Digital Editor Conrad Duncan reviews BBC1’s smash hit Line of Duty, and whether its magnificence is verging on madness
Note: this article contains spoilers for Line of Duty Series 4
So after weeks of theories and speculation, it turns out that the mystery of ‘Balaclava Man’ was simply a MacGuffin for the wider conspiracy that’s hung over Line of Duty since its beginning. That twist was unlikely to be very surprising to most viewers, as the show has always been about ‘catching bent coppers’ more than it is about the crimes that lead to them. However, what was more surprising was how clearly Sunday’s finale showed that Line of Duty is barely a programme about police work anymore.
The crucial evidence that allowed AC-12 to catch DCI Roz Huntley might have been discovered through investigating the most minute details of her whereabouts but ultimately it was her own confession that cracked the case. In a break from tradition, it wasn’t so much expert police work that saved AC-12 as it was the guilty conscience of their suspect finally getting the better of herself. What then followed was an action-movie showdown that was unbearably tense but also a million miles away from the precise interrogation scenes that the show has become famous for. While the change of tone was satisfying and well-handled, it was also symbolic of a shift in this series towards a style of TV that takes realism with a pinch of salt.
It has to be said that I still love Line of Duty, and have found the whole of this series to be deliriously entertaining. However, it can’t be ignored that this series has asked its audience to suspend belief more so than ever before, and old fans have had every right to complain that their favourite show has been ‘dumbed down’. Sunday’s finale may have gone at a breakneck pace to fill in some clear plot holes, but there were still plot points left that required a stretch of imagination to follow.
Most obviously, how did Huntley manage to keep her festering wound a secret from her whole team as well as AC-12 for so long? What was the logic behind Steve’s attack, considering it wouldn’t have stopped the investigation into Nick Huntley or Balaclava Man? And at what point did Jamie become a mole for ACC Derek Hilton? Before he fed his password details to Maneet or after? If it’s the former then what was the point of Maneet being a spy as well? If it’s the latter then why did he become corrupt? I’m sure you could come up with perfectly reasonable answers to all of these questions but the problem remains that the viewer is frequently expected to fill in the blanks themselves.
While it would be unfair to say that Line of Duty doesn’t make sense anymore, it has been getting dangerously close to being implausible. Yet, despite these issues, I’ve found this series to be as compelling as anything on TV in recent years and judging by the show’s ratings, many people would agree with me.
Clearly water-tight plotting isn’t the thing that’s made Line of Duty so popular recently so it’s worth looking at what the show has done so well this year to draw viewers in. As many have noted, the writing and acting consistently remains strong and its key themes have been more focussed than ever. Even if individual details of the plot might be unclear, the show has been emotionally satisfying if nothing else. Line of Duty has never really been about explaining how to catch corrupt police officers and its success is largely down to how it deals with wider, more universal themes. Guilt, betrayal, and suspicion are what have always driven this series and the way that the truth can be manipulated to convict and slander innocent people has been central to the show’s plot.
In this sense, then, Sunday night’s final twist might be the show’s masterstroke, suggesting that the ever-honourable Ted Hastings might be the ultimate puppet-master. Whether or not this turns out to be true (for the record, I doubt it’ll be that simple), the ability of Jed Mercurio and co. to put that seed of doubt in their audience’s mind is what makes Line of Duty so interesting. If one thing can be learnt from the show, it’s that we shouldn’t accept the most obvious explanation without further investigation. So with that twist in mind, what can we expect from series 5 of the show?
Firstly, we can expect a long wait, seeing as the show is now expected to air again in 2019, and secondly, we should expect to be left with some unresolved plot points, as there’s already been talk of doing a sixth series. Beyond that, Sunday’s finale suggests that next season will focus on a growing rift in AC-12 between the increasingly suspect Hastings and his colleagues, something that should be a good change for the show. After a complex and draining series, it would be wise to focus more on the internal politics of AC-12 and the prospect of DS Arnott and DS Fleming investigating their own boss, and symbolic father-figure, could easily lead to some of the show’s finest writing.
Whatever happens, it seems clear that Line of Duty is moving towards being a show about characters rather than plot which might frustrate long-time fans, even if it’ll ultimately benefit the show. There’s only so many variations on ‘catching bent coppers’ that Mercurio can logically come up with, shown by this year’s convoluted plot, and it would be a shame to see the show fall into a rut.
Series 4 of Line of Duty was undeniably entertaining but now that the dust has settled I’m not sure if I want to see another series like it again. While the twists and turns of the last six weeks have made for thrilling television, they’ve also made for a slightly unfocussed and muddled show. In aiming for the spectacular, there’s been a noticeable sense that the whole plot could fall apart at any moment. Line of Duty is still one of the best shows on television but with a little more restraint, it could be the best.
In the future, it would be good to see the show take a step back and reflect on what we know now, rather than hurtling towards another startling revelation. I’ve enjoyed every moment of this year’s ridiculous melodrama and it’s been essential viewing for anyone who cares about TV drama but going forward, I think it’s time that we were reminded that less is sometimes more with Line of Duty. Besides, regardless of whether it’s any good, I’m not sure that my heart can take much more of it.