Line of Duty, seasons 1 – 4
What is it?
Jed Mercurio’s drama about a police anti-corruption unit, AC-12, which first aired in 2012 and whose fifth season started at the end of March 2019. Although each series is standalone, with a separate investigation into potentially corrupt activities by police officers, the series as a whole is tied together by a network of bent cops linked to a major criminal known, so far, only as ‘Top Dog.’
Who’s in it?
The regular cast are Martin Compston (portraying Londoner DS Steve Arnott so convincingly you’ll be shocked to hear his real accent), Vicky McClure (DS Kate Fleming, although a trailer shot from Season 5 hints that that’s DI Kate Fleming now), and Adrian Dunbar as boss Superintendent Ted Hastings. But the supporting cast has been immense. Lennie James (DCI Tony Gates), Keeley Hawes (DI Lindsay Denton) and Thandie Newton (DCI Ros Huntley) have all played the main focus of AC-12’s investigations over the course of a season, Neil Morrissey has oozed sleaze as dodgy-but-not-quite-bent DC Nigel Morton, and Craig Parkinson was the scariest man on TV at times as DI Mathew ‘Dot,’ Cottan. Mark Bonnar and Lee Ingleby have passed through as well as men caught up in AC-12’s enquiries. Actors such as Gina McKee, Jessica Raine, and Daniels Mays didn’t even last two episodes.
What I liked
No one in Line of Duty is entirely good, even if some people come close to being irredeemably bad. Even its lead male and female characters aren’t entirely or easily likeable. Compston described Steve Arnott as being a bit of a ‘Call-centre manager wanker,’ in one interview, trying to draw out that Steve is a bit full of himself and his own self-importance. In seasons 1 and 2 he had a bad habit of sleeping with witnesses, although by season 3 he was, supposedly, a changed man. His waistcoat habit has become a subject of humour among fans, but Compston originally made the choice to highlight that Steve was a bit of a prat. Similarly, Kate Fleming comes across as standoffish and unfriendly in season 1, and her lack of sympathy for Lindsay Denton in season 2 is quite jarring at times, as it appears that Lindsay is being set up by powerful conspirators, and Steve starts to believe her. The apparent ease with which she was partially turned against Steve in season 3, and with which Steve allowed himself to be set up, showed us again and again that they were deeply flawed individuals. Kate has a habit of jumping to conclusions ahead of the evidence; Steve is too cocky by half.
Steve is dogged, tenacious, and thorough. Once AC-12 have started a case, he clings on and doesn’t let go, no matter where the investigations take him. Kate is one of the most loyal cops on TV, and tremendously brave to boot. Both are clever and determined, and their flaws only highlight this more. They’re relatable because we can see ourselves reflected in them. They screw up, their lives are sometimes a train wreck, at times they’re clearly making things up as they go along, and through all that they both keep going and they get there in the end. That’s a fair description of my life, and I’d expect a fair description of the lives of most of my readers. Line of Duty puts that on screen in a way that feels natural.
If Steve and Kate are complex, so is their supporting cast. Superintendent Ted ‘Super Ted,’ Hastings is the one character we can mostly trust to do the right thing, but even he has his wobbles. He’s clearly quite uncomfortable with female officers at times, and seems to be a not-very-closeted homophobe. He put off the investigation into Deputy Chief Constable Mike Dryden (Mark Bonnar) in season 2 for as long as he could after Dryden offered him a promotion that would have eased his financial difficulties and gone some way towards repairing his disintegrating marriage. And yet, he always comes good in the end, and delivers some of the most quotable lines in the series in the process. ‘There’s a line, it’s called right and wrong, and I know which side my duty lies,’ he growls at AC-12’s deeply compromised legal advisor, ‘Call me Gill,’ Bigelow when she tries to interfere with his questioning of Dot. Try not to cheer when he says that.
Even its villains have never been entirely bad. Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays) kicked off season 3 by gunning down a fleeing suspect in cold blood, and then torturing another man to death. He seemed pretty beyond the pale, a murderous and violent thug who AC-12 needed to surgically excise from the force. Yet by halfway through the series, we learnt that nothing (shock) was as it seemed, and what we’d actually seen was an abuse victim killing his abusers years later. It didn’t make anything right, but it was hard not to sympathise with Waldron knowing everything he’d been through. Then, in season 4, DCI Ros Huntley seemed to be the ice warrior of doom, calculatingly and manipulatively framing her husband for a killing she had herself committed, and at one point threatening AC-12’s very existence. But, when it was apparent that AC-12 had her dead to rights, she admitted her guilt and exonerated her husband, to ensure that her kids would still have a parent. DCI Tony Gates of season 1 was a fundamentally decent man manipulated by his lover and a subordinate into supplying information to a major criminal. DI Lindsay Denton of seasons 2 and 3 was probably more misguided than bent, even if she could never accept that taking £50,000 to betray a protected witness was, well, pretty corrupt.
And then there’s Mathew ‘Dot,’ Cottan.
Dot informed on and helped manipulate Tony Gates in season 1, and set in motion the ambush that killed three fellow officers in season 2. He had Danny Waldron killed in 3, and framed Steve Arnott for a murder he had himself committed. All to protect VIP paedophiles with links to the organised criminals who had paid him. Even Dot had redeeming features, his affection for Kate leading him to save her life with his final act, and as Kate pointed out, he’d never really had much chance – the criminals had groomed him from an early age to infiltrate the police. His whole career had been designed as their inside man. Informing on them with his dying declaration gave him as much redemption as he could have had.
Heroes with feet of clay; villains who often don’t even realise they’re villains. Line of Duty gives all of its many characters enough time to establish themselves, and ensures that they are relatable to its viewers. We invest in them; we want to see them succeed. They are captivating and complex. They are the heart of the show.
British TV can be hideously, hideously white at times. There’s a strong theory that the only reason Death in Paradise ever got made was because having a majority black casted show was the best way the BBC could think of to redress the balance at the turn of the Noughties.
Line of Duty happily bucks this trend, giving us POC characters in both supporting and main roles. Tony Gates (Lennie James) and Ros Huntley (Thandie Newton) have both been black characters at the centre of the series, and their characters have been complex, intelligent people full of very human flaws. AC-12 also gained the much-beloved PC Maneet Bindra (Maya Sondhi) in season 3 as a recurring supporting character. We’ve seen POC actors playing police Chief Superintendents (Steve Toussaint and Shaun Parkes in seasons 2 and 3), and in important supporting roles right from the start. It all shows a picture of modern Britain as a diverse place, where all races and religions work together.
Jed Mercurio’s other thriller, Bodyguard, garnered some criticism for showing too many women in powerful roles – some from the usual idiots, but some from feminists complaining that in Mercurio’s world it was too normalised. You could level the same criticism about Line of Duty’s treatment of race, in that it portrays people of colour holding powerful positions in an unproblematic way, but honestly, I think that this is more powerful. For a show that’s often very grim and dark, showing race as it should be is one of its more positive aspects. But fundamentally, this is about showing modern Britain as it actually is, not whitewashing it to make viewers feel like we’re still stuck in the 1930s ethnicity-wise. Far too few shows do this. Let’s applaud Line of Duty for putting the effort in.
Minute attention to detail
Radios that can switch channels. Detectives whose stab vests display correct rank insignia, and force ID numbers for junior officers. The annoying tape recorder beep that precedes every interview. Officers wearing their lanyards inside stations and AC-12’s office. The quoting of relevant legislation in interviews. Accused officers insisting on being interviewed by somebody one rank superior. Consistent radio codes. Identifying numbers for evidence items.
For all that its main plotlines are often quite flamboyant and involve crimes that are actually incredibly rare, if not unheard of, in Britain, there’s a real sense of authenticity to Line of Duty that’s brought about by the pain they take to get little details right. It’s a sense of realism that other dramas often don’t even come close to replicating, and it sucks you in.
All the twists you could ever want
Line of Duty has some very, very ballsy writers. The opening of series 3 was one of the most shocking starts to any drama that I can remember, and that included series 1 which opened with armed police shooting dead a father holding a baby in a botched operation. But what we were shown on screen was all a giant distraction from what was really going on. The only clue to what would come was in the first few seconds, when Danny looked up to see the face of the man he was being sent to apprehend, and the music changed subtly.
It was a hell of an opening, and it needed a big follow-up. But it was impossible to get a handle on where the series was going, as the return of Lindsay Denton and the hints of corruption surrounding Hastings made it difficult to trust any character except Kate. The Armed Response Unit that had seemed to be at the heart of the series was discarded by the end of episode three, and it increasingly seemed like Dot was trying to frame Steve, but his murder of Lindsay, one clearly planned in advance, came as a real shock.
Series 3 was probably the best yet, but other seasons also toyed with our expectations and emotions. Series 1 saved its best till the last, with the revelation that Dot, apparently loyal to Tony Gates, was actually a deeply corrupt officer who had helped manipulate him. Throughout series 2, the guilt of Lindsay Denton hung in doubt. Steve at one point became convinced she was innocent, and throughout there was moments where I, and my housemates when they watched it, was utterly convinced that she was being set up by a corrupt superior. But ultimately Hastings’ instincts about her were right, even if the reason for her betrayal was a surprise. It had always seemed to be a strange coincidence that a missing persons case she was reviewing was tied into AC-12’s inquiries, but I was genuinely shocked by the resolution; that she wanted gangster Tommy Hunter dead to rescue a child sex worker he was abusing.
For twists and turns, though, series 4 has to take the biscuit. I joked that, after the deaths of Georgia Trotman and Danny Waldron at the start of series 2 and 3, series 4 would open with the introduction of AC-12’s new Officer Deadmeat – ‘I’m played by a highly recognisable actor and have hints of an interesting backstory and instant chemistry with Steve Arnott.’ ‘Oh that’s grand, just grand. Kate, would you ever call the undertaker and book us another funeral there?’ Even with all that, I did not expect another first episode death, and the whole start of the series turned my expectations entirely upside down. What was even better was that we knew what DCI Ros Huntley had done, and that she wasn’t corrupt at heart, just someone who felt pushed by circumstance into taking more and more extreme measures. My favourite moment of the series, though, came with the revelation that the serial killer known as Balaclava Man was no such thing. It was actually the modus operandi of the extremely dangerous organised crime group corrupting the officers AC-12 were investigating, who were forced out fully into the open for the first time since series 1. It again flipped what seemed to be happening on its head, and set us up nicely for series 5.
The revelation that there was no Balaclava Man disappointed some people, but for me it was entirely consistent with one of the underlying themes of Jed Mercurio’s shows – the threat of organised crime groups. He revisited this in Bodyguard, where although terrorist Nadia was arguably the face of the villains, organised crime boss Luke Akins turned out to be the real mastermind. Mercurio isn’t shy about this, his organised criminals aren’t Tommy Shelby-esque anti-heroes, the most honest people in their corrupt world; they’re brutal, vicious, avaricious, whose main interest is the making of money.
Those interview scenes
The record for an LOD interview stands at a cool 24 minutes, when Steve stood accused of murdering Lindsay. But even shorter ones often run to 10 or 15 minutes, as AC-12 present their evidence and their suspects give them their answers. They crackle with tension, and the audience never quite knows where they’ll go. Steve’s at the end of series 3 was the longest, but the best was the 22-minute questioning of Dot later in that episode. Full of peaks and troughs, at times it seemed Hastings and Kate had Dot on the ropes, at others like he had an answer for everything, with the audience knowing his guilt and complicity screaming at them to nail him.
They have a realistic, authentic feel to them that goes beyond the identifier numbers given to items of evidence and the presence of Police Federation representatives and solicitors. Sometimes, suspects crack. Oftentimes, they don’t. Sometimes, like Tony Gates in series 1, it becomes clear that there are questions that they have no good answer to, but AC-12 don’t have anything themselves beyond a few things that don’t quite make sense. It took an enormous amount of evidence to break Ros Huntley in series 4.
I like the way that the interviews trust the audience as well. We’re expected to keep up and do the work ourselves, to remember what each piece of evidence is and what it might mean. Procedures are kept tight – the ‘I have the right to be interviewed by an officer one rank superior,’ has become a bit of a joke, but it’s a real police regulation. Solicitors rebuke police fishing trips, or attempts to ask curveball questions, just like they would in a real interview. And they aren’t just big set-pieces used to end series or episodes; they’re skilfully used to move the plot along. An interview with compromised Deputy Chief Constable Mike Dryden in series 2 looked set to expose him as the mastermind behind an ambush that killed three police officers. Instead, it began to throw suspicion back the way of Lindsay Denton, who by that point had been all but cleared by most audience members (myself included). Halfway through series 4, Ros Huntley turned the tables on AC-12 during an interview in a way that left the unit fighting for its existence and Hastings fighting for his job.
Clever, tense, and claustrophobic, Line of Duty’s interview scenes are some of the most memorable in this most memorable of shows, and have rightly become the stuff of legend.
Layers upon layers that stand up to repeated viewing
You have to be watching the start of series 3 very closely to catch that Danny Waldron knows the man he’s being set to intercept…
Sometimes it’s the symbolism that you see later – Tony Gates plays ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf?’ with his daughters whilst waiting for his time to run out.
Others, it’s a whole underlying subplot. Just how corrupt is Nigel Morton? How many characters’ names actually began with ‘H?’ Why does the camera linger on the guy behind Steve when he signs his firearm back in after taking one to Danny Waldron’s funeral? Dryden referring to Lindsay Denton as ‘Linda,’ on the phone at the start of series 2, after she’s just said her name, is actually a pretty clear hint that he knows her and gets her name wrong deliberately.
You can rewatch Line of Duty two or three times, and only later see the subtle hints at what’s coming, or see hints of underlying tension between characters. You don’t have to be a total nerd like me and do this, it doesn’t need to be watched two or three times to be enjoyed, but your enjoyment of it will not lessen with repeated views. This is something that can’t be said for many shows.
What I had problems with
Must I? Ok then…
Usual disclaimer – whilst procedural flaws are fun to spot, if they spoil your enjoyment of something, you’re watching it wrong.
Not too many of these to be fair. The biggest is probably the idea that AC-12 would have enough power and support within the police hierarchy to investigate and expose corrupt officers as fiercely and fearlessly as they do. Actual anti-corruption units are often hamstrung by internal politics, as senior officers prefer to avoid the embarrassment of corrupt officers being publicly exposed. Look at the fate of Operation Countryman, or many of the Metropolitan Police’s attempted purges of corrupt officers in the 1990s, for examples. There’s no evidence the Met ever tried to act on reports in 2002 or 2003 indicating that it had at least 150 deeply corrupt officers and that major London crime families could infiltrate sensitive units at will.
In terms of actual procedural flaws, probably the biggest has been the casual ease with which the fictional Central Police Force hands out guns to anyone who asks for one. Steve managed to get his hands on one in series 3, but as a former counter-terror detective it was at least plausible that he would have had firearms training at some point. How on earth DC Jamie Desford was given a pistol at the end of series 4 to wave at AC-12 is beyond me. Steve seems to be brandishing another gun at the start of series 5. Now, there are occasions on which plainclothes officers with firearms training might be deployed with firearms, but these are usually connected to surveillance of suspects who may be armed, and it’s vanishingly rare for such surveillance to be carried out by anyone except trained specialists.
Other mistakes include the lack of batons or incapacitant spray for detectives (pepper spray would have really helped Steve in series 1), although think only The Bill ever actually bothered with them. And Assistant Chief Constable Hilton trying to recuse AC-12 from investigating Ros Huntley in series 4; anti-corruption units answer directly to the Deputy Chief Constable, who is the Chief Disciplinary Officer, precisely so their investigations can’t be interfered with. Professional belligerent Yorkshireman DCS Hargreaves often interviews suspects himself with a Sergeant in attendance – in reality officers of his rank observe, but do not conduct, interviews. That’s done by Detective Constables, with senior officers watching from a distance to get a better overview of what’s being said.
But honestly, Line of Duty gets the most right of just about any show going. If you want to see how internal police procedures work, this is one of the closest looks you’ll get outside of a documentary.
The action scenes
Although they’re often tense, Line of Duty’s action scenes have a habit of running on, and stretching the bounds of plausibility. I thoroughly enjoyed Kate’s chase after Dot at the end of series 3, but it should have ended by the fence; even I have to admit that the car that picked Dot up basically drove in circles until she could get a clear shot. Danny Waldron’s murder of Ronan Murphy also went on maybe thirty seconds too long, although there was a reason for that. He needed to be separated from his team in order to murder Murphy.
Similarly, at the end of series 4, Hastings shoots one of the balaclava men dead with a pistol, whilst all the semi-automatic-rifle-toting armed police with him… did what, exactly? Lindsay found it far too easy to knock down the back seats of the car she was being held in during series 2. The action scenes are never bad, exactly, they just sometimes lack the same plausibility that is a hallmark of the rest of the show.
When Line of Duty gets it right, of course, it nails it. The start of series 1 was shocking and tragic and perfectly paced, and the attack on Steve in series 4 was just what it needed to be – fast, furious, violent. But action scenes are not Line of Duty’s main strength. I’d be happy with more interviews…
Occasionally too clever for its own good
Not every twist in Line of Duty makes total sense.
My favourite example of this is the murder of PC Rod Kennedy in series 3. Kennedy was another firearms officer in Danny Waldron’s unit suspected of murdering him. He was found hanged, and AC-12’s suspicion was that he’d been murdered by PC Hari Bains, Waldron’s real killer, when he wouldn’t go along with Bains’ story about a struggle for Waldron’s gun. But Bains always denied that murder, and the suspicion was that Dot had ordered it. The question is… why? Kennedy knew nothing about the Balaclava Men, and Bains was entirely expendable. He didn’t know anything of value, beyond confirming that the Caddy was still active. It made sense for Bains to kill Kennedy, not Dot, as was implied.
It also didn’t make much sense for the Balaclava Men to kill Waldron – at least, not when they did. Although they would probably have been on edge when they learnt that one of their former victims had killed an abuser in murky circumstances, there was no reason to suspect that Waldron was on a revenge rampage. After all, they didn’t know that it hadn’t occurred exactly as Waldron claimed, and he hadn’t even had time to recognise Murphy. Even if he had, his next target was the clearly expendable Linus Murphy. He could always be taken out if anything happened to Linus. They somewhat jumped the gun with their murder of Waldron, and helped tip AC-12’s hand to the larger conspiracy.
In series 4, it emerged that AC-12’s key witness, a forensic coordinator, had been paying a victim of crime in the case he was working on for sex. It was an unexpected twist, but one that didn’t really go anywhere. They did a good job of undermining the witness’ credibility, but it never added up to anything. He was ultimately just weird, and this got dropped as the case against Ros gathered momentum.
A major plot point in series 3 was the possible sexual relations between Steve and Lindsay whilst Steve was undercover trying to win her trust. Eventually, it was revealed that something had happened, but not much. This is fine… but it was never even hinted at in series 2. Mercurio needed Lindsay out of prison for the plot to happen, and dropped the retrospective McGuffin in as a result. Again, this was a bit too clever, and didn’t quite work. If we’d seen a hint or two in series 2, it could have worked. But we didn’t.
Sometimes Line of Duty twists one time too many, and doesn’t always answer all of its questions. It’s often to fast to notice in the moment, but it can be frustrating when you start to really think about it.
Assuming you put as much effort into that as us jobbing writers. I expect many more casual viewers probably won’t notice, just enjoy, and honestly, that’s the way to watch these shows.
You’ll like this if…
You’re a human being with a pulse who is breathing.
What do you mean, that’s not my reviews policy? Fine. You’ll like this if you like complex, multi-layered thrillers that force you to pay attention as they twist and turn in every which direction.