Line of Duty: what does it all mean, really?

Tonight may be the final episode of Line of Duty series six, but it’s the familiar tale of institutional corruption that will endure

By Paul Flynn

2 May 2021

or Line of Duty fans, it can be hard to locate precisely where that fandom lives, why it happened and what purpose it serves. The art direction of the drama is no more exciting than a particularly tense episode of The Bill. The action takes place in the underpasses and slip-roads of a nameless city with no identifying features. This purposeful scenic mundanity spills over into the personal lives of the three lead characters, head of Police Anti-Corruption Unit AC-12, Ted Hastings and his browbeaten underlings, Steve Arnott and Kate Fleming.

We are allowed to know only skeletal details of their lives outside work. The arrival of Arnott’s facial hair at the beginning of the current sixth season constituted a seismic character switch-up. A hint of Fleming’s lone possible love interest was introduced with no more than a single shot of her patting another police officer’s hand, before swiftly shutting the story down.

‘Some weeks there has barely been a line of separation between the closing beats of the show and the start of News at Ten.’

Line of Duty’s focal trio have become national treasures by dint of their inert, unchanging natures. They are constant – allergic to glamour, verbosity and sophistication. They wear polyester and call one another “mate”.’ They are here to get a job done, and that job is decency.

The plainer their surroundings, the more hysteria they encourage – a game the show plays with its audience expertly. This Sunday, 10million+ viewers will sit on nail-bitten tenterhooks for the concluding episode of the season, shouting “Mother of God” at one another over the internet, feverishly speculating on the spelling of the word “definitely” and who, for Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey’s sake is “H”? There are now whole codified patterns of behaviour attributable to Line of Duty fans, entrenched as deeply as those of a football club or religion.

Line of Duty has hit a mass public button. It is a phenomenon. Some of this season’s escalation in interest is reflective of the strange days we’re living through. The pandemic lockdowns have heightened our collective need for shared experience. In the absence of pubs, gigs, nightclubs, cinemas, theatres and major sporting events, television has been its sole entertainment beneficiary, elevating shows which would once have been revered into something more like community lifelines. They held families together as we tried to make sense of seeing one another mostly on screens. The line between public and private broadcast, in which we’ve come to obsess over colleague’s Zoom backdrops, is never more indivisible than when set against the modest backcloth of Line of Duty.

In the absence of other communal activity, the fandom bestowed on premium television drama has filled some of the past 12 months’ gaping connectivity chasm. Lockdowns have further coincided with drama of an extraordinarily high quality. Normal People nailed a generation defined by its anxiety. I May Destroy You expertly aggregated the shift in sexual temperature post #metoo. It’s A Sin pointed a direct finger at how far we’ve come with LGBT+ equality and why that needed to happen. Now Line of Duty is satisfying our appetite for bringing the corrupt among us to justice.

I May Destroy You: close to home
Image by Alamy

As the sixth season has progressed, the drama has chimed closer with each passing episode to its political moment. Some weeks, there has barely been a line of separation between the closing beats of the show and the start of News at Ten. First the Met’s manhandling of the Sarah Everard vigil and the establishment huddle to relieve it swiftly of blame or accountability. Then Prince Philip’s death and the re-introduction of Prince Andrew to public oratory, despite his unwillingness to offer assistance to the FBI in its ongoing investigations into an international sex trafficking ring. Then the Lex Greensill lobbying scandal. Now Boris Johnson’s curtains, his alleged speculation on the coronavirus death-toll and The Chatty Rat. None of which could feel any more Line of Duty were it delivered via burner phone in the middle of an intercepted car journey.

Our investment in Line of Duty is, on the one hand, the complex thrill of following three lone wolves doing their bit to uncover fictional corruption in and around a faceless office building called The Hill. But a bit of it is wondering how the Jennifer Arcuri revelations disappeared so fast, too.

On the wider international stage, the US has for the first time begun tabling open discussions of defunding the Police, prompted by the trial and conviction of serving officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd while on duty. If the implicit suggestion of the show is that all institutions in which the public should feel trust are a botch job of cover-ups, backtracking and failures of transparency, Sunday’s climax episode could not arrive any timelier.

Line of Duty writer Jed Mercurio knows all this. He has built a confident enough beast to spell it out. In one memorable, short monologue this season, our flawed strawberry blond hero, Ted Hastings, clenched his freckled fists and looked to the sky in the HQ of his bosses, Andrea Wise and Rohan Sindhwani.

“I am attempting to uphold standards in public office,” he told them, about their ongoing public support for another dodgy Chief. “God give me strength, a barefaced liar promoted to the highest office. When did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?’

As Sunday’s conclusive episode threatens to tie up the “H” storyline, blowing the whole house of cards asunder, there is a further, irresistible twist to Line of Duty’s playful cat and mouse chase of trust in the Establishment. Who really wins in the search for decency? What small details we are let in on the lives of Hastings, Arnott and Fleming suggests anyone but them. As it stands after episode six, Hastings is a harassed divorcé with a history of money problems, facing enforced retirement under the unscrupulous meddling of his professional Grim Reaper, Patricia Carmichael. Arnott is impotent, addicted to painkillers and still working his way through a rotating wardrobe of snooker player’s waistcoats. Poor old Kate Fleming has one friend (Arnott), a child she barely sees and the very occasional half lager by way of comfort for it all.

The cloud of doom hanging over the good folk of Anti-Corruption Unit AC-12 never comes as a surprise. It isn’t meant to. Line of Duty’s special skill is in recalibrating the biblical morality tales between good and bad, virtue and vice. It is about testing the boundaries of our ethics, asking difficult questions in difficult times.

The cross-generational drama is the inverse of all those superhero stories that rotate around the one basic premise that if only superhuman powers existed, we might save the world. Hastings, Arnott and Fleming are notably flesh and blood. They are drawn together by stoic principles and their shared understanding of the futility in trying to upend the status quo. Our three heroes will roll their sleeves up, have a go, achieve what they can against staggering odds and thankless institutional disadvantage, then return home each night, once again to their empty rooms.

The one flicker of romance in Line of Duty? Its sole redemptive clause is that all three beautiful faces of AC-12 are doing more than most of us could dream of, given the circumstances.

(Header images all sourced from Alamy)

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