ASHES TO ASHES - Series 3: Episode Two / Review


Builder: 'Sorry, love. Got to drag this place into 1983'

Gene (to an upset Shaz): 'If you're riding the cotton pony you can bloody well go home and do it!'

Alex: 'When did she die?'
Pathologist: 'About 3 days ago, it's just starting to decompose'
Gene: 'Oh, good, it's not my aftershave then'

Ray: 'We created something special down here. We're a team.'

Gene: 'When are we at our most vulnerable?'
Alex: 'When we're in love?'
Gene: 'When we're just out of love, Bolly. When we're feeling scared and we think we're going to spend the rest of our lives on our own.'

Chris: 'Art galleries?'
Ray: 'Scientifically proven...lonely birds love art.'

Ray: 'Fabulous puppies.'
Chris: 'Steady on mate, she's been dead two years.'

Alex: 'Herb Alpert?'
Gene: 'Yes, women love it. Reminds them of being poked behind an electricity sub-station in Torremolinos'

Shaz: 'Oh, ma'am? You're rubbish at following people.'

Ray: 'It's not my fault I've got an illness with a posh name. What is it?' (looks at Alex)
Alex: 'Misogyny'

BBC1 - 9th April 2010 - 9.00pm

Ashley Pharoah's second episode provides us with much food for thought. A three course meal. Steak and chips definitely on the menu.

The differences between Gene and Alex as far as class and culture goes is beautifully and hilariously highlighted here and it's great that right from the opening dream sequence of Billy Joel's Uptown Girl video (an instant classic that Ashes To Ashes will be remembered for), through to the dating agency questionaire responses, the speed dating scene and the concluding moment where Gene is propositioned by Mrs. Downing, Pharoah provides compellingly played material for Keeley Hawes and Philip Glenister to underline the real, largely unspoken, affection and respect between Alex and Gene, the simmering sexual tension of a wonderfully realised partnership.  In juxtaposition, we also get Alex's fear that Gene 'murdered' Sam Tyler and her mistrust and doubts about Gene being fed by the sinister Jim Keats.

Director David Drury edits some of the material here with great deftness, particularly in his needle dropping of various 1980s hit tunes into the scenes. The strains of Uptown Girl have hardly faded away when Alex arrives at the office and hears them blaring out from the radio that the builders in the office have continually blaring out ('What is this, the Radio 1 roadshow!'). Watch Keeley's expression as she walks in and hears that because it sums up how much of this episode completely scrambles what you thought was the reality of 1983, Alex's dream sequences and some of the startling ways in which dream, reality and surreality mash together. And do we detect a little frisson there as she looks at Gene and then the Uptown Girl version of him pops back into her head?

The team investigate a series of killings after a severed hand is delivered to Fenchurch in the post. They uncover the killer's link to the Crescent Moon Dating Agency. Alex decides that the only way to spot the killer will be to hold a speed dating social evening at Luigi's. The consequences have a huge impact on Shaz who volunteers to meet the suspect on a date. As this investigation unfolds, Jim Keats tests the loyalty of Gene's team whilst Alex requests a number of files and items from Manchester as she delves deeper into the mystery of Sam Tyler's death. As she does, her perception of the 1983 'reality' starts to break down.

And it's not just Alex's version of 1983 that becomes skewed here. The biggest journey here is the one for Shaz Granger. It's certainly this satisfying deconstruction and rebuilding of her character that powers the core themes of the episode. The builders upgrade of the office is surely an allusion to the way Shaz goes through a period of self-assessment about her life in the force and how, through the bravest of actions, she emerges a stronger woman. And of course, it's about the physical and ideological changes to the police force via Keats' zealous investigation of Fenchurch. All this whilst she's being undermined by Jim Keats whose modus operandi seems to be 'divide and conquer' as far as taking Gene down. He's busy interviewing the likes of Ray and Chris, who staunchly defend Gene and the team ethos, and when he recognises the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Shaz there's an opportunity for him to try and break up the team.

Montserrat  Lombard steals the episode by powerfully articulating the character's vulnerabilities to include how she, as a woman in the force, is perceived by her male colleagues and how she feels she could never match Alex. Shaz's diminishing confidence is very painful to watch and Keats' kicking away the last props that support it is sickening as that superbly tense scene in the kitchen plays out. This reaches its nadir when she tries to arrest the masked gang terrorising passersby on her way home and she runs away, completely out of her depth, unable to function confidently as an officer. It's a very uncomfortable scene to watch because one of our favourite characters is emotionally exposed in such a painful manner.

That Shaz turns this around, by getting a confession from the suspect in the case they are investigating, gives the episode a real sense of triumph which turns into an exceptionally surprising, exciting and baffling moment when she looks directly into the camera as it slowly zooms in to her face, the hub-bub of Luigi's fades and the strains of Bowie's Life On Mars bursts onto the soundtrack. It suggests that she has reached a moment of epiphany, one that is seemingly connected to the way Matt Graham and Ashley Pharoah are now deliberately forging the links between Sam Tyler and the Life On Mars series. It's a special moment that sends chills down your spine.

The idea of vulnerabilities and weaknesses is also a major thread here. The Achilles Heel of each of the characters is explored and underlined. Ray's machismo and heteronormative behaviour, the debunking of which has been a recurrent theme in the series, is once again critiqued and found wanting. When we find out that he's actually been to the dating agency that provides the episode with its plot then it affirms his real vulnerability again. He isn't the man we think he is and again the episode reminds us that there is also, similarly to Shaz, his unfulfilled desire to be a soldier as an axis around which his male vanity and career as an officer revolves.

And Chris, whilst he attempts to mature, clearly still exists in the shadow of Gene (something he emphasises in the interview with Keats) and it speaks volumes when at the end of Shaz's ordeal, after she's wrung the confession out of the dating agency killer and stabbed him, she finds solace in the arms of the Gene 'the lion' Hunt. Hunt again is depicted as protector of the vulnerable and it's a role that Chris has yet to earn for himself, especially when it comes to his relationship with Shaz. Cradled in Hunt's arms, her vulnerability reflects how Gene rescued and protected both the adult Alex and the younger Alex in Series 1. Chris can only stand back, unable to articulate his love to Shaz.

The sensitivities, particularly of men to women, all keep piling up too with the murderer and Gene himself both offering quite complex psychological responses. The revenge seeking killer represents a ton of male inadequacies when faced by proactive female desire (his wife using the dating agency to end their relationship, the killer then snuffing out those other women using the agency looking for Mr. Right). And with little time to live, he announces that revenge, his own opinion of such women with the serial killings he perpetrates.

The thorn in Gene's side is clearly Alex's snooping around into the Sam Tyler case at the behest of Keats. The threat to him is symbolised by a team that doesn't trust each other as he clearly reminds Alex at the end of the episode. And Alex similarly underlines Gene's other foible - 'You can't stand not being in control, can you?' Is Alex's action going to embed that thorn further or is she, like Androcles, going to remove it by unearthing the real truth behind Sam's apparent death? He also shows that he deeply cares about the victims of crime, despite his bluffness, by admitting to Alex that he went to a victim's funeral. Hunt's defensive attitude to women also suggests his relationship with Mrs Hunt wasn't a bed of roses and this may go some way to explaining some of his attitudes in the series. I loved the fact that Elaine Downing, the owner of the Crescent Moon Dating Agency (a nod to Moonlighting perhaps?) is played by the real Mrs. Hunt - well, Phil Glenister's wife Beth Goddard - and it's she that gets the hots for Gene at the end of the episode and kisses him. A lovely metatextual nod there.

There are also some very curious moments throughout the episode: what is the 6 - 6 - 20 reference? More biblical notations, perhaps. New Testament or Old? Well, it's either Joshua or the book of Romans. Take your pick and just why is Jim Keats' room so hot ('it's hotter than a Majorcan minge in here' grumbles Ray)? Keats claims he has poor blood circulation. Is he dead, then? Is this the afterlife? Or is he some kind of demon sent to test our friends in the wilderness of 1983? It's a significant symbol and all that fussiness with the pencils on Keats' desk too which will hopefully get some further development. Also note that he seems to know who Jeffrey Dahmer is when clearly in 1983 Dahmer's serial killer activities hadn't been disclosed.

Does this link to that startling moment when Alex follows Shaz home to find out what's troubling her and comes to the end of the street only to see a swirling star scape all around her? It's enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck and again, it must be a meaningful visual statement. Could it be heaven? Couple that with the symbol of the moon that's used throughout the episode too and you could be forgiven for detecting a pattern. Just as long as they don't all end up as the crew of a spaceship, that's all I ask!

We also get more symbolism with water. As many fans noted last week, Keats dialogue put some emphasis on wanting a glass of water and water has featured in the past, notably the location of Alex's shooting on the riverside. Shaz ends up mulling over her life whilst gazing into the river, heavily signposted with a lingering shot of the water, and Shaz and Alex sit on the side of the Thames discussing her future. The investigation into Sam Tyler (his car upended in water too) also throws up a startling vision of Shaz screaming 'murder!' in answer to a question on Mastermind as Alex watches telly. There's also that weird slow motion bit of Alex in the office as Gene watches her and then tears down the newspaper article on Sam. As I said, this is a feast of references that fans will be unpicking for weeks.

There is plenty of humour amidst all this sprinkling of clues and references to Sam and to Alex's notion of reality, the distressing sub-plot involving Shaz and a serial killer plot that ticks all the boxes because it does what crime plots in the series do best and that is to involve and develop the ensemble cast of characters directly. The speed dating scene is hilarious as Ray and Chris chat up a pair of blonde twins and eventually play cards with them in Alex's flat, only for Chris, rather than the girls, to end up naked much to the chagrin of Ray. Equally amusing is the fact that only one woman can be bothered with Gene and she promptly announces she's got her knickers in her handbag and flings her arms around his neck. Equally hilarious is Gene bursting in on Alex and Elaine at the Agency (Alex posing as a divorced Kate Winslet begs the question as to how she would know that if she's been in a coma over the last two years) and demanding 'I'm looking for love. You got any?' Now, there's a subtext for you.

It's a jam packed episode that keeps you on the edge of your seat, intrigues you with a wealth of signs and portents (the envelope containing Sam's jacket and possessions is the ultimate of these - just look at Gene's feet as he steps in and out of the light after discovering them in Alex's desk) and has brilliantly laugh out loud moments ('What's the most unusual place a bloke's made love to you?' 'Probably my bottom') coupled with heartrending, unnerving scenes involving Shaz, Alex and Chris. Can I also say that the use of music in this episode is nothing short of genius with plenty of well chosen 1980s hits underlining the themes and some gorgeous incidental scoring from Ed Butt too.

And just to really flummox you there's that last bit where the camera closes in on Alex after Gene warns her not to help Keats and we get more of those flashes of the scarred policeman and that odd looking weather vane! Spooky clues connected to Sam and Gene's story? I think so.

Crucially, this episode shows an ensemble cast and a director responding to a bloody good script and, by doing so, they take the series to another level where all the elements that we admire across an entire series of Ashes To Ashes are crammed very effectively into just 58 minutes. Sublime.

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9 Responses to “ASHES TO ASHES - Series 3: Episode Two / Review”
  1. shelly says:

    6-6-20 is the number on the dead ghost copper's epaulette. Above that is the letter "M" (division in which he worked, I suppose).

    Also note that he seems to know who Jeffrey Dahmer is when clearly in 1983 Dahmer's serial killer activities hadn't been disclosed.

    None of CID reacted when Alex brought him up, either. But then, whenever she's brought up a future concept or something/someone from the future (her alias at the dating agency = Kate Winslet), most of the time, no one says a word.

  2. Nick says:

    Just looking at the shot of 6-6-20, I'm sure it's been pointed out elsewhere that it could also be OZ-9-9.

  3. Excellent review! I've got to admit hearing the LOM theme towards the end sent chills up my spine, brilliant little moment.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Great review as always! I really enjoy reading them. :)
    The 6-6-20 seems to refer to the ghostly policeman's epaulette numbers... although I guess they could have some other significane too. Intriguing.

  5. My guess about the Shaz moment? That like Sam and Alex she's a visitor* and that if we were watching the show from Shaz's perspective it would have been her version of the moment when Sam hurled himself off the building at the close of Life on Mars.

    She had the chance to go back to her old life -- her decision to leave the police force a metaphorical way of describing that in the same way Sam would talk about returning to Hyde -- but has decided to stay put.

    * Though I'm not without the suspicion that all the police officers in this world aren't in comas, that it's a way station between life and death.

  6. Firstly, Mr. Burns I do like that idea of Shaz being a visitor! It does reflect Sam's dilemma too.

    And as many of you point out the 6-6-20 does refer to the policeman's epaulette! And I missed the shadow of the weird weather vane on the floor of Alex's living room when she has the strange vision of the stars and Uptown Girl.

    6-6-20 as a Biblical reference in Joshua is something to do with the fall of Jericho that might be a signal of Keats desire to tear down the walls of the Fenchurch reality.

    Fascinating! I wonder where this is going?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Relating to the number 6-6-20 as a biblical reference (which so far has played a key role in s3, particularly ep1) the word 'ALL' features in the exactly 6620 times. Are they all in the same position? Something significant has happened to them all which is why they are brought together and cant leave "gene's universe"?

    Perhaps it would be interesting to find out what is the 6620 word in the bible? Is this significant or slightly crazy and way of the mark? Most probably the latter...

    Who's knows but i'm certainly enjoying the guessing games, well played ASHES!

  8. Anonymous says:

    could 6-6-20 posssible be a date, something vital si going to happen on the 6th June 2020. Also, the significance of 9:06, could this be the date where alex enters the coma: June 2006?

  9. Anonymous says:

    When Gene's doing his Billy Joel bit, who's the woman on the poster (on the locker, in the picture above)? She and Gene are striking a remarkably similar pose - looking towards Manchester, maybe...
    I wondered if the seeing of stars was when Shaz died elsewhere, and that choosing to stay with Gene was somehow tied up with her death in the other place, wherever that was for her.

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