Ashes to Ashes, Lost to Lost as finales display uncanny similarities

WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for the final episodes of Ashes To Ashes and Lost.

Like London buses, you wait years for a big series finale ‘event’ to come along, and then two come along at once. Between the time I left work last Friday and my return to the office this morning, two of TV’s most convoluted mysteries were resolved as Ashes To Ashes and Lost came to an end after, respectively, five and six seasons.

Dust to dust

I’m stuck with a valuable friend

I’m happy, hope you’re happy too

One flash of light

But no smoking pistol

Ashes To Ashes – David Bowie

While it has generally been good throughout, Ashes To Ashes rarely scaled the same heights as its forerunner, Life On Mars. It was always at its best when not taking itself too seriously – the Uptown Girl spoof earlier this season, for instance – and conversely at its weakest when playing the serious drama and existential mythology too heavily. Which, for me, is why this last run of episodes frequently buckled under the weight of unpicking the rationale behind Alex Drake and Sam Tyler’s presence in Gene Hunts’s world.

Even Friday’s final instalment struggled to break free of its own constraints, with Hunt himself reduced to a bleeding, dazed and somewhat pathetic bystander for much of the episode. The key revelation, it has to be said, was not a huge surprise. Hunt himself was dead, having been killed as a young PC, and had become a central figure in some kind of purgatory to assist other officers who have issues in accepting their deaths, reminiscent of Charon ferrying the dead across the river Styx. More predictable still was DCI Jim Keats’ unmasking as the devil – partially redeemed by a fantastic, maniacal performance by Daniel Mays – although it was a point which was hammered home a bit too bluntly for the benefit of the hard of thinking.

But the closing minutes made up for it all. Ray, Chris, Shaz and finally Alex come to terms with their own deaths and are welcomed into the light by Nelson, landlord of the Railway Arms from Life On Mars. This scene could have been horribly cliched, but was handled beautifully and provided an emotionally satisfying send-off for a cast of characters I have grown to love.

In the end, the resolution to the Mars/Ashes mystery worked – just – and provided a necessary sense of closure. It’s probably best not to test the series’s internal logic too strenuously, but this was a neatly executed, if somewhat predictable, final bow.

Farewell DCI Gene Hunt and his trusty Quattro. One of British TV’s great characters is no more. Fire up the DVD boxset, Raymondo.

Lost, dazed and confused

After 114 episodes and some of the most complex and convoluted plot twists ever attempted in a television series, Lost finally wrapped up its story of the survivors of Oceanic 815 with a bumper 2.5 hour episode, fittingly titled ‘The End’.

It was arguably the biggest single TV event since the final episode of Friends or even the ‘Who shot JR?’ cliffhanger on Dallas 30 years ago, but ramped up even further by the fact it was broadcast in the UK and other countries simultaneous to its transmission on the US west coast.

It was perhaps fitting that Lost and Ashes should conclude within 72 hours of each other. Both series established remarkably similar mythologies surrounding grand questions of life and death, the quest for redemption, and predetermination versus free will. Both series’ final episodes were thematically similar, with characters gradually realising and then accepting they are in fact dead, and finally gathering to pass together into the afterlife. And both delivered their share of fan-friendly ‘moments’ to satisfy the hordes of ‘shippers out there: the Quattro’s exit and the reconciliation of Chris and Shaz in Ashes; touching scenes with Sayid and Shannon, Sawyer and Juliet, Charlie and Claire, and Jin and Sun in Lost.

The religious overtones were, if anything, even more explicit here than in Ashes. Jack Shephard ultimately sacrifices his own life for the benefit of the others, having first demonstrated his healing hands in an operation which allows the wheelchair-bound John Locke to walk again, Lazarus-like. Jack’s father, Christian Shephard, assumes a God-like role at the denouement, his funeral the fulcrum around which the characters gather at the church as if brought together by, well, some kind of Christian shepherd.

And both series closed with scenes which echoed their origins and brought them full circle. Lost ends with a close-up of Jack’s eye closing as he dies in the middle of a bamboo field, having started six years previously with a close-up of his eye opening in the same place. Ashes concludes with a modern-day police officer wandering, confused and disoriented, into Gene Hunt’s office, just as Sam Tyler did in the first episode of Life On Mars.

Having watched the finale this evening, I’ve just done a quick trawl for reaction online, which has been unsurprisingly polarised. Too predictable, too many loose ends left untied and “you strung me along for six years for this?” seems to be the general gist of the naysayers. But, for me, Lost’s ending was far superior to Ashes’. Okay, it wasn’t all neatly tied up with a bow on top, but the story as a whole moved forwards at pace (in a way which, the series’ critics are quick to point out, has not always been the case with Lost), the major mysteries were resolved, and the flashback glimpses as the characters suddenly remembered their past served as a nice retrospective on the series’ history without dwelling overly on it. It’s very much a personal view, but I found the Lost finale immensely satisfying, even if it did leave me scratching my head trying to put all the pieces together.

The end of the end?

Is the similarity between the endings of Ashes and Lost mere coincidence, or an indication of how difficult it is to come up with genuinely novel twists to surprise and delight audiences which are increasingly savvy, cynical and, thanks to the web, easily connected in such a way that it is easy to proliferate every conceivable ending to a show?

Certainly, the notable downturn in the fortunes of high-concept, mainstream genre shows in recent years suggests that audiences are currently weary of heavily serialised, pseudo-mystical concepts. Heroes and FlashForward are gone; V, although renewed for a second season, remains very much on the bubble. Even Caprica – my personal favourite of the 2009/10 crop – with the weight of the Battlestar Galactica franchise behind it, is far from certain to receive a fresh order, with much depending on how audiences respond to the ‘back nine’ of new episodes which will conclude its first season in the autumn.

Anyway, enough analysis. Ashes To Ashes and Lost have been laid to rest, in more ways than one. As a certain fictitious Democrat US president on The West Wing would have said, “What’s next?”