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Endings Matter (Part 1 of 2)

April 3, 2009 at 11:42 pm

Earlier this week, the (American) series finale for Life on Mars aired.  (I say American because the show was based (like so many others these days) on a British series of the same name.)  I was sorry to see the end of it, because it was the only television show in the past couple of years that I actually liked enough to follow closely.  The good news was that the network's decision not  to renew the show came early enough that the writers could bring the show to a definitive conclusion in the final episode.   My thoughts have kept returning to that episode over the past few days.

And, on a related note, my friend Ty and I -- in a fit of boredom laced with mild masochism -- saw the Nicholas Cage movie Knowing last night.  Which also got me thinking about endings, but not in a good way. 

Spoilers follow below the cut, where I ramble on and on with musings about Life on Mars and some of the things that make for a successful ending.

(And, by the way, in the comments below, please don't post any spoilers for the British version of Life on Mars, which is on my Netflix queue.   I've been wanting to watch this for a long time, but I held off once I started following the American version because I figured I'd have trouble keeping them separate.  Now that the American show has come to a close, I'm eager to see the original version.)

Life on Mars begins with a current-day police detective getting hit by a car and waking in 1973.   He goes to work as a cop in his old (future?) precinct.  It's a science-fictional fish-out-of-water story, with Sam Tyler trying to adjust to life 35 years in the past while simultaneously trying to figure out just what has happened, and, of course, trying to find a way home to 2008.   And -- although I'm apparently one of the very few people who thought so, since ABC chose not to renew the show -- it was really charming.  Most of the time, in my humble opinion, American remakes of British shows fall far short of the original material.  The end result usually makes me wonder what the whole point of the exercise was.  (Which is why I won't be seeing State of Play in the theaters.  I blogged a little bit about the original 6-hour British series here.  I can't imagine the 2-hour American version is going to retain any of the brilliance of the source material.  It won't even have Bill Nighy in it!)   But I fell in love with this.

The show was blessed with a stellar cast.  Jason O'Mara made Sam such a likable guy, and he had the gift of conveying so much with just his facial expressions.  Harvey Keitel was perfectly cast as Sam's boss in '73, Lieutenant Gene Hunt.  Ditto Michael Imperioli's performance as the wise-cracking, Neanderthal chauvinist Detective Ray Carling, and Jonathan Murphy as Chris Skelton, the junior detective.  There was, of course, a love interest for Sam, and Gretchen Mol brought Annie Norris to vibrant, lovable life.  Wow.   Every scene between Sam and Annie crackled.  

And then, on top of this wonderful mix of characters, each episode spun out tantalizing bits and pieces of the overarching mystery:  Is Sam really in a coma in 2008, hallucinating an entire life in 1973?  Or is he really in 1973, and 2008 just a memory of a vivid dream?  Is he on an extended drug trip?  Did he really travel through time?  Is he insane?  The show dangled each of these possibilities under the viewer's nose, sometimes more than once, and sometimes more than one at a time.  If Sam's life in 2008 was real, will he find a way back?  If he finds a way back, will he take it, or will he choose to stay with Annie in 1973?  So many questions.

And so many hints.  Some outright bizarre (like the recurring visions of a miniature robot), some intriguing but less overt (like Sam's recurring interaction with his mother, father, and younger self).  So many, in fact, that I started to despair of ever getting a coherent and satisfying solution to the mystery.  I can't possibly hope to give a comprehensive list here.  Even if I could, I'm not sure there would be much point -- because the final episode ties together a number of things that I didn't even realize were hints throughout the season.  

But back to my point.  How do you find a satisfying end to something like this?  And what does satisfying mean, anyway?  I suspect that a lot of people won't have found the series conclusion entirely satisfying.  Or, at the very least, a lot of people will deride it as hokey.  Which, yeah, it is. 

But in spite of the hokiness, I thought it was basically successful and overall pretty satisfying.  Far more successful than I'd hoped for, frankly.  Why did it strike me that way?  Because it answered almost every single lingering question (not all, alas, but very many), and, additionally, did it in a way that resonated with multiple aspects of the show, big and small, some obvious, some very subtle. 

In other words, the ending was successful to me because I viewed the show as a mystery, and the end presented a solution to that mystery.  The show resolved its narrative debt to me in a way that didn't make the overall journey feel arbitrary or meaningless.  (Many people, I'm sure, will disagree with me.)   Quite the opposite -- it surprised me by showing just how many elements of show, how many persistent threads, had a deeper meaning than I'd guessed.   And, best of all, the final revelation made me sit up and say, "Oh!  Of course that's what's going on.  It had to be that way all along."  That's one mark of a well-crafted story: you don't see the end ahead of time, but after it's revealed, it's suddenly obvious because the story had to be going there all along. 

Okay.  I can't discuss this in further detail without letting the cat out of the bag.  So if you don't want the American version of Life on Mars spoiled for you, stop reading now.



Still there?  Hello?  Well, maybe you'll decide to come back later.  So I'll keep going. 

Basically it's the Wizard of Oz ending: you were there, and you were there, and you...  Which, the more I think about it, is the ending it had to have. 

Sam Tyler wakes up in the final scene of the final episode.  The year is 2035.  He's an astronaut, part of the crew of a manned mission to Mars, and he's been in suspended animation during the voyage.   The rest of the Mars crew is comprised of folks from the 125th Precinct:  Harvey Keitel, Gretchen Mol, Michael Imperioli, Jonathan Murphy.  During stasis, they all underwent neurostimulation to keep their minds healthy.  Sam had chosen to become a detective in the early 21st century (2008), but the neurostim software got glitchy and accidentally sent him to 1973.

Hokey?  You betcha.  But suddenly so many things fall into place... and they keep falling into place as the scene unfolds.  My thoughts kept coming back to this scene for a day or two after I watched it, and (probably because I'm slow on the uptake) I kept finding new connections to previous events in earlier episodes.   Here are some of them:

First and foremost, the series title itself takes on a new meaning.  It originally comes from the David Bowie song, which is playing on Sam's iPod just before he gets hit by the car in 2008.  But as they land on Mars, it takes on another meaning:  the mission has been mounted to search for signs of life on Mars.  Specifically, they're looking for genetic material...

...Or, in other words, they're on a gene hunt.

Throughout the series, Sam occasionally hears beeping noises, as of the machinery that might be keeping him alive if he's really in a coma in 2008.  Which, in a sense, it is-- it's the spacecraft system monitoring his health while he's in suspended animation.

More pervasively throughout the series, Sam has very bizarre recurring visions of a robotic rover clearly modeled on or influenced by the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.  

A couple of times, Sam also has visions of events that happened after his "accident" in 2008, even events from 2009.   This is possible because 2008 and 2009 are actually well in the past for the Sam Tyler of 2035. 

At one point in the series, Sam meets a man (a suspect in a case) who claims to have worked for the "Aries Project".  Later, he has multiple encounters with the "Aries Toy Company", which is somehow connected to the robotic rover.  The rocket that launched Sam & company to Mars was, of course, the Aries. 

When Sam first arrives at the 125th Precinct in 1973, he finds out that he has apparently been transferred to the 125 from "Hyde".  He has no idea what or where Hyde is, or how to get back there; Hyde becomes synonymous with 2008.  But in reality...

...The spacecraft in which they arrive on Mars is the HYDE 125. 

Very Young Sam always wanted to be an astronaut.  His favorite toy was a toy rocket.  (I overlooked this clue, because I didn't look at it any deeper than as character building.  After all, how many kids don't want to be astronauts at one point or another?) 

Ray, convinced that Sam is crazy, constantly refers to him as "Spaceman" throughout the entire series.  (Again, I overlooked this as a clue, because it made so much sense simply in the context of the character interactions in 1973.)

One recurrning minor character is Windy, a hippie free spirit living down the hall from Sam.   She befriends Sam, becomes a friend, checks in on him (often obtrusively), and occasionally dispenses wisdom.  All along, though, she never calls him Sam.  She calls him "2-B", because that's his apartment number...

...But in 2035, Sam's suspended animation pod is number 2-B.  And Windy is the AI running the ship and monitoring his life signs. 

At one point, Sam finds a magazine with a woman on the cover who looks exactly like Annie.  Except this Annie is a brunette with long hair, rather than the short-haired blonde Annie Norris of 1973.   In 2035, though, Annie does have long, dark hair. 

Speaking of Annie, one of the recurring themes of the show is her burning desire to be treated as an equal among the men in the precinct.  She's determined to make detective someday, and she endures no end of chauvinism in pursuit of that goal (mostly from Ray).  Annie is driven by a belief that someday women will be treated as equals in the workplace.  In 2035, she's the commander of the Mars mission.  (They clearly foreshadow this earlier in the final episode.  When asked, "How can you stand working with those Neanderthals?" Annie responds, "Oh, I just imagine a time far, far in the future when they all work for me."  Nice!) 

One episode revolves around a glam rocker (it's 1973, remember?) whose biggest hit is "The Last Planet I Kissed".  Not a biggie, but I thought this was cute when I caught the connection.

There are multiple references to the Wizard of Oz throughout the series.  In fact, the last thing anybody says to Sam in 1973 before he wakes up on Mars is, "I'll miss you too, Scarecrow."

That's just the stuff I noticed, off the top of my head.  It's hard for me to imagine that the writers hit all of this just through dumb luck.  If they did, wow.  But it feels like this was planned.  They knew where they were going.  And that made for a very satisfying ending.  Because in the end everything hung together. 

To be fair, though, it wasn't 100% perfect.  Not everything is cleanly explained.   Several times during the series, Sam receives weird telephone calls from a creepy, disguised voice that knows everything about him and about 2008.  I couldn't see how that was clearly explained by the final scene on Mars.  I may have missed something as I so frequently do.  Alternatively, perhaps this was something that would have been spooled out over another season or two if the show had continued.  

One could argue that because everything that happens is a fantasy in Sam's head -- both 2008 and 1973 -- nothing that happened in the entire series was of any consequence.  So, was this a meaningless story where the protagonist doesn't achieve anything?   No.  I'd argue the net effect of Sam's journey is one of self-discovery.   It's a love story, and the end result of his experiences in 2008/1973 is to realize that Annie (now the commander leading the Mars mission) is the love of his life.  And that message from his subconscious infuses his entire adventure created by the glitchy neurostimulation.  He wouldn't have woken up to that realization without that adventure.  Likewise, he comes to terms with his father, and puts their difficult past behind him.  Again, he wouldn't have achieved that without his trip to 1973.  The point is that Sam Tyler is a different man when he exits pod 2-B than he was when he entered it prior to the beginning of the series.

Am I being an apologist for the show, because I was fond of it?  Sure.  And like I said, no doubt many others will disagree with me.  But for this viewer, the ending gave me a welcome sense of closure.

This post turned out longer than I'd intended.  I'll break off here, and talk about an ending that doesn't work as well -- the final act of Knowing -- in my next post. 


Richard April 4, 2009 at 1:03 pm
In the British version the entire cast wakes up in Bob Newhart's bed.
Victor Milán April 4, 2009 at 6:38 pm
Actually now the show sounds kind of intriguing, rather than the generic cop porn with a side order of Self-Satisfied Modernity that the station promos for it made it seem. Of course now I have to wonder whether that's the doing of the show's makers, or your own high-order creativity.
TEngland April 4, 2009 at 9:48 pm
Sounds like the writers knew from the beginning where the show was going. And being truncated might have helped in the end. Some shows the writers don't have a clear sense of where the series will end or if they do, they stick so much betwixt beginning and end, the story gets snarled and muddled and just plain stupid. Some of those shows, which will not be named -- X-Files, Heroes, Lost, Dallas -- would have been better off if a shorter run had been a part of the planning, like a mini-series.
Ian April 4, 2009 at 10:38 pm

Richard: Surely you know that Bob Newhart's bed is actually the bed of Charles Foster Kane, where that character lies moaning for Rosebud at the beginning of Citizen Kane.

Rosebud, of course, was really R05E-8UD, the nanny-mech that raised him on the planet Xanadu VII before taking him to Earth. All of this is explained in the legendary "lost reel".

Vic: It is a really charming, intriguing show and worth a look if you ever feel up to it. Or maybe not, now that I've ruined it for you. But if nothing else, it's worth watching just for Gretchen Mol (*swoon*).

Terry: Right on, man. If the show had continued for a few more seasons, it's hard to imagine how they could have stuck to the original plan without muddying the waters something fierce along the way. After just one season, my off-the-cuff list of Significant Things Explained By the Finale clocks in at over a dozen. In view of the ending, I tend to think Life on Mars came close to hitting its own sweet spot (but I still would have loved another season).

As a matter of fact, I think you've hit the nail on the head as to why something like the original-recipe State of Play could be so damn good, and why we never get anything like that over here. In the British model of television production, it's perfectly possible to develop and produce a 6-episode series. That's a terrific length for certain kinds of stories. But it would never, ever, ever happen over here. The model is too different-- with rare exceptions, you basically either have to develop your story as a film screenplay, or as a an open-ended television series. (There is the occasional miniseries on cable, but those seem to be pretty rare.) The 2-ish hour length of a film naturally limits how deep and complex the story can become; the open-ended series can die at any moment, making it extremely difficult to provide a cathartic ending for dedicated viewers, even if that ending is known from the inception of the show.

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