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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

‘Life on Mars’ blogging: Episode 4

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: Episode 3)
I didn’t realize it until this, my fifth or sixth go-round with this episode, but this one is all about boyhood dreams meeting reality, idealism meeting pragmatism. Of course it seems likely that Sam has dealt with dirty cops before — 2005 is hardly utopia, and when he says, “I’ve always despised bent cops,” it implies that he’s got experience with the breed. But here he is encountering endemic corruption precisely at the very moment when he was also a little boy dreaming of being a policeman. It seems like an extra potent slap in the face, that his romanticism of the job, a holdover from childhood, is forced to confront what it actually meant to be a policeman in 1973.

It’s almost as if little-boy Sam, not grownup Sam, is the one who is absolutely stunned when “I’m a police office” does not have the usual effect as he attempts to arrest Warren’s lieutenant Charlie Edwards for beating up on a guy.

Everyone is crooked. Every single cop Sam encounters in this episode is somehow on the take, even if only to a small degree. Even sweet Annie, who cheerfully admits to hanging out at Warren’s nightclub “when we get in for free on the guest list.”

Warren, it seems, runs Manchester, and “enjoys cordial relationships with the police,” Gene says. “Checks and balances,” Gene calls it, the tit-for-tat the cops engage in with Warren, which Sam discovers when his arrest of Charlie Edwards is thrown out because the cops simply do not bother Warren’s people, who do their own part to keep the city safe… or at least safe from any criminal competition. Except it’s not even an equitable exchange: it’s just tit, as in the cops get to be tits (in the British slang) and Warren gets to do whatever he damn well pleases. Gene seems to think it’s all just dandy, or at least that’s what he overtly says to Sam: Gene has never seen the streets safer, thanks to Warren. But when Gene and Sam (the latter unwittingly) do some work for Warren, terrorizing a couple of hippies who are trying to hock stolen electronics, Gene says: “It should keep Warren off our backs for a while.” Keep Warren off their backs? Shouldn’t Warren be worried about keeping the cops off his back?

Sam going off to look for his four-year-old self… that cannot be a good idea. And it shows itself to be a very bad idea when he encounters his own mother, lies about his name, and ends up giving her entirely the wrong impression about who he is and what he wants from her (or that he wants anything at all). She seems like a nice lady, and looks like a nice mom:

And Sam must have known how his overtures would be misinterpreted:

Trying to give her money? Telling her to bet on a horse? What was he thinking? “Put my family’s last pennies on a horse?” she asks, incredulous. “You know, you should meet my husband one day. You’d get along well.” This will surely, in retrospect, given what Sam will later discover about his father, sting like hell.

But, still: Sam looking for his four-year-old self is only the outward expression of Sam, in this episode, trying to reconnect with the dreamy little boy who say policemen as heroes, not as flawed men. “Grow up,” Gene says when Sam objects to taking Warren’s money… but that’s exactly the opposite of what he needs to do here.

And he maintains that idealism, and rescues everyone from corruption. Hoorah!

Again, though, Gene is more of a bastard that you hope he’ll be, and seemingly for no reason. He’s so harsh with Annie in the club:

It’s the VIP lounge, love. I don’t think that includes off-duty slags with glitter in their hair, do you?

Oh, man, the hurt on her face to be talked to like this, especially coming out of nowhere:

Sam’s unspoken apology cannot make it better:

All of which later makes Annie’s nicest-brushoff-ever of Sam — “I’m gonna be a really good friend to you,” and then a kiss to his cheek — even more of an ouch. Sam has been so not a sexist jerk all along, and then to have taken advantage of Joanie (at least, that’s how Annie sees it, at first)…

Sam can enjoy the privilege of being idealistic. But Annie can’t do that (and nor, for that matter, can Mrs. Tyler, nor Joanie). Sam can force his idealism upon his coworkers, but Annie can’t.

Random thoughts on Episode 4:

• One thing that really bugs me about this episode is that Sam becomes convinced that Joanie is lying when Gene tells Sam that Warren couldn’t possibly have threatened her with rape, because Warren is gay. I can see Gene believing such a thing, but Sam should know better: Sam would know that of course a gay man would be perfectly capable of raping a woman, because rape isn’t about sexual attraction but about power and expressing dominance.

This is really glaring because, on the whole, the show does an excellent job of highlighting how our understanding of criminal psychology has moved on from 1973, and it’s usually quite sensitive about sexism. I don’t know how this got past the writers.

• I always like it when a tough-guy entertainment like this one acknowledges how much it freakin’ hurts to connect your fist with someone else’s face:

I mean, I also like that Sam, who isn’t a physically large man, probably throws the bad guys off — even in 2005 — when he’s able to take care of himself and throw a well-aimed punch. It’s not that I wish for tough-guy entertainments to stop being tough… it’s just that I like when they don’t pretend that even tough guys are vulnerable.

• It’s also sorta nice to see Sam go all fanboy in the face of rock stars at Warren’s club. We mostly get the serious side of Sam, and his constant (and understandable) distress, but once in a while — as with the line about his Playstation scores in the previous episode, and here — we get a hint of the kind of guy he was back in 2005. For the first time, perhaps, Sam is enjoying himself here, if only for a moment, when he talks to “Mark Bolan”:

• I believe I have mentioned before how much I. Hate. Ray. The weaselly, cowardly bastard. And for him to blame Sam for Joanie being murdered by Warren?

Oooo. Men like this should not be allowed to be cops. Ray is like a dog who’s been kicked so many times he thinks that’s the only way things can be. That might be excusably pitiable in a dog, but not in a man.

• I have very vague memories of living in the Bronx in the early 70s — we left in 1977, when I was eight — and seeing guys like this

come around the neighborhood. (Do I actually remember one who got around via a wagon pulled by a horse… or is that merely a memory of my mother telling me about junkmen with horses from earlier years?) If I didn’t have similar memories, I’m sure I’d think this was wildly anachronistic… but I know it’s not.

• Oh, how strange to make such a direct reconnection with one’s childhood!

“He’s upstairs in his room — mumps”:

I dunno how Sam resisted the urge to meet his young self. I don’t think I could have.

Life on Mars blogging meets kitty blogging!

Hello, Ivanhoe!

• A bit o’ female gazing at Sam for ya:

Indeed.

• Red Rum did indeed win the 1973 Grand National (and 1974 and 1977, too), and became a national celebrity as a result. Sam would certainly have childhood memories of the famous horse.

As well, of course, of spooky little Danny from the movie version of The Shining.

• Sam cooks! Mexican chicken and fruit! and wine! so sophisticated! Joanie doesn’t know what a mango is, but Sam manages to find one — perhaps he got it via Nelson, like the chili pepper, from, presumably, the Caribbean community in Manchester. Or does Sam just invent it (which he could do if this were all a dream)?

• This is a far more complex indication of the dream state that Sam may (or may not) be existing in… and how that conflates with the metaphoric representation of reality that fiction is: Gene suggests that Joanie slipped Sam a mickey, maybe LSD, and that’s how she got him into bed (so she could take compromising pictures of him so that Warren could keep him under control via blackmail). But when could Joanie have done such a thing? Sam seems perfectly compos mentis as they are going to bed (separately), and then he dreams of his mother and the strange woodsy scene and the little girl who pops out of the TV to taunt him and pop culture scenes from 2005… and of being handcuffed to the bed and Joanie bouncing on top of him. Is it possible that that last was as much as dream as the rest of it?

In other words, if Sam’s life in 1973 is all a dream he’s having in a hospital bed in 2005, then none of it is real at all. But the 1973 world has behaved in the same way the real world behaves. Now, however, just as voices from that 2005 hospital are talking about a change in medication, there’s a sort of disruption in the Matrix, a glitch in the dream. There was no mickey, no drugs, not even any attempt on Joanie’s part to seduce Sam: there was only a slip in the fabric of his dream that “magically” transported him from sleeping fully clothed on the little sofa to being handcuffed naked to the bed. And the story reforms around that new reality.

Possible? I think so.

“He’s just taken a stroll down the Yellow Brick Road,” Gene says of Sam’s experience. And maybe that’s close to the truth.

• Great quotes:

“I’m not meant to talk to strange men. Are you a strange man?” –little girl
“I think I probably am, yeah.” –Sam

“That’s not how it goes.” –more than one person, when Sam screws up the caution to an arrestee

“What is that?” –Nelson
“It’s a television.” –Gene
“In a pub?” –Nelson, incredulous
“Well, I could make some brackets, we could put it on the wall and watch the sport.” –Sam
“In a pub?” –Nelson

“So you work for Warren, yeah?” –Sam
“Don’t we all?” –Joanie

“Doesn’t matter. It’s only money.” –Sam
“There’s no such thing as only…” –Sam’s mom

“Do you like this music?” –Gene
“Yeah, I do. Don’t you?” –Sam
“It’s just a lot of noise, really. Me and the wife like Roger Whitaker.” –Gene (Roger Whitaker? wife?)

(next: Episode 5)


Watch Life on Mars S01 E04 online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.


viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
  • You may, at some point in the future, change your mind about Ray.

    Not my favorite of the first series for all of the reasons/issues you describe. The ‘can’ rape because he’s gay’ thing, amongst others. Of course, as dud’s go, this ep is still a good one.

  • allochthon

    I hated Ray in LoM too, but he does get a bit better (and a bit more enlightened) in Ashes to Ashes.

    Sam would know that of course a gay man would be perfectly capable of raping a woman, because rape isn’t about sexual attraction but about power and expressing dominance.

    Maddening. However, I know a fair number of ‘enlightened’ people who still believe that in 2010.

  • Lisa

    I remember Gene mentioning his wife a couple of times – the Tony Blair one is one I can recall – and then he stops mentioning her. God bless her.

    I still didn’t like Ray after the end of Ashes to Ashes – just because he hates himself doesn’t mean I have to like him.

  • Laura

    I didn’t like Ray either but I think Ashes to Ashes was a bit more sympathetic to him. The antagonism that existed between Ray and Sam wasn’t there between Ray and Alex for a start, and also Ashes to Ashes focused on the other characters more so, unlike Life on Mars which was all from Sam’s POV.

    I really enjoyed this episode. I liked seeing Sam’s mum and I really felt for Sam as he struggled to hold on to his values when it seemed like everyone else was bent.

    A couple of things did bother me about it, though. The first was the gay rape thing that you mentioned so I won’t go into it, and the second was the fact that Sam himself was raped and as the lack of acknowledgement of this by the show. This does come from a place of love, because it is one of my favourite shows and I hold it to high standards so I was disappointed. Whether or not Sam was drugged or not really doesn’t matter, or even if it was all a dream: in Sam’s mind, Joni had sex with him without his consent. As you say, rape is about power and dominance, and this was meant to humiliate Sam and to rob him of the power of taking a stand against Warren through threat of blackmail. Admittedly Sam put himself in a situation where he could be easily manipulated (if you subscribed to the theory that he was drugged or even if you don’t) but I thought that in this ‘enlightened’ day and age that we don’t condemn rape victims for ‘asking for it’, yet Sam seemed to blame himself for what happened (although I can understand how he might not feel any bad feelings towards Joni). Maybe I’m just being a bit sensitive on this subject, I don’t know.

  • leontineg

    Ray is a douche, but what a great performance. Dean Andrews is amazing. We just watched the 4th ep of Ashes to Ashes, and I pretty much couldn’t take my eyes off him. When he talks about his girlfriends “little peach”…oh, man. So wrong, but so awesome.

  • leontineg

    *girlfriend’s* I really do understand the apostrophe.

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