Jesus Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey, I think one can say that the ending of Line of Duty was controversial. Years of tension, deaths, twists, lost hands, lost lovers all culminating in, wait for it: Ian Buckells, that rather dull bloke with curly hair.
One can’t really throw too much shade at Jed Mercurio. He has successfully kept the nation entertained for nearly ten years. Dropping the baton at the end isn’t great but to get so far still holding it, and wielding it so well, is amazing. That doesn’t mean the clang as it hit the ground can be ignored, though. He still dropped it.
A reason that things slipped from Jed’s grasp was that he didn’t realise that the show he was finishing was no longer the same show as the one he had started with.
Series one of Line of Duty is a thriller. It’s about tension and suspense, the fear of being found out. The stakes are high, but they’re driven by real, human mistakes. Tony Gates is a good cop. He does his job, he gets promoted. He’s a bit proud but seems to be a fairly decent guy; people like him. However, he has a flaw. Like so many middle-aged men he’s having an affair. The man still loves his kids though so can’t break his family apart by revealing it. Here we have a level of struggle that people can identify with. It’s a real-life-sized struggle and drives him into misstep after misstep trying to cover it up. He’s not bent but his fight to cover up his mistakes makes him seem so. He is brought down by his guilt and the messiness of human life clashing with the cold hard rules of AC-12. It is the cruel banality of life not being fair.
Jump to series six. We have car chases and gun fights and standoffs in carparks. We do still have human struggles and fear of being found out – Steve’s back, Hasting’s guilt over Corbett – but these don’t drive the plot. Steve’s impending interview about his back just provides rather annoying emails that he ignores, and Hastings’ ‘secret’ provides only minor level tension at best. What drives the plot, what increases the tension, is a series of dramatic set pieces – the gunfight over the Lakewell convoy, the stand-off at gunpoint between Kate and Pilkington. This is not every day human level drama. These are straight out of an action movie. Line of Duty is no longer bobbies on the beat, it’s Bond.
It’s understandable how we got here. Every successive season the stakes had to rise to keep the audience interested. Also, as the show becomes more successful, there’s more money pumped in so there’s more opportunity to do stuff. So, first season we have fingers being chopped off; final season we have Steve lying by a crashed van after a lengthy shoot out having assassinated a sniper.
Where this switch from thriller to action can be traced to is the escape of Dot ‘The Caddy’ Cottan at the end of season three. This starts with the standard, tense, thriller-esque interview in the glass box. It’s psychological. It’s character-led tension. It’s the great stuff we’ve had so far. We then have an “Urgent Exit” requested and it snaps into an over-the-top action movie. A policeman with a machine gun suddenly unloads on a colleague, then on a glass window, shattering it. Kate turns into Sarah Connor, tooling up with flak jacket and machine gun, riding on a massive truck as if this is what she does every day. She even shoots a henchman and doesn’t blink. From then on, we have action movie blood injected into the veins of our thriller.
Now, the rules of action movies are different. They demand bigger things, bigger bangs, cool guys walking away from explosions. They’re more ridiculous. Bond is fun because it’s not real. Even when they tried to make it ‘real’ with Daniel Craig, we knew it’s still not really ‘real’ as most of us don’t go to fancy casinos or drive fast cars or try and rescue our drowning treacherous girlfriends from collapsing Venetian houses.
After season three, Line of Duty becomes more and more ridiculous. Roz Huntley has a rotting arm which gets amputated, poor Joanne Davidson has the twisted family history of a penny dreadful. These are huge, dramatic, and awful things but they’re not the banal cruelty of normal life that destroys most people. They’re cartoon level horrors that plague movie-level plots. They’re not real.
This doesn’t mean that it’s ‘bad’. The escape of Dot is a fantastic piece of television. Kate Fleming is the action heroine this nation needs. Bond movies are fun, but they’re not the television that Mercurio started writing.
This is the problem with the end of season six. If you give your audience a Bond movie, they’re going to want Blofeld to turn up. We want that swivel chair, the fluffy cat, the “Ah, Superintendent Hastings, I was expecting you”. We didn’t get that. We got Ian Buckells.
What Mercurio did with Buckells as the ‘big bad’ was to try and return to the first season, to where he began, where the world is ordinary and boring and real. There is no mastermind, there’s a just a little bloke who’s greedy and has low morals.
Now, imagine if Bond blasted his way through the tropical island base, fought off the henchman with the idiosyncratic disfigurement, crawled into the centre of the villain’s lair only to find the head office being run by a clerk who administers the paperwork for the shell company set up to contain the holdings of another shell company that comes from several illicit hedge funds. Even if someone tried to explain that that is actually how crime works, how actual shadowy figures run the world, you’d still want your money back.
I suppose the moral of this story is remember where you started. Remember what your piece of writing is about. By that I don’t just mean ‘it’s about a bunch of policemen in AC-12’ but what themes you are looking at, what genre you’re writing in, and try and keep to that through line. However, if you do end up changing things, make sure that you make everything match that shift.
Mercurio started with a thriller on how our own humanity can bring us down; how evil is banal, and cruel in its banality; that life is unfair and that it rumbles on without us. He tried to end it that way. However, on the way, he got lost in Cottan’s big budget escape, fights with surgical saws, and gun fights. And because of that his ending fell flat. He started with The Wire and ended with Bond. And once you go Bond you have to give us a Blofeld. Buckells just won’t do.