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Life On Mars 2.08 rant

Sam Tyler, you are a selfish, cowardly, weak, *terminally stupid* (heh - literally!) little prick. You've managed to lose all my sympathy in one single mad moment. Up to now, I felt a bit guilty when I hurt you in fic; no more. You deserve what you get, you idiot. Clearly, you are completely resistant to any kind of deeper insight into your life.

(ETA, a couple of hours later: Don't let that tirade fool you, dear readers. I still love him.)

Of course, you are not entirely to blame. You're only a character; you were written this way. More's the shame, because so far, the writers' track record with this show (and with your characterisation and development) has been very nearly impeccable. But a show as focused on a central 'quest' stands or falls with its resolution, and, well, I'm afraid this one fell. Hard. You might as well have jumped a shark as jumped from the top of that building, Sam.

It's not just a matter of personal preference, either. There are right endings and wrong endings for stories. There's a certain amount of variation possible, but it's not infinite. There are things that work, and things that don't. This doesn't, plain and simple.

Oh, I'm sure it was *satisfying* on the wish-fulfilment scale, if you manage to switch off the parts of your brain that deal with things like narrative logic, character development and ethics... but it didn't make sense. This was not an ending to the story that eps 1.01-2.07 told us; it was fan fiction. Fanfic with a very high degree of verisimilitude, perhaps, but nevertheless fanfiction. Fanfiction gives us the endings we want, but which don't necessarily make sense within the logic of the source material; the endings we would like to see, but don't usually get, because in 99.9% of the cases they'd rob the source material of its power and/or its meaning.

Fan fiction gives us a happily ever after for Romeo and Juliet; fan fiction has Frodo Baggins find happiness with a sassy hobbit lass; fan fiction says „I want characters A and B together, and to hell with the consequences. Who cares about the moral of the story or what's the 'right' conclusion to a dramatic arc, anyway? They're cute together, and they'd be happy together, and that's all we need.“

I see people in this thread calling Sam's jump a 'leap of faith'. I see people seeing a message here that is 'you're alive if you feel alive'. Well, nice message.

The thing is... sometimes you have to work for happiness, sometimes you have to work at getting to the point where you 'feel alive'. Sometimes the right way to live your life isn't presented to you on a silver platter. Sometimes, when it seems like it *is* presented to you on a silver platter (even if you have to jump off a building for it), it's cheap and ultimately false, and also, morally wrong.

And, most of all, the 'right life' isn't in a certain place or time or constellation of people. It's something you have to *make* yourself, every bloody day of your life, and yes, it's hard and there are no guarantees.

I thought 1973 had taught Sam some things about life; *general*, universal things about life, not things like 'if I'm honest with myself, this way of policing is unexpectedly fun, and I like Gene and Annie and Chris... and possibly even Ray, sort of. And the music's better here, too.'

Sam's jump is anything but a leap of faith. It's a declaration of bankruptcy. It's escapism, of the worst kind: the kind we as fans often get accused of, and maybe that is why I'm taking it personally. Yes, we all want to disappear into a better place sometimes, be that Manchester in 1973 or Middle-earth, or the United Federation of Planets in the 24th century. But ultimately, we have to realise that trying to escape from our reality isn't the answer. Oh, I'm with Tolkien all right in defending escapism against the bad press it's been getting – escapism is an extremely important psychological mechanism, a need we all have and nobody should feel embarrassed about indulging. I routinely spend at least half my day indulging in it, myself – writing, planning fics, idly speculating, reading, watching stuff... I can totally see the appeal of spending your life in a dream. But when it gets to the point where you give up on your Real Life, it gets dangerous. See exhibit A: remains of one Sam Tyler, dead of terminal avoidance of reality.

Sam's 2007 life sucked? Well, tough luck, Sammy-boy. So does mine, at the moment. So do something about it. 1973 gave you a chance to find out a lot of stuff about what makes life worth living for you... so apply that to your life in 2007. What's stopping you? Your job sucks? Quit. Yes, I know that's a scary prospect – in some ways, perhaps, scarier than jumping off a building. But, you know, change is one thing that can make you feel alive. Believe me, I've tried it. Sometimes, doing something scary (but perhaps not quite as final as killing yourself) is the best way to kick your life into gear again.

Mind you, even if we assume that 1973 was *real*, the ending is still wrong, on a moral level and on a 'story logic' level, too. Let's take a closer look.

So, if 1973 is real... then Sam really had an obligation of sorts to get his colleagues and friends there out of the pickle he got them into. I admit that. And I would *even* have been fine with him jumping and all - if it hadn't been presented to us as a perfectly happy ending. Because it isn't, and it never can be. Because, veiled hints in a conversation or no, his mum's never going to understand why he did it. Maya's never going to understand it. His aunt is never going to understand it. And who knows who else there is that we haven't heard of – I doubt these really were the only three people of importance in Sam's life. In all of these people's lives, there's now always going to be a dark spot of grief and unanswered questions. Possibly guilt, too – 'Was there anything we could have done to stop him?'

Oh, I'm sure he left them a letter or something. Fat lot of good that's gonna do.

Assuming 1973 is real and Gene and Annie and co were in mortal danger there, should consideration for his family and friends have kept him from jumping to save the 1973 crowd? No, probably not – there were lives at stake. But there should have been a sense of loss about it, instead of simply and only a sense of liberation. But liberation is what they went for with how they portrayed the jump and Sam's return to 1973; we're meant to feel simply and uncritically happy there (and most people did). There is no sense of loss – 2007 wasn't 'a proper life', anyway, he was as good as dead there, just a cog in a cold, heartless machine, yadda yadda yadda. Life's so much better when you're dead, err, in 1973!

So that's why the ending rang wrong for me on the moral side. Now for the story's internal logic (not just the last ep's, but the entire show's):

This show has been largely about Sam's psychological development. It's been about him relaxing, learning to see life from a different side, learning to open up to people and rely on them, and about him rediscovering fun, quite simply. Or at least that's what I thought it was about. Apparently I was wrong, and it was really all about 'Life in 1973 with Gene and Annie and Chris and Ray is just so much more fun than the present, wheeeeeeee!' Apparently, there are no people worthy of Sam's friendship in the present; apparently, there is no way of having fun or a fulfilled life in the present. Apparently, Life On Mars was *not* about Sam Tyler learning something about himself, but about Sam Tyler running away from himself after all.

Which, you know, *would* be satisfying in its own harsh, frustrating, tragic way if this was how it was *meant* to be read. I could live with LoM as a tragedy about a reality-avoiding, burnt-out career-driven guy who never learns how to face up to the real problems in his life and ultimately takes a desperately stupid step. The friend with whom I watched the ep chose to interpret it like that – until we both read the interview with Matthew Graham, that is.

There were other things that annoyed me a bit, too, but nothing serious – a few clunky lines from Annie and Nelson. The impression that we got that basically, Sam apparently just got up and put on his suit and walked out of hospital after his coma. (Yes, I get that there was probably some time between the waking up itself and that scene. But it looked very 'seamless'.) None of that would have 'killed' the episode for me like the ending did, really.

What did I like about this ep? The 'FRUSTRATION' box in the Lost & Found. Sam's insane grin when he very pointedly said 'I'm in a coma, *Frank*.' Every single expression on John Simm's face, especially during the graveyard scene.

And now I'll go and explain again why the ending was all wrong, only this time in the form of novel-length, excruciatingly slowly written fanfic.

But first I'll go and construct at least five different alternative explanations of the ending that are less frustrating for me personally. (At the moment, I feel like I could use a FRUSTRATION box in my room, too. *g*)

Here's one to start with: It wasn't Gene who's the tumour, and the tumour isn't benign, either. It was Frank Morgan all along, and Frank Morgan/the cancer is killing Sam. It's certainly suspicious that the 'real world' surgeon was called after the actor who played the wizard of Oz, isn't it?! Sam only thought he woke up, but was essentially only on another level of his coma fantasies. Perhaps slightly closer to the surface, but certainly not out. The tumour is inoperable and Sam really is dying and will never wake up again; his '2007' experiences were a veiled way of his subconscious telling him that. His jump signifies his acceptance of that fact even as he is dying (in hospital, in his coma, not in a puddle of blood on the ground); Annie's plea to stay with them forever is to be taken literally and he's now in the afterlife. The end.

Oh, I think I like that interpretation. I think I'll make that my official truth now.

BTW; anyone wanna adopt a plot bunny about Annie as a fallen angel who's built 1973 to trap Sam's soul and keep it to herself forever?

Addendum: I've also posted the same rant/review/thing in the ep 2.08 thread at the Railway Arms, and I've also posted some more stuff there, and gotten some interesting replies, too. So, if you're interested in this angle: http://domeofstars.com/forum/index.php?topic=1011.360

(I've sort of vowed to stay away from there, mostly, in the next few weeks, though, because I just realised that it's just making myself *and* everybody else unhappy.)

Comments

hmpf
Dec. 7th, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC)
Okay, teal deer, part one:
Speaking with four years' distance, I think it isn't the ending itself that bothered me so much (although there are things about that that bother me, too; I'll get to those) - what really raised my hackles was the fandom's reaction, which was basically "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! SOOOOO HAPPY!!!" There were things said, in discussions of the ending, that disturbed the heck out of me, and in the end I just couldn't cope with it anymore. With being around people who believed those things, that is. (Most disturbing remark ever in a 2.08 discussion, paraphrased: "Being a mother means letting your child go. I would be happy if my son smiled like Sam smiled when he jumped!" *shudder* There was also a whole lot of "But we could *see* that he could *never* be happy in the present, so he's obviously much better off in the past!")

I'm actually a fan of dark endings; I sort of lobbied from day one for the show to end with Sam dying. Granted, I wanted his arc to be about acceptance of inevitable death (i.e., I would have liked it if the show had made it clear, over time, that he just wouldn't ever be able to wake up, and would have liked him make his peace with that, eventually), rather than about brining about his own death willfully and pointlessly. But, still, what I wanted wouldn't have been a "happy happy, joy joy" ending.

What I take issue with, aside from the fandom's overwhelmingly creepy reaction to the ending, was that the ending didn't fit what most of the rest of the show before it had said. I.e. it has all the marks of being hastily tacked on, without too much thought on the part of the writers. The writers just couldn't *bear* to leave Sam in the present, without his imaginary friends, without the fun that is Gene Hunt. That's the motivation for the ending; it's not motivated by any internal necessity of the story.

There are all kinds of ways in which the ending doesn't make sense, but I haven't rewatched the ep since then, nor most of the show, so I'll just focus on the things that have stayed with me most, namely, everything most directly related to Sam.

1.) It doesn't make sense for Sam to have no friends and family who care for him in the present.

We've heard Ruth's and Heather's voices. Even Maya, while she did eventually give up on him, stuck around well into series 2, and what we heard from her doesn't sound like she just didn't care about Sam; in fact, she probably cared too much - if she didn't, I think she would have left him years ago, their relationship seems so broken. (Take note that a broken relationship does not imply a lack of love. From what little we've seen of Sam and Maya, it's obvious there was real love there, on both sides. But Sam was too messed up, psychologically, to be able to have a real relationship.)

And we've heard and seen Sam warmly reminisce about his family and speak with palpable longing about them. Of course, you can *always* claim, afterwards, that Sam only ever imagined his friends and family cared about him, and that he longed for a human connection he'd never actually possessed. But, IMO, it isn't warranted by the text. After 15 eps in which there was a believable emotional connection between Sam and people in the present-day, a mere absence of such in the last ten minutes of the last ep isn't enough to support that interpretation.
hmpf
Dec. 7th, 2010 06:25 pm (UTC)
Teal deer, part two:
2.) What happened to "But we don't jump, Sam, because we're not cowards"? - Or: What's the arc here?

On the surface, the two scenes on the roof - the one from the first ep, and the one from the last, look like nice bookends for the show; there's a nice visual symmetry there. If you look at it more closely, though, the WTF? begins to creep in. Because why exactly does Sam have to jump, from a story perspective? What exactly is the arc the writers are trying to end with this scene?

Based on the first scene's "moral" - "we don't jump, because we're not cowards" - there's roughly two possible arcs for the hero (four, if you count sub-varieties) for the entire show if we want to end it in another roof scene in which our hero actually does jump, and still preserve its internal coherence:

Option A: In which the meaning of the first roof scene is preserved and the hero remains "not a coward":

A1) The show continues to show the hero as a hero; the hero eventually ends up in a situation in which he has to jump *because* he's not a coward. That's the traditional heroic version.

A2) Same as A, except here the hero only *believes* that he is in such a situation; that would be the tragically heroic version.

Option B: In which the hero is shown as a "coward", or the meaning of the first roof scene is subverted in other ways.

B1) The show shows us how the hero struggles, and fails. When he eventually jumps it is essentially because he can't cope with his continued failure etc. Another tragic version, but not quite so heroic (though there can be a sad heroism in losing, too, as long as you *did* struggle).

B2) The hero learns over the course of the show that "not being a coward" really doesn't matter, so he may as well jump. That's the existentialist version. Or maybe the nihilist version. Most certainly it is a solipsist version.
hmpf
Dec. 7th, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC)
Teal deer, part the last:
In any of those cases, though you have to lay the groundwork if you want to have your ending make sense in context.

If you choose option A), you have to create a believable situation in which the hero's brave and honourable option is (or seems to be) to jump. There are plenty of situations like that, it's not that difficult. Look to every other tragedy for examples.

If you choose option B), you have to show us the hero struggling and failing, you have to make us feel the mounting despair, the walls closing in. (For B2), you have to show us how the hero gets to the realisation that nothing really matters.)

LoM followed neither of these possible arcs, or maybe, a little bit of all of these, thus making an awful mess of Sam's character development.

A1) doesn't work for LoM because the situation Sam's in isn't *actually* one in which the brave and honourable choice is to jump. If the writers had wanted more or less the classic heroic arc for Sam (which, until 2.08, actually seemed very likely!), and his jump as an heroic act, well, they would have had to come up with a non-imaginary, not so horribly contrived dilemma for Sam.

A2) doesn't work because we're not shown convincingly that Sam has lost his grip on reality sufficiently to believe that the jump is his only/best option. There's some indication of it in the conversation with Ruth, but I'd say it's inconclusive. He's held onto his belief in the reality of the present too tenaciously until then to make such a sudden change believable; there's not enough of a foundation for it in the story so far. (Still, A1 is the scenario that most nearly makes sense, out of all of these, I'll grant that.)

B1) doesn't work because we don't actually see Sam struggle and fail much. We mostly see him struggle and kind of succeed. For most of the show, Sam seems to be making all kinds of progress - getting more in touch with his feelings, getting a bit better at relating to people, learning to make the best of things, etc. And then, of course, in the last ten minutes, we do see him fail, but not struggle at all, which is odd, because until then he's been all about the fight. You can counter that with a cry of "Depression! It happens!" - to which I reply, yes, of course - but in a story you need to motivate things like that in a way that makes sense in the context of what you're trying to say. You need some coherence. Showing your hero making progress for such a long time, and then all of a sudden doing a u-turn on that - well, it may happen in RL all the time, but if that's your entire motivation for it to also happen in your story, then the only message you're sending with that story is, "well, shit happens." Which, granted, is a valid message - but is it *really* what you were trying to say? For most of LoM, it didn't feel like that was what the show as trying to say; it only started to say that in the last ten minutes. And then it didn't say it very clearly. Case in point: most viewers got "this is a beautiful leap of faith" from the ending, not "this is a sad example of shit happening".

B2) doesn't work because the show never showed us that Sam stopped believing in meaning as such.

Oh god I've exhausted myself. I could go on, but... I have to preserve a tiny bit of energy for writing cover letters today. ;-)
(Deleted comment)
diotimah
Dec. 8th, 2010 08:15 am (UTC)
Re: Teal deer, part the last:
Now, if the thought behind the writers here was "I don't agree that choosing fantasy is weakness" then it has to be signposted. But the whole way through the series, Sam's acceptance of the fantasy is grudging and temporary. It wasn't signposted well enough to make sense to me.

Indeed. Actually, a plotline about choosing fantasy as a valid, mature choice, might have been really interesting and original. But, for that to work, they would have needed to insert appropriate 'clues', which at least would have had to be recognizable from hindsight.
(Deleted comment)
diotimah
Dec. 8th, 2010 08:04 am (UTC)
Excellent analysis ...
... and I agree with all you say. I myself expected a more or less traditional Campbellian 'hero's journey' ending, probably with some original and/or subversive twists - and would have been completely fine with that. I would have appreciated going for the tragic version of the heroic plot, or for something more complex. Even a bitter, twisted ending which has Sam killing himself because he has lost his 'sense of judgment' would have been fine - this was even implied at some point as a possible interpretation , but it should have been made *way* more obvious.
call_me_lovey
Dec. 11th, 2010 05:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Okay, teal deer, part one:
Hiya,

Let’s forget his coma for a sec -- people lose touch in RL all the time. They don’t want to, but they just do – their own lives get in the way, sheer distance, etc. That’s hard enough, but his situation was worse than that, because he was so looking forward to going home, so sure they’d all be there for him -- you expect your family to be there, even if your friends leave.
I was gutted for him at the end, I couldn’t stop crying, & I doubt I’ll ever be able to listen to ‘Life On Mars?’ ever again.

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