(Note: I intended to post the next Oscar Debate this week (it's about BlackKklansman!), but I've been a bit under the weather and haven't been able to get that post together. Instead, I pulled up something that's been sitting on my hard drive since early last year and polished it off. Enjoy!)
Living in Ireland, I watch a lot of British TV shows. Because what am I going to do, watch stuff made here? PFFFT.
I also, like a large proportion of the world's population, regularly unhinge my media-jaw and consume vast quantities of American entertainment. The differences between the two are deeply-baked and striking; for example, serious “prestige” TV series (as opposed to soap operas, sitcoms and things like Doctor Who) in Britain tend to be extremely short, running four to six episodes per season and frequently having no more than two or three seasons at most. Often they don't even get that, being conceived from the beginning as a discrete story with no intention of continuation once the initial batch of episodes is over.
This makes Line of Duty something of an anomaly. A relatively big-budget police drama produced by the BBC, it feels very much like something that was intended to be short-lived, with the first season telling a stand-alone story and the next two forming a distinct arc with a definitive climax and end-point. But the show was unexpectedly, wildly popular and was renewed multiple times; a fifth season is currently airing, with a sixth expected some time in 2021.
Unfortunately, it might have been better if the show had stuck to the British formula and ended early. Today we're going to look at each of the first four seasons seperately and pin-point where it all went wrong.
The show's opening season introduces us to protagonist Steve Arnott, the fresh-faced head of an anti-terrorism unit in the police department of an unnamed city in England. During the opening of the first episode, Steve’s unit botches a raid on an apartment complex populated by Muslim immigrants and accidentally kills an innocent man in front of his wife and infant child. The unit's superior officer corrals them into making up a story to exonerate the shooter, which Steve refuses to go along with. His career is swiftly torpedoed in retaliation.
Steve’s principled stand catches the attention of Superintendent Ted Hastings, head of AC-12, the department's internal affairs unit. Hastings needs detectives who are willing to investigate their fellow officers and withstand the hostility that comes with the job, and Steve appears to fit the bill. After reluctantly accepting the role, Steve is assigned to investigate Tony Gates, a highly-respected senior detective with a track record that seems too good to be true. Hastings suspects that Gates is fabricating his arrests and massaging evidence to make sure he gets prosecutions, but the audience is clued in early to the fact that Gates is in much dodgier territory; in fact, his personal indiscretions with a married woman have gotten him roped into a conspiracy by a criminal gang to undermine the police as a whole. Steve, working with a detective embedded in Gates’s unit as an undercover asset, enters into a dangerous cat and mouse game with Gates, who is pushed into more and more extreme actions as AC-12 closes in and the criminal conspiracy threatens his family.
This first season establishes what will become Line of Duty's recurring MO: a two-pronged narrative that follows both the detectives of AC-12 and the target of their investigation, who is treated with a heavy dose of moral ambiguity, if not outright sympathy. Here, we're straight-up shown what the deal with Gates is and therefore know much more than Steve and the other detectives; later seasons go back and forth on how much of the “villain” is revealed to the audience, but the decision to fully pull back the curtain here works since it creates a situation where you simultaneously want the detectives to be successful at their investigation while not wanting to see Gates come to ruin at their hands; the fact that the ending does actually thread this needle successfully is impressive.
Less impressive is what would end up becoming a recurring problem in later seasons, which is that the villain ends up being a lot more interesting than the protagonists. Gates is a thrilling character to follow, a classic “good man whose relatively minor failings get him in way over his head” archetype who ends up being put into all sorts of nail-bitingly tense moral conundrums as the season progresses. The basic tension of his arc is how far he's willing to go to preserve his marriage and protect his family, and that gives the writers a lot of leeway in terms of preserving the audience's sympathy towards him even as he's directly menacing the main characters.
Said main characters are...less compelling.
The biggest liability is Steve himself, who comes across as exactly the sort of dour, fun-hating killjoy that members of AC-12 are characterized as by their fellow officers. Apart from being grouchy and filled with angst over what happened with the anti-terrorism unit, his only other personality trait is a fixation on catching Gates that quickly turns into a personal vendetta. This leads him to do a lot of very stupid shit, to the point where you start to wonder why Hastings would keep him around, as he's clearly emotionally unstable and a huge liability.
Faring better as a protagonist is Kate Fleming, one of Hastings’s star detectives who specializes in undercover work. The inherently riskier nature of her job makes Kate a much more engaging screen presence, but the show amps this up further by keeping its distance from her and treating her as something of a cypher. This mirrors the mystique her job gives her among the rest of AC-12; just as no one really seems to know who she actually is beneath the masks she wears or what draws her to such a stressful job, the audience is kept at arm’s length (this is best demonstrated by the revelation, at the very end of the season, that she has a hitherto-completely unknown husband and child).
Hastings aso takes up some of the slack on the protagonist front, as we find out that he's harbouring his own secrets--namely financial ruin, a rapidly-disintegrating marriage as a result of said financial ruin, and lingering resentment over the poor treatment he received in his younger days as a Catholic officer in the Northern Irish police force. In fact, Hastings has enough skeletons in his closet that he seems like a prime candidate for exactly the sort of blackmail that Gates undergoes...but we'll talk about that later.
As a twisty-turny thriller that wants you to be constantly on the edge of your seat, the first season of Line of Duty is almost unparalleled. Every episode ramps up the tension significantly, as Gates is backed further and further into a corner and Steve and his allies go to greater extremes to catch him and expose the conspiracy he's been unwillingly recruited into. It actually reminded me very strongly of the first half of Death Note (aka the good half), in that it depicts two warring brain-geniuses caught in a tense psychological battle of wits where a single mis-step by either of them could spell death. For me, that's high praise.
This season also establishes another foundational layer of the series, which is a distinctly pessimistic worldview. In the end, Gates manages to orchestrate a situation where his family are untainted by his actions and will be well looked-after in his absence, and the main criminal big-wig who was pulling his strings is captured. However, it's made clear that the bulk of the wider criminal conspiracy has gotten away scott-free and will likely never be identified. As an extra-cruel twist of the knife, Steve’s brave stand for the truth against the anti-terrorism squad ends up being totally pointless, as the shooter and the officers who lied for him walk free. Everything he's accomplished ends up feeling like a horrible pyrrhic victory, and the season leaves him walking away despondently from the local courthouse, unable to look the widow of the man his officers killed in the eye.
This attitude of “everything is fucked up, injustice reigns and the absolute best that good people can hope to accomplish is to claw small personal victories from the forces of darkness” would go on to permeate the rest of the series. In lesser hands it might have felt like too much--darkness for the sake of darkness--but here it just feels like an attitude of stark realism. If you're at all familiar with how most criminal justice systems operate, it's very difficult not to agree with Line of Duty's pessimism.
Which brings me to the subject of cop shows. I know I have a very left-leaning readership who may understandably be reluctant to get on board with a show that casts police detectives as protagonists; for reasons I'm about to go into, I would not argue with that stance. However, I will say that the show's attitude to the police isn't exactly one of unrestrained worship, portraying the criminal justice system as being composed of a handful of good people who are genuinely trying to live up to the ideals that their job is supposedly built on, surrounded by a sea of corruption, incompetence and greed.
This isn't exactly a novel or bold idea, and even a lot of pro-police fiction takes this stance, since you can use it to blame problems on individual bad actors while exonerating the wider system, but Line of Duty's almost cosmic pessimism doesn't allow for this redemption narrative, as the good cops’ actions frequently come to absolutely nothing in the end. The impression you get is that the police, as an institution, are basically rendered pointless because more powerful forces will always intervene to get their friends off the hook or bury inconvenient evidence; the only thing the cops are really effective at is punishing the weak and powerless for relatively minor infractions.
This is a viewpoint I can get behind--because it's to a large extent factually true--but before I get too excited, I must point out that Line of Duty tackles other social issues as well, and frequently bungles them.
A recurring location in the series is “the Bog”, an area of public housing (they're called council estates in Ireland, and I guess the equivalent in America would be Projects) that's considered so dangerous, patrol officers have a standing policy of never leaving their cars when they enter it. In case you're not aware, the UK has for several decades been fomenting a horrendous streak of classism which views people living in public housing as at best lazy moochers, at worst violent inhuman psychopaths (the book Chavs: The Demonization of The Working Class provides an overview of this). Line of Duty tries to tackle this classism, and the results are...let's say “mixed.”
Our main viewpoint on the Bog is the comedy duo of an experienced patrol officer and her more junior partner. The veteran officer appears, judging by her accent, to be from a working class background herself, while her partner is one of those ridiculously posh English people who seem like they were produced in a cloning facility. The veteran is also uncouth, lazy, constantly eating or talking about eating unhealthy food, and implied to be narrow-minded and bigoted (she unknowingly comes closer to bringing down the entire criminal conspiracy than any of the main characters have as of the end of season four, but misses the chance because the guy pointing her to the crucial evidence has down syndrome and she won't take him seriously). On the other hand, Posh Guy is a sensitive and open-minded sort who seems to want to do right by people. At the end of the season, he gets out of the patrol car and takes a stroll through the Bog, saying hello to people and generally acting like a Proper Copper while upbeat music plays in the background.
And, look. I get it. The basic point the series is making here--that the police would be much better off treating people in poor areas with dignity and respect instead of acting like an occupying military force in a warzone--is obviously correct and something I agree with. But the execution, as well as jarring horrendously with the rest of the season's bleak tone (to the point where I strongly suspect it was inserted at the behest of channel executives or something), feels incredibly patronizing and comes off as hugely insincere given that the rest of the series’ treatment of the working class hews exactly to popular stereotypes about the poor.
Let's take a look at another example. At one point, our heroes end up interrogating a young boy who runs messages and does some other minor work for the criminal gang that's blackmailing Gates. The scene weirdly fixates on the cadre of social workers and advocates who sit in on the questioning, and who end up blocking the police and forcing them to wrap the whole thing up without achieving anything. I'm really not sure what the series was trying to get at here. It almost seems like the writers are suggesting that the kid should have been left alone with the detectives so they could get the truth out of him through more “convincing” means; maybe that's being too harsh, but at the very least, the impression you get is that all these taxpayer-funded resources are going to waste since the boy's mother is a flighty, irresponsible chav who can't be bothered to raise him properly.
Now, the kid is genuinely a horrible little shit--we see him and his awful friends harassing vulnerable people in the Bog for the lulz--and it's true that there are totally dysfunctional children in the world who probably aren't going to be helped by anything short of removal to a different environment. But the show never provides any sort of solution to this. You can't simultaneously argue, as the show seems to be doing here, that deprived areas are bad environments that turn kids into violent little monsters, and also that government resources spent on helping them are a waste of time and money and they should just be left to fend for themselves.
(The second season also touches on the subject of juvenile delinquency, but handles it with a bit more sensitivity and nuance, so I get the feeling someone yelled at the writers over this).
The season also tackles race, but takes a somewhat more even-handed approach to it. My alarm bells started going off when the investigation into Gates was hampered by police commanders who want AC-12 to go easy on him because he's their only high-ranking black detective and it would look bad if he got arrested. However, the person delivering these instructions is another super-posh robot, and one who is consistently portrayed throughout the series as an ineffective fop who's way too concerned with maintaining the police force's public image and schmoozing it up with celebrities and politicians. He's also implied to be incredibly racist himself, judging by the way he talks about Gates and the fact that he's treating him like a mascot to make the police look good.
So, I don't know. It comes very close to being a parable about pernicious social justice warriors getting in the way of good police work, but on the other hand the season as a whole is extremely sympathetic towards Gates, whereas the guy pushing Hastings to back off ends up being allied with a child trafficking ring in a later season, so, like, we're probably not meant to be on his side.
All these issues aside, the first season of Line of Duty is a well-written and tightly constructed thriller that had me binging episodes as fast as Netflix could stream them. The season is mostly a stand-alone tale, the writers probably working on the assumption that this was all they were going to get, but they did insert a sequel hook in the form of “the caddy”, a mole within the police force who's been groomed for the role from childhood by the same gang leader who was blackmailing Gates. Our heroes spend most of the season trying to find out who the caddy is, at one point thinking it might even be Gates, but ultimately fail to discover his identity. A last-minute Thrilling Twist reveals that it's one of the detectives on Gates’s unit, who's just been offered a transfer into AC-12 by Hastings.
Dun dun duuuuuun! How will our heroes handle this???
The second season opens with Steve and Kate assigned to a new case: a confidential informant and several police officers have been killed in a brutal attack while en route to a secure location, and Hastings suspects Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton, the only survivor, of orchestrating the whole thing. The investigation proves difficult due to Denton being a way more cunning and formidable opponent than anyone suspected, and also because there are wider forces at play--the informant who got immolated in the attack was none other than the gang leader who was blackmailing Gates last season. His mole within the unit, Detective Inspector “Dot” Cottan, is now working for higher elements of the criminal conspiracy, and if he's willing to have his old boss torched for the sake of his secret second career than what else is he willing to do?
Meanwhile, we also follow along with Denton as she comes under police scrutiny. But unlike last season, we aren't made privy to whether she's actually guilty, and the show has a grand old time zig-zagging back and forth with the audience's sympathies, one minute making you really think she might just be a victim of bad luck and the next revealing that she's far more ruthless and dangerous than she appears. But did she actually do what Hastings and AC-12 suspect her of doing? What exactly happened on that fateful night?
Denton is the absolute standout of this season. She's by far the best villain the show has yet introduced, a truly complex character who leaves you constantly guessing as to her real motivations. The show draws you into her world in a way that's almost seductive, making you sympathize with her as her colleagues blame her for the deaths of the detectives before showing her doing something objectively violent and alarming. I found myself desperately hoping she was innocent, simply because the show had done such a good job of making me sympathize with her early on, only to be shocked and almost betrayed when she did something horrible to one of the other characters.
Cleverly, this mirrors the reactions of Steve, who is seduced by Denton in a more literal manner. This initially made me dislike him even more, but the writers pull off something clever by having him turn out to not be as trusting and gullible as he seems. There’s an almost meta quality to this, as though the writers saw people criticizing him for being a fool last season and here have him say, almost directly to the camera, “Actually I'm not as stupid as I seem, I've got a plan here.”
(The whole gambit does eventually end up biting him in the ass, but it does so for reasons he couldn't reasonably have predicted ahead of time).
The other reason Denton is such a compelling character is that she's an enormous badass who runs rings around AC-12, effortlessly deflecting every single investigative effort they throw at her and usually turning things around to land them in hot water instead. She's far more proactive and aggressive than Gates was, turning this season's battle of wits from a cat and mouse game to a fast-paced fencing match where one wrong move is going to get the protagonists skewered through the heart.
In particular, I like the way she instantly sees through Kate’s latest undercover attempt. There was a real danger that Kate might have become an easy trump card for AC-12, a lazy writing shortcut to explain how they can get information they need to advance an investigation, so I thought it was admirable of the show's writers to neutralize her early on, even if it means she has to sit out much of the rest of the season.
In addition to the main plot revolving around the attack on the police convoy, there's a B-plot about Denton, who works in the missing person's department, trying to finish the case she was working on before the incident: tracking down the whereabouts of a fifteen year old girl who's gone missing. This initially seems like it's disconnected from the main story--a way to engender audience sympathy in Denton by showing her atoning for whatever sins she may or may not have committed--but as is the custom for these kinds of stories, it turns out to be the key to the main mystery.
This plotline initially put me on edge due to how the boy in the first season was handled; the girl in question, Carly Kirk, has a history of inappropriate promiscuity and ran away from a nice, loving foster home to bang older men in car parks, so you can imagine how I assumed the writers would handle that. However, it turns out not be the disaster area I had initially feared. Carly is pretty firmly cast as the victim: first the victim of a bad (and possibly abusive) childhood, and then the victim of the men she has sex with, who are depicted as being entirely and completely to blame for the illegal sexual contact occurring (as they should be). The overall feeling you get is that the system has let Carly down badly, which is a heartening perspective given that the previous season didn't seem to want to acknowledge the existence of a system at all.
The end of the season is as much of a giant downer as the first one was, with the guilty party technically brought to justice but no one truly getting what they wanted or feeling like the right thing has been done. Among the depressing failure-montage, the biggest tragedy seems to be that all of the crime-doing and inter-department squabbling tied up police resources that could have gone towards finding Carly; her last appearance in the show has her boarding a ferry out of the country, likely moving forever beyond the reach of any of the people trying to help her.
(Of course, before I give the show too much credit for its compassion, it's worth pointing out that Carly is a cute blonde girl from a middle-class background and not one of the FAT LAZY POORS from the first season's Bog; if you swapped her out with a girl from a council estate or the daughter of immigrants, I'm willing to bet the show's attitude would have been different).
Before we leave season two behind, it's worth bringing up a somewhat tasteless (or maybe just odd) plot element.
Line of Duty occasionally does that police procedural thing of taking topical plot elements from recent events and lightly fictionalizing them; and like a lot of police shows, it often doesn't seem to be doing this for any particular purpose beyond putting in something the audience will recognize. Season one obviously touched on Islamic terrorism in the UK, we'll be talking about season three's application of this trope in a moment, and season two does it as well.
Specifically, during her side-quest to find Carly, Denton runs afoul of two police officers who might have sexually abused her, and possibly other underage girls as well. Carly’s former “boyfriend” turns out to be of middle eastern descent.
If you're clued into the UK news cycle then you've already figured out what the show is getting at here; it's a reference to the “Asian grooming gangs” scandal from a while back (in the UK, “Asian” often refers to people of middle eastern, Indian or Pakistani descent, not south-east Asian). This whole topic is a minefield of police incompetence, the always-hysterical UK media and many, many racists who use it to this day to smear immigrants and refugees, so you'd expect any TV series commenting on it to tread carefully.
Line of Duty...doesn't tread carefully, in the sense that it doesn't really comment on the affair at all. It's not clear whether the guy who was grooming Carly is meant to be literally connected somehow to the men from the scandal, or whether he's part of some other group of “asian” men going around exploiting young girls, or if he's just one lone creep who happens to have the wrong skin colour. Given the reactionary streak lurking beneath the show's surface, I get the feeling this was originally intended to be a more explicit “the brown people are raping our girls” screed before someone else in the creative process came in and softened it.
Or maybe no one involved had any particular goal beyond putting something controversial into the plot for the sake of controversy. Given how the next season's ripped-from-the-headlines plot element plays out, I'm inclined to believe this is closer to the truth.
As is now the custom, season three opens with AC-12 tackling a new case, this time a highly topical police shooting that Hastings suspects wasn't justified. This time around, we the audience know it wasn't, as we get to see elite firearm team leader Danny Waldron chase down a suspect he's supposed to be preventing from carrying out a gangland assassination, only to inexplicably shoot the man in cold blood as soon as he surrenders. Waldron pressures his subordinates into backing up his version of events, but none of them are happy about it and it's only a matter of time before one of them cracks.
While investigating the shooting, Steve makes the startling discovery that Waldron’s victim is linked to a child abuse ring that operated out of a shady boy's home--a home that Waldron is a graduate of. It looks like the seemingly random shooting might have been an act of revenge...which puts Waldron into dangerous territory, as the men who terrorized him in his youth appear to be connected to the vast criminal conspiracy that AC-12 has been dealing with since season one, and they're not going to let old crimes interfere with their business in the present.
But wait! In a shocking twist, it turns out that Waldron isn't really this season's villain at all! It's actually Dot, the mole who's been pulling strings in the background since the beginning! As the investigation threatens to unmask him, he's backed into a corner and contemplates turning to some truly diabolical means to save himself--including framing Steve for his own crimes.
BUT WAIT! In yet another shocking twist, it turns out there are two villains this time around! Lindsay Denton has finagled her way out of prison early, and the detectives of AC-12 suspect that she's coming for revenge, throwing a wild card into an already tense situation. But thanks to her investigation into Carly’s disappearance from last season, she has information that could sink Dot and thwart the conspiracy once and for all. Which side she ultimately chooses will not only alter the course of AC-12’s latest mission, but decide the fate of several of our main characters.
So as you can tell, there's a lot going on here. I strongly suspect that Line of Duty was originally conceived as a three-season arc, and you can mostly tell by how the show pulls out all the stops and cranks all the dials up to eleven for this season; there's a real sense that everything that's happened in the story so far is coming together into one singular narrative, while careening towards a conclusion that might see several established characters either dead or locked away for a long time.
The decision to bring back Denton was a daring one, as it risks making the end of season two feel pointless, but the show manages to pull it off. Partly this is just because Denton is a really compelling character and it's great to see her again, but her return also works because her story felt somewhat unfinished at the end of the second season. While we found out what happened with the police convoy and her level of culpability in it, we never really got to see behind the series of masks and false personas she wore to the person underneath.
Season three finally pulls back the layers of deception and double-agent shenanigans; the way Denton’s true self and loyalties are revealed is both tragic and thrilling, and I like that the show manages to tie the end of her character arc into the larger conspiracy narrative, making the culmination of her character development the story beat that sends everyone hurtling into the endgame.
And boy howdy, what an endgame it is. This season's grand finale is the kind of television that the phrase “edge of your seat” was made for, a taught, slickly-produced action sequence that wouldn't look at all out of place in a big Hollywood blockbuster. Excitingly, Steve gets totally sidelined for the whole thing, leaving objectively-better-protagonist Kate to do all the heavy lifting; here “heavy lifting” means strapping on a bullet-proof vest, grabbing an assault rifle and chasing down a car full of criminal goons after a shootout right in the middle of AC-12’s offices.
The show up to this point has been so downbeat and willing to kill people off with no fanfare that there's a real possibility the whole thing will end with Kate getting unceremoniously shot in the head while the bad guys drive off into the sunset. That doesn't end up happening, but I still had to pause the episode several times to calm my nerves during the climactic moments. Eat your heart out, Game of Thrones.
Even before the final episode, the season barrels along at lightning speed, throwing twist after twist into the mix as Steve and Dot play another tense game of moves and countermoves like he and Gates did in the first season, except this time, Steve doesn't even know who his opponent is. It's great stuff, even if Steve is still a weenie who it's hard to get particularly invested in.
One potential weakness in the season is Dot, who has already been comprehensively established as a total asshole willing to backstab his colleagues and throw anyone under the bus to protect himself, which makes the series’ usual empathetic approach towards its villains non-viable. The writers wisely seem to have realized that it was way too late to start back-pedalling on that now, but they do manage to build a bit of audience empathy by making Dot start to crack under the strain of the investigation in a very relatable and human way. The fact that he was literally trained from childhood to do this, by a man who seems to have served as something of a surrogate father, means there's also an open question as to how much blame he really deserves for his actions.
A riskier gambit comes in the form of giving him a crush on Kate. This could have ended up feeling heavy-handed, but I feel like the season pulls it off, partly by having his feelings go mostly un-reciprocated so he ends up looking like an awkward moony-eyed schoolboy rather than a vicious criminal with a secret heart of gold. It also neatly sets up the events of the climactic showdown, which needed a pretty firm narrative foundation to feel believable.
So, remember how I talked about Line of Duty's not-very-adept handling of social issues? This season is partly about institutional child abuse; a nice, easy topic that it's all but impossible to fuck up.
But seriously though, they kind of fuck it up.
I'm ambivalent about (and really don't have the experience to comment on) Waldron’s portrayal and the extent to which his past abuse has messed him up. The show is very sympathetic towards him, but on the other hand the way he turns into a violent revenge-murderer feels cartoonish to me, as though PTSD is a sort of mental lycanthropy and once it's triggered he instantly goes from a disciplined professional who's mostly functional and mentally healthy (major hangups around sex notwithstanding) to The Punisher.
What I do feel comfortable commenting on is the show's use of real life garbage-monster Jimmy Saville, who is all but directly stated to have been a “client” of the child abusers running Waldron’s home; the show even gins up a photo of Saville meeting one of the home's political allies to drive this home.
Whenever you do this sort of thing, you walk a really fine line between respect and tastelessness, and in this instance I feel like Line of Duty blunders straight over it (more like Line of Bad Taste am I right). I really wonder how Saville's victims felt if they got wind of this.
On a more personally irritating level (and if I can be allowed to get self-indulgent for a moment), this is the season where Line of Duty touches on the topic of disability and--all together now--doesn't do a great job.
Back in season one, we're introduced to Nigel Morrison, one of the detectives on Gates’s unit who walks with a cane and a pronounced limp following some unspecified injury in the past. He pops up again this season after stumbling onto some evidence that could unmask Dot, and we're treated to the Shocking Twist that he's been faking his disability for benefits and an early retirement.
Speaking as someone who also walks with a cane due to mobility issues, I rolled my eyes so hard at this that my retinas nearly detached. “The disabled person was faking it” is an extremely lazy twist that hack writers like to throw into stories when they can't think of anything else to do, and its inclusion here is an early warning sign that the Line of Duty writers were maybe starting to run out of ideas (a suspicion that season four would go on to confirm).
But more than that, I feel like this kind of thing is downright irresponsible. The UK is currently seeing an upswing in hostility towards disabled people, driven largely by years of conservative hysteria over benefit fraud; people are already way too quick to assume that anyone with a wheelchair or a walking aid is faking it without seeing that narrative reinforced in fiction. The twist about Morrison serves absolutely no purpose beyond making a minor villain slightly skeezier, and the fact that it ended int the show intact just reinforces my belief that the show's writers aren't very critical of self-aware. Morrison retiring early on full benefits even makes it into the end of season mope montage, as though this dude defrauding social welfare is supposed to be as heinous and tragic as a gang of wealthy, powerful child molesters escaping justice.
So that's the first three seasons of Line of Duty. Taken together, we've got a textbook Problematic Fav on our hands, a show that I hugely enjoyed despite acknowledging that it's got a lot of regressive politics and just generally doesn't handle anything besides police intrigue very well.
And then season four came along.
The third season of Line of Duty didn't exactly wrap everything up in a neat bow. The big criminal conspiracy wasn't really anywhere closer to being taken down than it had been before, and the ending was typically ambiguous and morose.
At the same time the conspiracy's ability to directly interfere with the police was neutralized, all of the recurring villains were dead or behind bars, the plot threads that had been ongoing since the first season were wrapped up, and it ended with a climax that the show was unlikely to ever top; it felt like a natural place for the characters to declare that they had struck as much of a blow against the conspiracy as they were ever going to (something they had already decided several times previously) and walk away from it in order to focus all of their attention on the individual cases assigned to AC-12.
But nope, evidently someone decided the show had to keep raising the stakes, and as such season four doubles down on the conspiracy stuff, to the point that the new internal affairs case is almost entirely subsumed into it.
Said internal affairs case is aimed at DCI Roz Huntley (played by Westworld's Thandie Newton), a detective in charge of the investigation into a suspected serial killer. After months of fruitlessly trying to get the guy to confess, Huntley is pressured into faking evidence by a higher-up (the super posh dude who stymied the investigation into Gates back in season one). One of her colleagues reports his suspicions to AC-12, and soon the hunt(ley) is on. Huntley does not take too well to being investigated, one thing leads to another, and she ends up murdering a police forensic investigator; this does not lessen the suspicion against her, as you can imagine.
If that summary of the case sounds kind of perfunctory and uninteresting, well...you've identified the problem.
Roz Huntley is by far the least interesting seasonal “villain” the show has had yet. We're treated to more or less the full circumstances behind the events that lead to her being investigated; we know exactly what she did and why. Unlike with Gates, there's no real moral ambiguity to make up for the lack of mystery. She just gets pressured into doing something unethical, then makes the situation infinitely worse by accidentally killing someone while trying to cover it up. AC-12 basicallt figure out what happened immediately, to the point where there's never any real doubt that they're going to catch her.
The reason Huntley's plotline is so shallow is that the show is actually interested in bringing the conspiracy plot fully into the limelight; it does this by furiously retconning a whole bunch of stuff that happened previously, starting with the end of the last season. Apparently, Dot used his dying breaths to try to finger a high-ranking police officer involved in the conspiracy, but only got as far as revealing that their name starts with a “H” before expiring.
This could not have happened. We saw Dot’s entire death from start to finish in the last episode of season three; there were no cut-aways or scene breaks where this confession nonsense could have been inserted. The writers just made some bullshit up because they clearly hadn't planned on having to come up with anything past the third season.
This is hacky and stupid enough, but then the show starts pulling all sorts of other stuff into the conspiracy plot. A big plot element in the first season is a dude in a ski mask killing someone and then stashing the body in a freezer, which is then used to blackmail Gates; at the time, it seemed reasonable to assume that Ski Mask Guy is just some random goon, and the freezer plot is something the bad guys came up with opportunistically because they happened to have a convenient dead body on hand.
Not so, says season four! In fact, getting guys in ski masks (specifically ski masks, like it's a uniform or something) to blackmail people with frozen bodies is an established MO of the conspiracy. This is exactly as ridiculous and impossible to take seriously as it sounds.
But there's more! Season four broadens the Line of Duty Televisual Universe with an honest to god evil Freemason conspiracy.
No, I'm not shitting you. It turns out a bunch of high-ranking police officers, including AC-12's own Hastings, are Freemasons and may or may not be conspiring with each other to help out the criminal bad guys. This eventually ends up being kind of a red herring, but the fact that the show brings it up at all is breathtakingly stupid. I had to rewind the scene where this is introduced (where Steve notices Hastings using a Freemason handshake, which he can apparently identify off the top of his head for some reason) multiple times and turn on subtitles, just to make sure I was hearing the dialogue correctly.
Speaking of Hastings, the budding detectives among you might have noticed that this season revolves around a high-ranking mole whose surname begins with “H”; Hastings is a high-ranking police officer whose surname begins with an “H”. The protagonists bring this up early on but dismiss it, then when the Freemason nonsense comes up he starts to look a little more suspicious, but ultimately the evidence points to the posh guy who leaned on Huntley to fabricate evidence, and he's discovered dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Then Hastings declares the investigation over and done with in a way that feels a tad too perfunctory, and the final shot of the last episode is of him staring menacingly at Steve and Kate through the blinds in his office window, like the shifty-eyed dog from that episode of The Simpsons. At which point I nearly snapped my tablet in half.
The fifth season has only started airing, so I obviously don't know if the show is really going to pull the trigger on this, but if it does then it will officially be Line of Duty's jumped-the-shark moment, assuming the evil Freemason conspiracy wasn't already.
We've regularly been privy to Hastings’s point of view throughout the series, and there's never been a hint that he's anything other than completely loyal to the police and utterly, ruthlessly devoted to catching and punishing corrupt officers. For him to turn out to be a mole would mean his character has been a total fabrication from the start, as well as rendering 100% of his actions up to this point totally nonsensical (for one thing, if he was in on it with Dot then why didn't he steer the investigation in season three away from him?).
Twists where it turns out someone is evil should make you go “Oooh, he was the villain! All that slightly odd stuff he was doing before suddenly makes sense now!” They should not make you say “Seriously? Him? What?”.
I mentioned that Hastings is shown to have a lot of liabilities in the first season, and I think the writers were probably considering this twist as a possibility early on; if so, they obviously decided not to go with it, and it's now far too late to change direction and do it anyway. Twists like this need a proper narrative framework to not feel like they're coming completely out of left field, and Line of Duty hasn't built up a single bit of that framework.
Even worse than these narrative mis-steps is season four's insistence on upping the ante and escalating over what came before. When someone started firing guns off in AC-12's offices at the end of season three, it was shocking and climactic and really made it feel like this was the big grand finale where Shit Just Got Real; when there's another gunfight in the middle of the AC-12 offices at the end of season four, it just feels kind of silly and overblown. This need to keep topping the season that came before it can't lead to anything good; if the show makes it to a seventh season, I fully expect it to be revealed that the Queen is on the conspiracy.
I've just spent a good few paragraphs harshly criticizing the fourth season, so in the interest of fairness I might as well kick it while it's down and point out that it's also kind of racist.
Line of Duty has thus far had four people of colour in prominent roles: Gates from season one, an Indian patrol officer introduced in season two who Steve is mentoring for a potential promotion to detective, Roz Huntley, and a new AC-12 recruit introduced in season four when Steve is injured. Gates was being blackmailed due to his past adultery, Steve’s protoge is bullied into betraying AC-12 by the posh evil guy, Roz is also pressured into doing something shady and then semi-accidentally murders a dude, and the new guy in season four is wildly incompetent and then gets recruited by the bad guys. In other words, literally everyone of any significance who isn't white turns out to be morally compromised in some way.
It's true that none of these people are outright evil--Gates ends up being portrayed as basically heroic--but it's still bad when you can guess how trustworthy someone is based on their skin tone. I'm not suggesting the writers did this intentionally, but it's still not a good look.
On the flipside, this season touches on disability again and manages to not piss me off (maybe someone yelled at the writers about this as well). At one point Steve gets tossed down a flight of stairs and suffers a severe blow to the noggin, resulting in a temporary coma. During his recovery from this, he ends up having to use a wheelchair and crutches. I'm not going to say that the depiction is really fresh or original--it leans a little towards the tragedy-porn end of the tragedy/inspiration spectrum of disability stereotypes--but it's handled with sensitivity and manages to not bring up benefit fraud even once, so there's that. And Steve zooming around the AC-12 offices in his wheelchair while barking commands like Captain Picard makes him a somewhat more compelling character than he's been up to this point.
After *checks word-count* seven thousand? Did I really just write seven thousand words about a cop show?
Anyway, after seven thousand words, what conclusion can we arrive at when it comes to Line of Duty?
Honestly, writing this article has been a bit of a journey of discovery for me, as it's forced me to critically analyse the show with more scrutiny than when I was just mindlessly consuming it on Netflix. Looking back over what I've written, there are a lot more negative points than I had anticipated. In particular, the show's barely-concealed conservative worldview has turned out to be a lot more prominent than I thought.
From a purely narrative standpoint, I don't need to reiterate that the first three seasons tell an excellent yarn while the fourth drives right off a cliff and doesn't bode well for whatever comes next. But is Line of Duty's story so compelling that it should be forgiven for blindly reflecting reactionary ideas that have the potential to cause literal, tangible harm to people?
I'm not sure any story could be that good. At its best, Line of Duty comes close, but that's only relevant to the discussion if you're the sort of critic who's willing to pluck out elements of exciting drama or strong storytelling and react to them without context, which I'm not.
...You know what, I was going to try to pull this into some sort of coherent thesis statement, but on reflection a review with lots of ups and downs that goes on too long and then sputters to a disappointing conclusion is exactly what this show deserves.