What makes a good season finale? In Sherlock‘s case, it’s BAFTA-worthy performances and the writing–Sherlock and Watson forced to hold hands running down the street? It’s as if a fan wrote it. In the case of Ashes to Ashes, it’s keeping the promise to do the big reveal and allowing that reveal to be partly guessable but not completely. For Torchwood, it’s pushing the story limits and lots of believable crying.
Major finale spoilers ahead
Ashes to Ashes Season 3
Ray doesn’t bother checking the pulse of the three murder victims because their pulses are all over the floor, but one sputters to life and babbles the not-so-cryptic clue to where the gems are stashed. Of course, Chris and Ray fail to associate Vicky P with Victoria Park. Just another reminder of the incompetence of the 1980s police force.
But you don’t think they really worked like that, do you? In the last ever episode of the Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes psych-saga, Discipline & Complaints DCI Jim Keats (Daniel Mays) asks the same question. Is this really the way the London police force ran? Is this really the London police force? Is this really London? Is this really…real?
The finale calls back to the magic, though initially thought suicidal, tone that made Life on Mars unique. The hardcore cop drama plot runs right alongside the fantastical storyline. John Simm, the star of Mars, had thrown away the pilot script upon first reading it because it sounded insane. And it is. Somehow Ashley Pharaoh and Matthew Graham got it to work in Mars and again in Ashes. The bust of the jewel smugglers is only briefly interrupted with the revelation that Chris (Marshall Lancaster), Ray (Dean Andrews), and Shaz (Montserrat Lombart) are all dead, Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) is a plucky kid murdered first week on the beat, and Jim Keats is some demon-like creature right out of Scripture or The Twilight Zone. But if we have learned anything about these characters during the last hour, it’s that they are coppers above all else, and even the epiphany that they are in the void, held loosely together by nothing more than the strength of Gene Hunt’s bravado, does not stop them from taking their case seriously and stopping the smugglers with the kind of over-dramatic, Western shoot-out only Gene Hunt could conjure up.
Ashes gets dangerously close to being heavy-handed with the spiritual stuff, but I would argue it never quite crosses the line. They never call Keats a devil or demon, even if he does have Playboy models doing his work for him and an elevator where screams rise from the bowels. They never admit that the Railway Arms pub is a gateway to Heaven, even if it is filled with unnatural white light. They don’t use words like purgatory, limbo, or souls. The closest we get is Alex (Keeley Hawes) tells Keats, “Go to hell,” and Keats replies, “All right.” So even though the writers go out of their way to choose the most classic, stereotypical Heaven/Hell/Purgatory symbolism, they never call it by name, and somehow that makes all the difference.
What really puts this finale in my top three is that I still can’t watch the ending without crying. Mars‘ barman Nelson (Tony Marshall) reappears as a spiritual guide into the afterlife, and we watch each of Ray, Chris, and Shaz prepare for the next plane of existence. Our protagonist Alex Drake would rather sacrifice eternal bliss than leave Gene Hunt alone in his fabricated limbo. Of course, Hunt wouldn’t be doing his self-assigned job if he didn’t change her mind. After a long time (Keats suggests a very long time) wiping the noses and tucking in the shirts of the lost souls of Ray and Chris, Gene Hunt finds himself alone again. But not for long. There are always coppers like Sam Tyler around the corner, wondering where their office is, wondering if they’re mad, in a coma, or back in time.
Sherlock Season 2
The Reichenbach Fall makes it into the top 3 list already by the end of the first scene. Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) has just broken into London’s bank, prison, and Tower of London, baffling Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and his police pals. After a season 1 finale, we still aren’t sure that Moriarty is that interesting of a villain, but by the time he’s wearing the crown jewels, sitting on the thrown, still in the glass case in the Tower of London, we are one hundred percent converted to Team Moriarty. The rest of the episode is Moriarty taunting Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)–announced innocent by the jury and claiming to have the numerical code that unlocks the doors of London’s tightest security systems.
Brilliant performance by Andrew Scott, who won a BAFTA for this role. Hiding out in journalist Kitty Riley’s (IT Crowd‘s Katherine Parkinson) apartment, Moriarty takes the guise of a fraidy-cat actor, Richard Brook, paid by Sherlock to play his arch-nemesis for the judge, when in fact, as Mr. Brook’s CV will attest, there is no criminal mastermind except Sherlock himself. The touche-ness in the eye contact as the two geniuses communicate silently before Kitty Riley is almost playful.
Watson (Martin Freeman) is ever-loyal, even when the police begin to suspect that the claims against him might be true, that it might be Sherlock himself who kidnapped
the missing children, and that, not his clever observational skills, is the reason he was able to find them before they died of poisoned candies. Watson’s faith in his friend never wavers, which makes it all the more heart breaking to see him at Sherlock’s graveside, begging him to not be dead. Another well-deserved BAFTA nomination.
We are, of course, privy to the secret that Sherlock still roams town as a dead man, but not the secret of how he managed to jump off a roof, splatter across the pavement, and survive. No doubt Molly’s access to hospital materials has something to do with it, but it’s uncertain if Moffat and Gatiss will ever give up the secret.
Torchwood Season 3
Long before Peter Capaldi ever dressed up like a magician and entered the TARDIS, he stole season 3 of Torchwood (Children of Earth) from an already phenomenal cast who do real-people crying as opposed to TV-people crying. Capaldi brings his own tears to the season finale of Children of Earth when the government assholes hand him his fate just because they don’t like him that much. It’s hard to blame a man in his position. He’d rather his daughters died than be kept alive forever in a torturous state, plugged into a giant alien bong.
Even more moving of a dead is that of long-term Torchwood butler Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) who dies in the arms of his lover and boss Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) for reasons so minute, it’s unfair. But that’s life. Now Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) must tell Ianto’s sister (Katy Wix) the news, but when they arrive, they discover children hiding from the government, desperate not to be handed over to the aliens.
What makes season 3 intense is the pushing of the limits in the writing. Yes, you’re exploring more science fiction with Jack coming back to life after exploding, and yes you’re dealing with a global alien invasion as opposed to minor extraterrestrial visits to Wales, but it’s the moral limits that are really pushed here. You’ve got Frobisher (Capaldi) making decisions for his family, country, and planet that no one should have to make, you’ve got a corrupt government willing to sacrifice 10% of the Earth’s children to avoid war, you’ve got a comment on drug abuse, and most of all, you have Captain Jack sacrificing his own grandson to save the children of Earth. I was angry upon first watching “Day 5” because I felt they’d pushed it too far, that surely if it would have been the Doctor and not Captain Jack, another solution would have been found. But that’s why this is Torchwood and not Doctor Who. Sometimes there are no other solutions, there are no happy endings, and difficult decisions need to be made.