As you’ll know if you’ve seen my recent posts, the main thing that’s been keeping me entertained during my two-and-a-bit weeks of living in my van has been watching all of BBC’s much hyped and highly popular thriller Bodyguard, which for the most part I’ve enjoyed immensely. I came to it not because of the hype though, but because of the writer. I recently binge watched all of Jed Mercurio’s hugely enjoyable bent copper drama Line of Duty on Netflix, and hearing that he’d come up with this high stakes blend of cop drama and political thriller, I was keen to watch.
It’s been a good series, grounded by some brilliant performances – Richard Madden as PTSD-addled DS David Budd was superb – and blessed with some heart-stoppingly tense direction from John Strickland. It also found time to give its characters nuance without making them necessarily all that likeable, something Mercurio excels at. Budd, nominally the hero, was played as ambiguous from the start; flawed, damaged, and clearly more than a bit psychotic, it seemed just as likely that he’d assassinate the controversial Home Secretary he was assigned to as protect her.
Said Home Secretary, Julia Montague (played by Line of Duty veteran Keeley Hawes) was none too likeable herself, a Theresa May-like hawk intent on providing Britain’s security services with ever greater snooping powers. Think, “if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you’ve got nothing to fear”, which she actually said more or less verbatim at one point. Gotta hand it to Mercurio, he doesn’t go for the easy win trying to get the audience’s sympathy for his characters.
After six weeks of increasing hype blighted by some unnecessary and huge spoilers from the publicity-hungry BBC, the show reached its finale last Sunday. This last ep was actually given a greater running time, its 75 minute length virtually into feature film territory. In keeping with the previous eps, it was a masterpiece of tension (at least at the outset), as the unfortunate Budd found himself unwillingly strapped to what looked like a devilishly powerful suicide vest, with his thumb taped to a dead man’s switch.
This was where the script’s earlier ambiguous portrayal of Budd came home to roost. The viewer had probably decided by now that he wasn’t actually the bad guy, but his actions made it perfectly believable that his police colleagues might think that. More than once I did find myself holding my breath wondering if a sniper was about to take him out with no resolution to the plot in sight. Judging from Line of Duty, that’s just the sort of thing Mercurio might do.
But no, it led to a tense standoff involving his surprisingly trusting wife, and an admittedly well-done rehash of the classic cop show trope in which the maverick copper legs it to take on the perpetrators His Way.
Sadly, I have to say this is where the wheels did rather come off for me. Having spent multiple episodes teasing us with several potential conspiracies – jihadis, organised crime, the security service overzealously protecting a sinful Prime Minister – Mercurio opted to have his cake and eat it by having ALL of them be true.
And once Budd was face to face with the real culprits of the death of his beloved Julia, it all felt a mite contrived. Yes, up till now the show had the same well-researched, realistic procedural validity as Line of Duty, but it started parting company from plausibility at this point. I can buy into the idea of a senior police officer taking backhanders from a powerful crime kingpin, but actually assisting him to assassinate the Home Secretary while setting up one of her own men for it? Even the script seemed to admit that it was baffling for her to think she’d ever get away with it.
Plus, once she was cornered, she went to pieces so fast Budd was lucky not to catch any more shrapnel. This felt like a real contrast to Line of Duty, in which suspected bent coppers spend up to four episodes dissembling in the interview room. As soon as Chief Superintendent Craddock was in the interview room, she coughed to everything pretty much at once. I’d have expected at least some attempt to wriggle out of it, especially with Budd’s case largely circumstantial.
Meanwhile, “the security services” (noticeably not identified as any specific service such as MI5), came a cropper over their attempt to cover up the Prime Minister’s historical sins, and resignations came thick and fast. This too felt a trifle convenient – David Budd is such a supercop he’s managed to bust open not one but two massive conspiracies involving the government, bringing down the Prime Minister in the process? Like they used to say of Ace Rimmer, “what a guy!”
At least even he didn’t manage to unravel the final piece of the puzzle – the fact that the apparently innocent young Nadia, the supposedly unwilling suicide bomber from way back in episode 1, was the mastermind behind the bombs all along. While it’s always nice to see the talented Anjli Mohindra, formerly of The Sarah Jane Adventures, I’m not sure I liked the way the role was written. It’s all very well writing an impassioned speech condemning the stereotyping of Muslim women as victims, but it would have carried more weight if it hadn’t swung to the opposite stereotype and portrayed her as a fanatical jihadi. That’s also trying to have your cake and eat it, Mr Mercurio.
All that said, it’s been a gripping six week ride, even if the ending didn’t entirely satisfy. And with those viewing figures, I think we can safely guarantee a second run for the show in some form, even while Mercurio catches up to the long overdue continuation of Line of Duty. I just wish this last episode had had more of the nuance and ambiguity of the previous ones.