Mother of God, let that be the end of Line of Duty

The latest series of Jed Mercurio’s hit BBC drama has piled on the plot: from seemingly infinite convoy attacks, to endless goons in Range Rovers, to a bottomless trove of suspicious packages. Line of Duty is giving the people what they claim to want, writes Ed Cumming, but enough is enough

Monday 03 May 2021 07:33
<p>Adrian Dunbar as Superintendent Ted Hastings in Line of Duty</p>

Adrian Dunbar as Superintendent Ted Hastings in Line of Duty


ll through this series I was convinced Line of Duty was building up to a knock-em-out finale. A denouement so explosive and climactic that there was no way the series could return. The full Conan Doyle, shoving all of AC-12 over the waterfall. A hail of bullets. Maybe a dead man’s switch dug out of the Bodyguard trunk. It seemed like the sort of thing the writer-creator Jed Mercurio might relish. After six series, record viewing figures and mostly gleaming reviews, there’s not much left to prove.

The script kept hinting at it, too. As usual, Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) assumed the mantle of “metaphor for the programme”. He was told he’d been playing the same tune for nearly 10 years. Interviewing Jo Davidson (Kelly Macdonald), he asked if we could all get on with it. He was the “old battle”, grinding out one last case before he headed out to pasture. Wasn’t he? At the start of the final episode, Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) said to Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), of their erstwhile gaffer, “he knows his time’s nearly up”. Everything was in place for the curtain to fall.

Despite the end-of-term feel of the closing moments, as Terry Boyle was reunited with his family and Kate and Steve finally made it to the pub, this didn’t feel like the end of the line. Those who were hoping that one of the inner crew would reveal themselves as the supervillain were disappointed. After all the shenanigans and conspiracy, in the end a surprising amount rested on trusting the audience would assume nobody with a Brummie accent could be a master criminal. It worked on me! It also felt a bit flat. Clearly the intent was to make a broader point that in the end politics trumps all, and institutionalised corruption will continue wherever it is in the bosses’ interests to sweep it under the carpet.

It was a minor note to finish on. Whatever Line of Duty’s limitations, few programmes come close to it as a demonstration of pure plotting. It relies heavily on one camera technique, the lingering look on a character after the person they were talking to has left the room. Into those silences, the viewer is free to project furiously. He’s up to something! No, she’s up to something! But every scene moves things along. Even the fleeting moments of personal backstory, like Steve’s back trouble and loneliness, are subordinated to the whodunnit. Part of the reason there were so many theories around about whether one of the AC-12 team was “H” was that nobody could believe they had been driven along for six series by three such boring leads. Hastings is an assemblage of intractability and folksy one-liners. Fleming’s brave but witless. Arnott’s key move is to put on a bad waistcoat and take a pill for his dicky back, like an ageing children’s party entertainer.

It’s a challenge to the viewer. “You claim to like ‘character’,” Mercurio says, fixing you in the eye. “You claim to be interested in ‘relationships’. But what you really like is plot. And that’s what you’re going to get.” Thick lashings of events, heaped up on other events. Infinite convoys gone wrong. Endless goons in Range Rovers. Unending suspicious packages. The genius of the interrogation scenes, with their loud buzzer and their lawyers and federation representatives, is that they give the script a chance to simply go over all the events that have already happened. That’s why it doesn’t matter that often one side of the dialogue is “no comment”.

Ten million viewers agree. At times, Line of Duty has reminded me of that child’s game where you alternately pile your hands on top of each other on a table. Every time AC-12’s enquiries remove a hand, another hand arrives on top. The most delicious reappearance was Patricia Carmichael (Anna Maxwell Martin), the ice-bitch from hell, gliding into the office to haul back these maniacs. Everyone needs a Carmichael in their life. Surely she, too, was up to something? Or was it her boss? It was exhausting, especially as the door was left ajar for more to come. Even if crime doesn’t sleep, we need to. Line of Duty has proved that there is still an appetite for weekly, cliffhanger-laden, jargon-filled chaos, but that’s enough. Let that be an end of it. Mother of God.

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