ASHES TO ASHES - Series 3: Episode Three / Review


Chris: 'Shall I give him mouth to mouth?'
(Ray puts two fingers up)
Chris: 'That's a no then'

Alex: 'Left a tag, like Banksy'
Gene: 'I hope you're not suggesting that goalkeeping legend Gordon Banks goes round vandalising property'

Alex: 'Ray'll be fine. He's been inhaling smoke since he was about nine.'

Gene: (to Keats) 'You shove your nose any further up Newman's arse, it'll end up browner than bloody Gandhi in a heatwave

Keats: Mano et mano. That's Latin.
Gene: Oh, you smarmio tosspotio. That's Latin an' all.'

Gene: (to Alex and Shaz) Have you two quite finished? I feel like the filling in a feminist sarnie.'

Barney: (to Gene and Alex) 'Do you two have sex wiv each other?'

Alex: (to Gene as he drags Barney to the cells) 'It's abuse. What next...water boarding?'
Gene: 'I go for a confession and you want to teach him to surf!'

Gene: (to Andy) 'You're as sane as a box of frogs in party hats!'
Alex: 'That's no way to talk to somebody with mental health issues.'

Chris: 'God is in the detail. That's what Sam Tyler used to say.'

Ray: (to Alex after he's kissed her) If you tell anybody I'll put itching powder down yer knickers for a month. You'll be praying for a dose of the clap just to take the heat away.'

Gene: Ray, arse off the Quattro!

BBC1 - 16th April 2010 - 9.00pm

What a fascinating episode. It adds even more emphasis to some of the themes and ideas that Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah are building into this third series. These obviously allude to some of the major questions about both Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes but also touch on and reveal many of the psychological states of the male characters and with a focus here, in particular, on Ray Carling. We've always wanted to know more about what makes Ray tick and this episode explores who the man is beneath the curly perm and tache.

In a similar way to last week's episode, which brought Shaz to crisis point, defined her choices and then offered a kind of epiphany as the completion of her journey in and out of the shadow of Gene Hunt, this story explores Ray's background, the routes he never took and how that unfulfilment has left him defensive and haunted. Whilst the arsonist plot may seem, on the surface, slightly arbitrary, it eventually connects very successfully the narrative's deconstruction of the crisis of masculinity, self-belief, honour and sacrifice within both Ray and fireman and Falkland's vet Andy Smith.

As Andy Smith purges his post-traumatic stress, mixed with his anger at the waste of lives in the Falklands War, the lies of the media and the infidelity of his wife in the Dante's Inferno of the arson attacks, Ray becomes Jim Keats' pawn in what is clearly becoming a Faustian contest between him and Gene Hunt for the 'souls' of our main characters. Keats triggers feelings of inadequacy in Ray, enough to make him question his loyalties to Gene, his patriotism (which has always been bubbling under the surface in the series), his idealising of heroism and his credibility as a man.

This is enough to send Ray rushing into a smoke filled building after an arson attack, in slow motion, on a mission of mercy and enter the fray in much the same way that Shaz began her own path to a form of enlightenment last week. As Andy's wife Karen points out to us later, the man she knew before the war never really returned to her and here, when Ray emerges from the smoke, he's already changing our perception of him as a man and a human being.

Alex summarises this within the motives for the arson attacks as a 'cry for help' and she also recognises that Ray is on the threshold, constantly holding back some deep seated regret or trauma. That it eventually stems from a crisis in his relationship with his father also neatly underlines why Ray, and the rest of the team too, respect, and desire to be respected, by Gene. He is in effect their supreme sublimation of protective male authority figures, their own father figure (note how Shaz fell into his arms to be comforted last week), their sheriff, their God.

It also offers us the episode's highly symbolic visual motif, that constantly reoccurs, of doorways, door frames, gateways, thresholds. It can be no coincidence that many of the characters, particularly Gene, Jim Keats, Ray and Andy are constantly crossing thresholds, framed in them, are opening and closing doors. When Keats grills Chris about missing statements look at how Gene is framed between them, leaning in the door frame of his office, out of focus in the background. There are also a lot of jump cuts between doors closing in some scenes and others opening in the following scenes that certainly emphasises this idea.

If this is about two gatekeepers - Gene and Jim Keats - then symbolically it makes sense. The crossing of thresholds may indicate the transition between Earth and Heaven or Earth and Hell. Gene as gatekeeper, the man at the door, 'the gateway to the Sun' may provide passage from the physical human form into something more cosmic (perhaps related to the 'stars' Alex and Shaz have seen). If this is taking place in some version of Dante's circles of Hell, Tom Chetwynd also observes in The Dictionary Of Symbols that "Dante's journey to the upper sphere of pure enduring light is accomplished by first descending into the underworld.

The underworld represents Hell, death and disintegration, the unconscious. Interestingly, what he says about the unconscious seems to provide an explanation for the testing process initiated by Keats that both Shaz and now Ray go through in their episodes. The unconscious "breaks down the nature of existence till it is in a state where the essence can be distinguished from the dross, the ashes, i.e. the mere substance." In both episodes we have seen the characters reduced to their very essence, balanced between light and dark.

If this episode, and the series as a whole, is some Dante like contest for the possession of 'souls' between the demonic, as represented by Keats, and the angelic, as symbolised by Gene then the images of thresholds is complemented by other very striking visual allusions. There is that intriguing shot of Keats at the first fire ('soon enough, we'll all be feeling the heat'), the smoke whipping around him as he stands by the car, that seems to symbolise what he is ('don't shoot the messenger or anyone else for that matter' he snipes at Gene).

His darkened office in CID is bathed in an orange, fiery glow (note that Keats says to Gene of the dumped bicycles 'it's alright. I know it's a game for you - mano et mano'). It's also here that Keats uses Chris to fetch files from Gene's office and also alights upon the Achilles heel he thinks he can use to test Ray - his family of heroes and their medals leading to Ray's decision not to follow his father into the army. 'An independent thinker' as Keats smarmily addresses him, imploring him to move on from the force and his need of Gene.

This notion of 'mano et mano', of idealised masculinities as it were, is spread throughout the episode, from Shaz and Alex's eyeing up of the firemen brothers ('what is it with women and firemen. You'll want to slide down his pole next'), to the contrast with the absent Julian, the interior designer that Shaz has been seeing, and then to Andy's own sexual crisis when he discovers that his wife is having an affair with his own brother. There is also the political theme - with Thatcher being depicted has having 'more balls than all of 'em' in contrast to the 'Worzel Gummidge' figure of Michael Foot.

Shaz's idealism about the Labour movement offers a note of irony as Alex points out that the party would itself be responsible for taking the country into a pointless war. The political subtext is then framed within a montage of archive footage, of Election 1983 coverage, of Falklands War footage to the strains of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Two Tribes'. Timely, considering we've just had the first 2010 presidential style debate on ITV on a set that looked like a gameshow from 1983.

The bitching about Latin between Gene and Keats then leads Keats to quote John Donne's Meditation 17 "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee..." This is one of the most striking suggestions as to what is going on with each of the characters and their relationship to Gene. Some view the Meditation as simply that Donne was emphasising our mortality and that when a funeral bell was heard it was a reminder that we are nearer death each day, i.e. the bell is tolling for us.

Others view it more mystically and argue that Donne is saying we are all one and that, when one dies, we all die a little. Could this suggest that Keats is attempting to diminish Gene by 'removing' each member of the team from the unified whole that he represents? Donne also counters this with the notion that there is some part of the living in the dead and that we continue a form of life after death. Are each of the characters now achieving some form of afterlife as they are tested by Keats?

Contrast Keats fiery domain with Gene's bright, glass walled office and the way the sunlight streams into the squad room, the way Gene is silhouetted against the bright sun in some shots, especially the interrogation room, the framing of Ray between Gene and Keats in the scene in the squad room where Ray must go and arrest his heroic fireman. And finally, the rooftop where Ray must go and breathe, emphasised by the way director Alrick Riley places the small human figures in contrast to the vastness of the sky. 

In the midst of this story about male identity crises, Julie Rutterford's script keeps the other mysteries on a low simmer too. The stars that Shaz doodles and then talks about, seeing them outside her window as daytime was suddenly replaced by darkness obviously links into last week's startling moment when Alex herself saw the same thing and to her own later doodling, turning them into the significant code of 6-6-20 (the scarred policeman's epaulette). As she does this, we then get the dimming of lights, the vision of the policeman. She also bequeaths to Shaz the key to the desk drawer that holds the personal effects of Sam Tyler. No doubt we'll be getting back to those and that key in due course.

Dean Andrews gets a great opportunity here to provide us with a very sensitive portrayal of a man whom we think we know but who in the end we realise that we know very little about beyond the misogyny and dirty jokes. His fragile male ego is exposed and we're given more background and lots of reasons for his defensiveness, the shield with which he protects himself from the pain of feeling he failed his father's high expectations of him. It's a fantastic performance and his scenes with Keeley on the rooftop and at the end, where he shows how much he's grateful for her sympathy and understanding and kisses her on the cheek, are moving and rather lovely. His scenes with Joe Absolom are also tense and powerful. Absolom is excellent as the tortured Falklands war veteran who slowly begins to fall to pieces as the episode progresses. Andy and Ray's exorcism of their masculine guilt and failure is an absorbing scene.

It is rather obvious in the plotting that Andy's brother is having an affair with Karen and that doesn't particularly come as a surprise but that's irrelevant as Ray unburdens himself and uses it as a ploy to gain the man's confidence, knowing full well that Alex will recognise this as the real angst in Ray's heart. The codification of the lighter is a little heavy handed where Ray's homophobia is directed at the pink lighter that Chris lends him and it becomes a symbol of malfunctioning male psyche and physicality. Also note that Gene's lighter has no problem sparking into life when he lights Ray's cigar perhaps indicating that Gene's power is not diminished by Keats' attempts to chip away at his humanity. At least, in the conclusion, Ray does understand that sometimes bravery and heroism exact a heavy burden and that heroes like Andy can be fatally flawed just like him.

His action certainly ensures, like Shaz's in the previous week, that he is good enough to be in the force. 'Well done, Ray' seals the deal and we're once again shown that the choice has been made via that brief moment of Life On Mars and Nelson on the soundtrack as his eyes light up, looking directly into camera, when Gene praises his work. He's on the side of the angels at last, and again like Shaz, he's stepped out of Gene's shadow.

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5 Responses to “ASHES TO ASHES - Series 3: Episode Three / Review”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this - I look forward to your comments nearly as much as the programme!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks so much for doing this every week. I really love these analysis.
    It was a great episode - engrossing and the scenes in the station felt claustrophobic.Dont know if the actor playing the Keats character is great casting- would have thought someone closer to Genes age would be more likely to want to take Gene down- but he is a good actor and really insidious.
    Am torn between wanting to see how it all ends and not wanting the series to ever end!

  3. Joannie says:

    There is also the comment about the scales falling from their eyes, which is St Paul who is struck blind on the road to Damascas and then regains his sight. Intriguing.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Was there any significance to the rose - in Rays kitchen - - referring back to series 2 and Operation Rose?

  5. I thought the rose was just a bit of a red herring, perhaps?

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