Line of Duty is about systems and structures – but that doesn’t make it realistic

The explosion of gunplay in the third series finale was found by some to be a bathetic end. Yet the programme has often featured astonishing violence by British television standards

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Jed Mercurio, the writer of Line of Duty, is a medical doctor who came to writing for television after answering an advert in the British Medical Journal. The series that resulted, Cardiac Arrest (1994-96) was about the NHS, and was initially treated as being either a tell-all or blatant propaganda, depending on your political persuasion.

So it was not immediately obvious that Mercurio’s main interest in his writing is how systems clash; and how any system, no matter how well-intentioned or conceived, will fail because it has people in it. Line of Duty, about a police anti-corruption unit and thus bound to ask “Who will guard the guards themselves?” was always going to be Mercurio’s magnum opus.

Line of Duty started only a couple of years after Luther, and while they have since gone to very different places, the first series of both do curiously resemble each other: both are about a Northern Irish police officer of obvious integrity investigating a high-performing black British officer who is suspected of malpractice. (Perhaps there was something in the air.) But one of the significant differences between the series is that they are told from opposite ends: Luther’s protagonist is the man under investigation, and while Line of Duty plays with putting the suspects at the centre of its stories, it is inevitable that, as the series has gone on and their screen time has expanded, it’s the anti-corruption investigators of AC-12 have come to be who the programme is ultimately about.

Some characters have been both investigator and suspect (although how Craig Parkinson did not win a Bafta for his portrayal of compromised anti-corruption officer Matthew “Dot” Cottan in series three is a mystery for the ages). Series five seems set to take that even further. Cottan had been introduced to us as an underling of suspect Tony Gates, and when he joined AC-12, the audience – if not the characters – already knew he was an organised crime plant within the police. Now, though, Line of Duty is playing with the idea that AC-12’s chief, Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) is himself corrupt.

At the end of series four, Ted insists that the recently dead Assistant Chief Constable Derek Hilton was the shadowy figure known as “H”, in part because of his last initial. Yet the audience knows the fragile and manipulated Hilton was no sort of mastermind. Hastings, of course, also begins with “H”, and Ted is very keen to have this phantom’s file closed. Too keen. It’s an unnerving implication.

In truth, we have probably seen Ted alone, or talking privately with characters from whom he should have nothing to hide, too often for such a revelation to work; and the series has already offered clues of a way out of this shocking storyline. A shoe that may yet drop concerns the repeated suggestion that Ted is a Mason – Masonry being one of the many systems with which the series is concerned.

Yet one of the first things we learn about Ted is that he is Catholic, and we later see how seriously he takes his religion. In another clash of systems, Catholics can’t be Freemasons – not because of any Masonic rules, but because of the views of the Church itself. More prosaically, another senior officer, one named Hargreaves, appeared in series two as the Head of “Murder Squad”, and the same actor very briefly reprises the role at the end of series four, as if to remind the audience the character exists, and to provide an alternative suspect.

Perhaps, all this is wishful thinking. Hargreaves could be the red herring, and a “Ted as Corrupt” revelation where Line of Duty is rollercoaster is taking us, emotionally difficult though that would be. When noted American politics fanfic, The West Wing deployed the legal possibility of the US Presidency changing not only hands but also party at the voluntary invocation of the 25th amendment, it did so through the melodramatic device of the president’s young daughter being kidnapped. There’s a sense in which TV dramas are driven forward by their interest in what is procedurally or systemically possible, rather than what is humanly plausible or “realistic”.

Because, just as Luther takes place in a heightened reality which bears about as much resemblance to 21st century London as Hamlet’s Elsinore does to tenth century Denmark, Line of Duty takes place in a generic city, with generic place names, and a generic (“Central”) police force: a series that can switch its production base from Birmingham to Belfast without it being either noted or noticeable on screen has successfully cultivated an identity as being set in a “no place” and thus everywhere. A lot of television drama is realistic but essentially trivial; Line of Duty succeeds by combing the thinnest surface mimesis with a deep concern for matters of the greatest importance.

The weirdly symbolic mutilation and then infection of Thandie Newton’s Roz Huntley across the fourth series – her involvement in a murder manifested as gangrene, as literal, physical decay – should serve to make the point that the series is not aiming for “realism”. Its repeats of the spoken formalities of police interviews, of cautions and rights, are deployed symbolically rather than in absolute accordance with when they are, and are not, required in law. They have come to have the rhythm of catechism, as any viewer who has nodded as a suspect has invoked their right to be questioned only by an officer of superior rank will know. The series’ dialogue has a rhythm all its own.

The explosion of gunplay in the third series finale was found by some to be a bathetic end to an episode, and a series, that had mostly consisted of people looking nervously at one another over interview tables. Yet the programme has often featured astonishing violence by British television standards, from slit throats to people trapped against walls by still moving cars, to people thrown out of windows, and via police officers injuring themselves in order to throw blame on the person they are quite literally about to string up. In terms of tone, it would be tempting to speculate that the series is set in the purgatory in which Ted’s religion obligates him to believe, had not this territory already been explored, albeit fruitlessly, in another police series, Ashes to Ashes, within the last ten years.

The United Kingdom is currently mired in a political crisis. It is one defined by clashes between systems, and the failures of people trapped within them. Not the least of these is the incompatibility of “direct democracy” and a representative, sovereign parliament, and people’s often profound disagreements over what those and “democracy” itself actually mean. Nothing could be more timely.

It’s Jed’s world, we just live in it.

James Cooray Smith is freelance writer specialising in TV and film history.