It's been said before, but one of the things that made Life on Mars unusual is--was--that by its very nature it couldn't reveal its genre until its very last episode. Was the show SF--had Sam Tyler travelled from his, and our, time to 1973?--or fantasy--was Sam insane, fabricating memories of a reality that just happened to be identical to ours?--or mimetic--was Sam in a coma following his accident, hallucinating 1973 as an extended metaphor for his predicament? It doesn't help that the show's writers seem to have changed their minds halfway through the story. If the first season premiere--in which Sam changed the course of future events--prioritized the time travel reading, the second season as whole seemed eager to drop it. As the series came to its end, we were left with a choice between madness and hallucination, and between two different kinds of slightly unsatisfying endings. If Sam is in a coma, then everyone he's met and everything that's happened over the course of the series is a figment of his imagination, and his choice at the end of the episode is a choice to live out his life in a dream land, playing with himself. If, on the other hand, Sam is indeed Sam Williams and suffering from amnesia, then it is we who are not real, who are figments of Sam's imagination. His choice at the end of the episode is the choice to put us aside and live in the real world, into which we can no longer peer.
Except, of course, that it's not unsatisfying at all. Life on Mars's series finale is of a different breed from its first season finale, which so brilliantly assembled its many puzzle pieces into a seamless, rational whole, but it is of no lesser quality. From Roseanne to Pan's Labyrinth to The French Lieutenant's Woman, double and seemingly contradictory endings are an old trick. They are a way of knocking the audience about the head, forcing us to acknowledge the story-ness of the story we've been immersing ourselves in--as the little girl in the red dress reminds us when she turns us off in the show's last shot. Whatever solution is 'real', Sam Tyler isn't, and there's a giddy rush to be had in trying to encompass the contradiction inherent in our ability to both accept that fact and feel affection for him--which, after all, is the very essence of fiction. It's nice to be reminded of that every now and then.
And boy, do we ever feel affection for Sam. I've said this before, but John Simm--whose guest appearance on Doctor Who can't come soon enough as far as I'm concerned--is a marvel. He sells each and every one of the episode's emotional climaxes, of which there is no small number--cold detachment as he makes up his mind to think of Gene and the others as non-entities; longing as his resolve weakens and he starts to go after Annie; utter despair as he starts to believe Morgan's story and breaks down; a mixture of fear and determination melting into pure joy as he gathers speed for his leap. From its beginning, Simm has done for Life on Mars what Christopher Eccleston did for Doctor Who in its first season (and what David Tennant is still not quite managing)--give a show that might otherwise have descended into kitsch and melodrama a beating heart, and elevate it above its sometimes quite simplistic writing.
Nowhere is Simm's gravitas more desperately needed than in the series finale, which reduces the show's police procedural half, and most particularly its examination of the ways in which policing has changed, to a false dilemma--sticking by your mates: for or against? Loyalty to an individual, the episode tells us, should always be prized above adherence to a principle--even if that individual is violent and criminally stupid and that principle encompasses, among other things, the belief that chaining people up and torturing them is wrong.
When I first wrote about Life on Mars, I complained that against Sam's complexity, the show's writers had placed, in Gene, a flat character, which often shaded into caricature. I had no idea how good I had it back then. If, in the first season, Gene was allowed to bring something meaningful to the table--insight into human nature, good instincts, an understanding of his territory--in the second season he has either stayed out of Sam's way or been disastrously wrong, without ever seeming to acknowledge or learn from his mistakes. In the season's second episode, he fixates on Patrick O'Brien--beating him to a bloody pulp--as the perpetrator of a series of bombings, going so far as to put an unstable Ray back on the streets--which results in the death of an unarmed man--while Sam desperately tries to draw his attention to evidence pointing towards O'Brien's boss. In the fifth episode, we learn that Gene manipulated a young, possibly mentally impaired, boy into confessing the murder of his girlfriend while the real killer went free--forcing the girl's father to resort to kidnapping in order to bring his daughter's murderer to justice. An episode later, Gene is making deals with drug dealers, delivering up their competitor--in reality, an innocent man--for them to kill, and placing Sam and Annie's life in danger in the process. In the finale, Gene goes completely over the line. He uses a civilian as bait and gets him killed. He puts himself and his officers in terrible danger. He deserves to be fired.
But not according to the episode's writers. The greater crime, according to them, is Sam's, for turning his back on Gene, whose actions are somehow forgivable just because he faces danger along with his men. Even Annie, usually a source of wisdom and compassion, who has repeatedly criticized Gene over the course of the season, is silent when confronted with his mad schemes, and incensed at Sam's betrayal. The writers manage to sell us on the notion that it is somehow morally wrong to turn on your deranged boss before he gets your co-workers killed by making Frank Morgan even more cartoonishly evil than Gene, but more importantly, by substituting the moral, impersonal component of Sam's dilemma--how best to act in his capacity as a public servant--with a personal analogue--how best to live his life.
In both of the show's possible solutions, the life Sam leaves behind is empty and cold, and the life he embraces is full to the brim with friends, love, and a sense of purpose--combining his moral compass with Gene's determination to create a happy medium, turning a cancer into a benign tumor. It's Gene's character who suffers the most in the process of arriving at this happy ending--tumbled about by the necessities of plot, made first into a bogeyman and then into a fluffy, jokey version of himself who can't even be bothered to yell at Sam for betraying him--but we, the viewers, are also injured by being asked to believe that when it comes to the way policing should work, Sam's Starsky and Hutch fantasy is somehow superior to our modern reality simply because there's less paperwork and fancy words.
In the end, Life on Mars turns out to be both more and less than what we hoped for. The clever SFnal mystery fades away and the self-aware, parody-cum-homage to 70s cop shows is taken in by its own facade of earnestness. What we're left with, ultimately, is the metafictional exercise, which, even as it makes us aware of the fictionality of what we're watching, drags us further into the story by turning us into the authors. Which ending do we prefer? It's a tough call. Unlike the works I cited above, Life on Mars doesn't ask us to choose between a happy fantasy and a grim reality--loss and disillusionment are integral components of both solutions, for us as well as for Sam--which means that the choice, and Sam's pain when faced with it, lingers with us. At the end of its first season, I said that Mars's writers had earned my trust. I meant that I trusted them to come up with a satisfying solution to their central mystery, which would tie up the remaining loose ends and be just as neat as the revelation that Annie is the woman in the red dress. They didn't quite deliver on that expectation. What they did deliver, however, was a moving, thought-provoking drama that has left me both exhilarated and emotionally drained. That's something worth celebrating, no matter in what genre.