 'You belong here. You look like you're visiting, but you're not, are you? You're staying.' And then we get that equally intriguing graffiti on the tunnel wall. 'For a good time, call 6620', 'Gene ♥ Sam' and 'Molly Waz Here'. What all these mean is anyone's guess. The 6620 might be analogous to Sam's phone call to Hyde in Life On Mars (2612), the bit about Molly is perhaps just a reminder to Alex that her daughter is out there still awaiting her return and the Gene/Sam stuff...well, that'll give the slash fiction writers some further ammunition.

Jack Lothian's police procedural storyline is solid, with the central struggle for Louise Gardiner's conscience at the heart of the plot reflecting the, what appears to be, similar struggle between Keats and Hunt for the hearts and souls of everyone at Fenchurch East.  There's also a clear parallel to Blade Runner here, both visually and thematically. This reaches an apotheosis with the stake out in the mannequin factory which is a direct homage to Deckard's prowl through J.R. Sebastian's apartment in which his constructed beings, the replicants, hide under sheets and drapery and then spring into life to kill Deckard.

The lighting and cinematography, clearly aided by copious amounts of smoke, is also very similar in style to Jordan Cronenweth's singular vision that made Blade Runner one of the key films of the 1980s and influenced a whole generation of cinema. Thematically, the episode mirrors Blade Runner's own philosophical questions about what it means to be human. No only do both examine what the material body means to us as human beings - how the characters are connected by violent assaults, mortality and death - but they also discuss the morality of our characters, the 'questionable things' that might prevent them from becoming the true essence of themselves. You can also hear little Vangelis-like moments in Ed Butt's marvellous incidental music too.

Here, it's the disordered personality of Louise Gardiner that skews morality, with the undercover operation that changes her very essence and by extension influences Chris to assault Daniel in the cells. By the conclusion, Louise's actions, at first gaining Alex's sympathies as a fellow woman officer, create much self-doubt in Alex because she simply mis-reads the physical and emotional signals that Louise was creating. She's strung along just like the rest of us because she sees Louise's journey from one world to another, from one personality to another, as similar to her own. Zoe Telford offers us an extraordinary performance as Louise and crucially she doesn't turn Louise into a martyr. It is in the end as much her own fault as anyone else's. Alex argues that she was let down by the police, as she says: 'You can't just put somebody in undercover and expect them to make sense of things by themselves'. And does that sum up Alex's role? Is she too undercover and losing the sense of things? Is Keats there to help her?

As we go through the twists and turns of the infighting between Terry and Daniel for dominance over their criminal activities, we reach that extraordinary final sequence. And it's been flagged up by Jim Keats' exchange with Louise in the squad room. 'You wanna run, don't you. You wanna leave.' She agrees and he offers: 'I don't blame you. But the end of the road is in sight'. This surely signals that Keats already knows her fate and is in fact awaiting it. 'See this through to the end' he says, ''s all been for nothing.' This is accompanied by that very symbolic shot of Gene looking out of his office at Alex, Keats and Gardiner, as if observing these moments of revelation from on high. Later, Louise emphasises her desire to leave to Alex after their conversation about the interrogation of Danny Stafford. 'And then, can I go home?' This suggests that there are, in fact, quite a number of 'visitors' to 1983 all trying to get 'home'. And is her remark, 'It's like I'm being punished' also highly significant?

The end of the road for Louise is a major statement because it tells us a huge amount about who Keats is perhaps and what his relationship to Gene might be. Chris significantly starts calling Keats 'guv' and again symbolises his own confusion about their two roles in much the same way Louise did about her own role as officer and gang member. Keats as 'guv' is then represented in the scene where Louise dies in his arms and that very enigmatic, heavy whisper of 'soul' on the soundtrack as, it seems, Keats facilitates the passing of her soul from torment into peace. The breath, the whisper is very symbolic, particularly in Jewish thought where the soul is composed of two drives - one heavenly, one earthly, with both masculine and feminine principles (Keats and Gardner?), which must come come together as a single spiritual principle, spirit or breath. 

It also seems to reflect much of the Jewish tradition that suggest the human soul is immortal and thus survives the physical death of the body and where the hereafter is known as 'the world to come' and the earthly world is known as 'this world'. Keats and Hunt could therefore represent two judges, one of purity and one of sin, who decide which souls of Fenchurch stay in 'this world' or pass over into 'the world to come'. It all ties in with aspects of Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and with Milton's Paradise Lost as well as an interpretation of Dante where sinners select their hell by an act of their own will, eager to confess their sins even whilst they are dead or dying. It's a truly extraordinary scene that offers us a Keats who isn't 'evil' as such but is just simply a 'being' that's bringing people to account either because of their actions or through their weaknesses. All the more impressive because of the performances from Danny Mays and Zoe Telford and the exquisitely plaintive music from composer Ed Butt. Breathtaking in all senses of the word.

Along the way we have the bizarre visions of Alex in a coffin complete with a further appearance of the weather vane (the crooked figure that seems to be carrying a burden and walking stick which, I venture, is something to do with John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress  - another text that I think has a huge significance to this series - and ties in with my theory above about the 'world which is to come'), the disfigured copper, suggestions that lots of files are going missing from Gene's office and then that conversation between Alex and Keats about the projections of her subconscious and her fears realised in the apparitions. There is also the genuinely funny sequence of the chase between Gene and Danny allegedly resulting in the devastation wreaked upon the Blue Peter garden.

Marshall Lancaster once again skillfully adds more dimensions to Chris and there's great support from Dean Andrews and Montserrat Lombard. As well as Zoe Telford's excellent performance, we also have Bryan Dick quite convincingly physical as Danny who also suggests, in his dialogue, some of the episode's themes. When he asks Gene how he would feel about someone younger and smarter taking over from him, Gene grumbles, 'They'd melt in my shadow, son'. More fiery imagery and the sun/son parallel. The moment where Alex offers Louise a place on the team at Fenchurch is also interesting because it perhaps suggests that if Alex is staying, as the drug addled Shorty pronounced, then is she there to replace Gene? Is she the new gatekeeper? Plus we get that confrontation between Gene and Keats in Luigi's which could be interpreted as a declaration of war, especially with 'My Way' blazing from the soundtrack to underline the individual battlelines drawn by the two of them. 

A good episode, not as instantly effective as the previous two in this series, but worth it for some of the deeper meanings that can be teased out of the narrative, some great performances and Alrick Riley's visually consummate direction.

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2 Responses to “ASHES TO ASHES - Series 3: Episode Four / Review”
  1. The image of the coffin and weathervane reminds me of the 1932 film Vampyr directed by Carl Dreyer. The coffin in that haunting masterpiece has face window and I'm almost positive there's a few shots of a spooky weathervane.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Standing in DCI Wilson's office, D.I.Drake reminds me of Catwoman in Batman Returns!

    After D.I.Drake saw the PC with half a face, she looked - very deliberately - one way, then the other. What's going on here? East and West? Light and dark? Keats and Hunt? Something else? (Keeley looks lovely in that scene, don't you think?)

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