The finale proves it – Line of Duty has gone from gripping to preposterous

This finale is the ropiest bit of work Jed Mercurio has ever made.

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This review contains major spoilers for the finale of series five of Line of Duty.

In the days running up to the final episode of series five of Line of Duty, several newspaper websites ran lists of questions its writer, Jed Mercurio, would need to answer as he brought his drama to a close. Things started off fairly calmly. Here were seven such questions, or eight. But then a kind of inquisitional inflation set in: here were 10 questions, or 20. By Sunday morning, I was fully expecting to be offered a list of 40, or perhaps 400, points to be clarified. Thanks to this, the prospect of watching the thing ­– all 90 minutes of it – began to seem exhausting, not to say terrifying: a test of commitment and memory I could not possibly hope to pass. 

In the end, though, most of us had only one question in our mind as the titles finally rolled, and that was: “Eh?” Wary though I am of criticising Mercurio – on social media, he has been known to throw the c-word at disobliging journalists – I think this is the ropiest bit of work he’s ever sent our way. You could almost smell the desperation: a frantic stitching born, perhaps, of the need both to give his audience something in the manner of a resolution – this season’s worm-infested apple turned out to be Gill Biggeloe (Polly Walker), the PCC lawyer with the big hair and the Nineties skirts – while at the same time keeping the identity of the bent copper ‘H’ safely protected, the better that this mystery extends into series six. 

The moment when Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) looked again at some footage of the dying Dot Cottan (Craig Parkinson) and suddenly noticed that, in addition to attempting to blink the spelling of H’s name, he was also tapping out Morse code with his fingers, was so preposterous, it was actually funny. “Tap, tap, tap, tap,” said Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), sombrely, as they showed the clip to Hastings (Adrian Dunbar). Until this point, I’d taken them for a police unit, not a scout troop (though Ted would look quite fetching in a woggle). What else, I wonder, was Dot doing as he took his last breath? 

Will we discover, next season, that in his other hand was a handkerchief he was using to send semaphore? Or maybe he will be found to have tied a series of knots in said handkerchief, each one of which symbolises…. well, something. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Kate and Steve have interpreted this jig of finger and thumb to mean that there were then four corrupt players involved with the OCG – and since only three have since been identified (Cottan, Derek Hilton and now Biggeloe), a fourth clearly remains on the loose. But you know, maybe Cottan’s fingers were simply twitching, randomly, as a man’s might be likely to in the seconds before he pegs it. 

I can’t understand why Mercurio so woefully underused Steve and Kate this time around, nor why he gave them gorgonzola lines like: “I was just doing my job.” But the failures and weirdnesses of this series are not all his fault, for the direction and the quality of its acting have also been badly awry. Older readers will remember Crossroads, the very terrible ITV soap that was famed for the laugh-out-loud reaction shots of its characters. They may also recall the photo strips in teen mags like Jackie, in which there was inevitably a hilarious shot of a girl looking Very Suspicious Indeed (usually on the grounds that her so-called best friend was about to nick her gorgeous boyfriend). 

For weeks now, I’ve thought of both Crossroads and Jackie whenever Kate and Steve have exchanged glances, or Ted has been seen to gaze out from between the slats of a blind. Kate and Steve in particular have come to seem like a parody of themselves, sitting down at the exactly same moment, repeating the words “Sir” or “Ma’am” like two robots. As for Anna Maxwell Martin’s irredeemably mannered performance as the simpering, clever-clever Carmichael, an officer brought in from elsewhere to investigate Ted, I think the least said about it, the better. Will she be back? We must hope not. Though since she still thinks Ted is bent – and we’ve seen him loitering, yet again, with a fat, brown envelope under his arm – the betting is that, alas, she will. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes