Warning: this article contains spoilers for the final episode of Line of Duty season six
It ended with a whimper, not a bang. To be precise, it ended with 89 “no comments”, a spelling bee featuring only one word (d-e-f-i-n-i-t-e-l-y), and a lecture from Ted Hastings, now dangerously close to morphing into the Rev Ian Paisley, about greed. Tell me: has any scene in the history of television ever been more hilariously anticlimactic than the one in which we finally caught sight of the face of the person – the so-called fourth man – who had been conducted under armed guard to the AC-12 interview room? I don’t think so, though in the movies there is, of course, the bit in The Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal not some all-powerful magician, but an ageing con man operating cranky machinery.
It wasn’t Patricia Carmichael (Anna Maxwell Martin). It wasn’t Marcus Thurwell (a photograph of James Nesbitt). It wasn’t Chief Constable Philip Osborne (Owen Teale). It wasn’t even “H”, because apparently “H” never existed (I think). No, it was… bloody Ian Buckells (Nigel Boyle), the pink-faced, curly-haired, incompetent Brummie cop who sounds, when over-excited, like Pig in Pipkins (younger readers: Pipkins was a Seventies children’s TV show about a load of puppets, all of whom had regional accents – and to be honest, in recent weeks Line of Duty has, for obvious reasons, come to remind me of it more and more). Ted (Adrian Dunbar) accused DS Buckells of leading a double life, a flashy existence symbolised by a detached red brick that duly appeared on the screen of Steve Arnott’s iPad (either that, or Steve had become so bored with the dialogue, he’d been surfing Rightmove on the quiet). But he wasn’t having it. “I didn’t plan it or nothing, did I?” he finally said, at which point I think we all knew, forensic linguisticians or not, that it was indeed Buckells who had terrorised Joanne Davidson (Kelly Macdonald) by replacing the second “i” in definitely with an “a”. Oh, well. Where he’s going, there’ll be plenty of time to spend in the library.
To cut a long story short, then, there was no fourth man. No Mr Big, just a Mr Small. Osborne made a statement to the press, talking again, in his best Under Milk Wood manner, of a few rotten apples (“in future, please do buy all your fruit from Utah Watkins the farmer”). Hastings convinced Kate (Vicky McClure) and Steve (Martin Compston) that he’d just been a bit muddled when he gave all that cash to Steph Corbett, John Corbett’s widow; more bizarrely, he confessed to Carmichael that he might have been responsible for Corbett’s murder. Steve, having finally done his drug test, agreed to get help for his painkiller addiction. Kate flirted with the idea of returning to AC-12. Davidson went into witness protection, and now appears to be modelling for the Brora catalogue.
I suppose you could say that all the loose ends have been tied up, that this is now absolutely it: Line of Duty is no more. But as our blank-faced trio, the anti-Charlie’s Angels, descended from the AC-12 offices in the lift, I was all questions. Why did Carmichael go so quiet at the end? And why did Ted decide to appeal his enforced retirement? Might the two of them, Alien vs Predator, return? And what about James Nesbitt? What’s the deal when a photograph of a well-known actor is used in a series, but he never appears in person? Was he paid, or did Jed Mercurio just stand him a Guinness?
I’m still baffled – and will be for a very long time – by the astonishing weirdness of Maxwell Martin’s performance, which could not have been more mannered if Larry Olivier himself had been in the director’s seat. (“Darling, give me sarcasm! Wrap me in it, like some itchy, woollen blanket”.) And what about the writing? Oh my ears. No sooner had we recovered from Kate’s “I haven’t got the foggiest what’s going on!” – personally, that’s what I always say when a gun is pointed at me – than we had to deal with Ted’s “No one makes mugs out of AC-12!”
This morning, writing this in the cool light of day, I find, too, that I cannot stop thinking about the very final moments of the series. Davidson, when we caught up with her just before the titles rolled, had already found a lovely redhead with whom to share her labrador and country cottage. I mean… did she use Bumble, or what? (And we thought you dreamed of Kate, Jo.) Mercurio’s fondness for filling the viewer in at the end of his series with official-sounding subtitles – “her present whereabouts are classified” – has always been pretty strange (it’s only a story, Jed!). But in this instance, it was odder than ever. The last subtitle informed us that AC-12’s power to tackle corruption has (note the present tense) never been weaker. What does this mean? Is it a metaphor? Is Mercurio trying to tell us something about our present times? Does it have anything at all to do with Boris Johnson? I really don’t know – just as I don’t know, at this point, how to rank Line of Duty in the pantheon of TV police dramas. It was, for a while, the greatest cop show ever made – and then, suddenly, it wasn’t any more. Like I say, whimpers all round. Especially from me.