Saturday, March 04, 2006

So That's How You Pronounce 'Quay' and Other Life on Mars Thoughts

In all honesty, I didn't think they'd be able to pull it off. When I sat down on Thursday to watch the first season finale of Life on Mars, I expected disappointment. I expected the writers to avoid resolutions, to ignore the various eerie and bizarre elements they had sprinkled into their storylines, and give us nothing even resembling an answer. I can't even describe my joy at realizing how wrong I was. Without committing to an answer on the time-travel-or-coma question, the finale made perfect sense of many of the images that had been plaguing Sam, and gave us a definitive answer to the question of why he ended up where and when he did. I've complained about the obviousness of some of the show's mysteries, but I gasped with surprise when Annie showed up in that red dress, not least because this solution retroactively justifies some of the plot points that I found so problematic over the season's run--I worried that using Sam's dreams to lead him to his family in episode 4 was transforming the show's supernatural premise into a shortcut to character exploration, but of course there was a reason for Sam to seek out his family, to tear down Manchester's prominent mobster, to obsess about his father.

If there was one element of the show that I found completely frustrating, it was Gene's continued insistence that Sam had chosen to be in 1973 Manchester. I took it to mean that the writers expected us to believe that Sam, a modern policeman who spends most of his time staring at enlarged images of fibers and needs six people in the room before he can talk to a suspect, was eager to be a 'real' copper--the kind who rolls over the hoods of cars and gets into fist-fights and shootouts. 1973, in other words, was Sam's fantasy world, and he was simply being ornery in refusing to enjoy it.

I'm certain that I was meant to take Gene's claim in that vein (which was probably how Gene intended it, as he also insists that Sam enjoys working with him), and it was an absolute delight to discover how thoroughly the writers had tricked me. Sam arrives in 1973 not because he wants to play cops and robbers but because it is fundamental to his nature that he is an instrument of justice. A crime witnessed as a child has haunted his unconscious mind, and given the opportunity, he returns to set things right. Sam doesn't want to be a real cop--he is a real cop, a man to whom being a policeman is intrinsic, an undeniable part of his nature.

Much as I enjoyed the finale, however (and seeing as I'm the sort person who won't put out the effort of writing a blog post to say nothing but complimentary things--largely the reason that I haven't written anything about "Downloaded"), I find myself wishing that Gene hadn't been relegated to secondary character status throughout the episode. The story understandably prioritizes Sam's interactions with Vic, and the always excellent John Simm brilliantly conveys Sam's joy at being near a man that he has dreamed of for decades--his awkwardly hopeful expression when he suggests that he and Vic play football is a thing of beauty (unfortunately, Lee Ingleby's performance doesn't quite match the nuance of Simm's--he's perfect as the well-meaning, befuddled young husband and father and does a good enough job at being menacing when Vic's true nature is revealed, but there ought to be a darkness that lurks just beneath the surface of Vic's friendly exterior, and Ingleby doesn't bring it across). Of a secondary importance is Annie's growing bewilderment at what she perceives as Sam's dementia. Gene is left largely with exposition and comic relief (part of the problem is that Gene remains an opaque character--even during his frequent confrontations with Sam, I had no idea what was going through his head).

Which is a shame when we consider that Gene, usually cast in the role of Sam's dark mirror, is in this episode acting as a parallel to Vic. Gene would have a heart attack at the mere suggestion, but there is an element of the paternal in the way he treats his officers, and even his adversarial relationship with Sam has echoes of the parent-child relationship. The first interview scene pits Gene, unrelated to Sam but acting in loco parentis, against Vic, the biological father who will unknowingly risk his son's life. Caught in the middle, Sam mistakes the good father for the bad one, and attempts to protect Vic from Gene when it's actually Gene he should be siding with (for nothing more than aesthetic reasons, I kind of wish the episode could have ended with Vic's actions putting Gene in mortal danger--something a little more profound than Sam pulling a gun on him, that is).

I also would have liked to see a bit more exploration of Sam and Gene's opposing attitudes to the case. The crux of their disagreements is frequently an intuition-versus-logic or personal-stakes-versus-cold-law dichotomy, but far more important to the show's theme of what makes a good policeman is the fundamental difference between their concepts of what policemen are for. As far as Gene is concerned, the task of the policeman is to pursue, capture, and punish the guilty (the villains, as he calls them). Sam, on the other hand, sees himself as the protector of the innocent, and even the semi- and not-so-innocent (even after they hold him at gunpoint, he still sympathizes with and seeks to protect Derek Bannister and Reg Cole). His personal connection to the case (and his obsession with emerging from his coma) causes Sam to act in a Gene-like manner, personalizing the situation and ignoring the letter, and eventually the spirit, of the law. His actions once he descends into this state are the equal and opposite of Gene's--just as Gene feels that it is acceptable to place innocent people in prison in order to ensure that the guilty go there too, Sam will let a guilty man go free in order to keep protecting him, and to protect the true innocents--Ruth and young Sam, whose lives will be ruined by Vic's arrest. This is Sam's version of justice, of doing the policeman's job--having saved Annie from him, Sam turns around and tries to save, rather than punish, Vic.

Or maybe justice has nothing to do with it. I never got the impression that Sam truly comprehended what a horrible man Vic was. Even after realizing that Vic orchestrated violent crimes, that he killed two men in cold blood, and that if he hadn't been interrupted, he would have beaten Annie to death and shot Sam, Sam asks Vic to stay with his family. I think the episode strongly implies that Sam would have woken up if he'd been willing to arrest Vic--although I'm unclear on what this means: that Sam did indeed need to keep Vic with his family, even in a diminished capacity, or that Sam's subconscious seeks justice for Vic's victims? Whether because of the love that he still feels for his father or because his experiences in 1973 have eroded his sense of morality, Sam fails that test. I can't help but wonder if the original plan for the series, before its popularity exploded and it was renewed for a second season, didn't call for Sam to arrest Vic and wake up.

Which brings us to whatever happens next. Sam has either carried out or irrevocably failed to carry out the task for which he was sent back in time (unless Vic returns at some point in the future, but I find that unlikely). The episode's pat coda suggests a return to the show's overarching formula--Sam as a stranger in a strange land, slowly and reluctantly learning the language and the customs and imparting his own ideas to the locals. I can't quite imagine where the mystery story can go from here, but with this masterful wrapping-up of the first season's plot strands, the writers have certainly earned at least my grudging trust.


niall said...

Every so often, I get the urge to go on about the difference between predictability in stories, and inevitability, or to put it another way, the difference between stories that are diminished because you know what's coming and stories that are enhanced because you know.

I haven't quite put my finger on what the magic ingredient is that makes the difference, but whatever it is this episode had it in spades. Right from the moment Vic appears on screen, we know he's going to be on the opposite side to Sam, but the writing keeps on wrongfooting us about exactly how deep he's in it, playing on our expectations and making us doubt, even though it's the only logical place for the episode to end up.

In short it was very well done--although like you, I could have done with more Gene. (I thought the internal investigation episode of a couple of weeks ago was one of the strongest of the season because we got good Gene.) Also like you, I was knocked sideways when we saw Annie in a red dress: because it fits so perfectly we should have seen it coming, because it's equally powerful whether Sam's a Sam Beckett-esque time-traveler or whether he's constructing everything that's happening in his own imagination.

(And I was wondering what you made of 'Downloaded', so thanks for the throwaway comment there.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Every so often, I get the urge to go on about the difference between predictability in stories, and inevitability, or to put it another way, the difference between stories that are diminished because you know what's coming and stories that are enhanced because you know.

You know, I think I'm going to steal that when I write about BSG later this month. Off the top of my head, by the way, I'd say that the difference depends on what you can predict - knowing how the story is going to end is alright, but knowing how you're going to get there renders the entire exercise pointless.

niall said...

I think that's the major part of the distinction, but there are a few examples I can come up with where the path is pretty clear, too. The most recent one is 'Best New Horror' by Joe Hill, which I guess you haven't read, but the plot is: jaded editor of Year's Best Horror receives extraordinary submission of dubious provenance. Jaded editor sets out to track down the author. Your first guess as to how things pan out is probably spot on, but there's something in the working-out of it, watching the editor move from plot point to plot point, that is itself effective. Sort of knowing that you're watching the story that has to be told.

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