The supernatural police procedural “Life on Mars” tells the story of Sam Tyler (John Simm), a straight-laced detective who, after being struck by a car in 2006, wakes up in 1973. As Sam attempts to figure out what the hell has happened to him — is he mad, in a coma, back in time? — he must reckon with the Wild West tactics of his new superior, DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister).
In “Episode 8,” Sam agrees to betray Gene and the rest of his team in order to cut out the “cancer” in Manchester’s police force and go back home. He succeeds, and by the episode’s final act has returned to 2006. But his friends from 1973 are gone, the by-the-book methods of modern cops bore him, and he doesn’t even feel the pain when he accidentally cuts his finger. Sam’s home, but he’s barely living. So he climbs to the roof of the police station and, as David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” rings out, throws himself off. He returns to the past, rescues his colleagues from a train robbery shootout, gets the girl, and rides off into the sunset.
The “Life on Mars” finale works for a number of reasons. Aside from featuring an outstanding performance by John Simm, “Episode 8” refuses to explicitly answer any questions and instead focuses on the emotional journey on which we have embarked over the last two seasons. This strange, backward world inhabited by Gene Hunt feels less scary and more like home with every passing episode, and by the end you’re almost screaming at Sam, begging him to stay. In the end, he does — and while you’re not exactly sure what has really happened, that doesn’t make the return to ’73 feel any less glorious.