The Student
Festival photo of Jed Mercurio
Review
“What’s next, mate?” Though watchable, Line of Duty misses the mark
by Frankie Ryan-Casey, 20/05/21

Rating – ⭐⭐⭐

Attempting to appease millions of passionate viewers, as well as wrapping up an enthralling yet exceedingly complex story that has been almost a decade in the making, was never going to be easy. I don’t envy Jed Mercurio, Line of Duty’s ingenious creator. But the bitter truth is that this final instalment of the long-running police drama falls well below its own high standards.

These final episodes still have their moments. Yes, they may be fewer and further between than in previous series, and merely remind us of how good this show can be and how brilliant its finale should have been, yet they are still worth noting. In a relentless storm of outrage made more overwhelming in the age of Twitter and Gogglebox, it is easy to forget just how hooked we were by season six right up until it all fell apart in a poorly executed conclusion.

With the dust beginning to settle after the finale aired around a fortnight ago, Mercurio and his colleagues deserve some credit.

Ryan Pilkington’s story arc is expertly handled. Gregory Piper’s ruthless character has now infiltrated the police force on behalf of organised crime, distorting and manipulating a murder investigation that threatens to unmask the network of corrupt police officers that he is beholden to. Whilst the script is seriously flawed elsewhere, his implicit threats and subtle remarks are genuinely chilling, often delivered with a deadpan expression and cool tone and yet still dripping with villainous intent. It is a diverse, exemplary piece of acting made possible by fantastic writing – Line of Duty at its adrenaline-inducing, heart-pounding best.

Sadly, such laudable segments do not entirely make up for some serious flaws elsewhere. It isn’t just the way this series ends that is a serious issue. There are issues throughout, issues that no other beloved batch of Line of Duty had to grapple with.

In a bid to keep things fresh, new characters are introduced each season as the ugly web of lies is gradually unearthed. It’s a formula common to episodic television, and it was brilliantly employed in Line of Duty time and time again.

Yet Kelly Macdonald’s portrayal of DCI Jo Davidson is not the valuable addition to the cast that it needed to be. This is a character central to the plot – a conflicted officer at the head of the crucial murder investigation, who is intimately tied to the vicious crime gang whilst also desperately attempting not to fall to corruption. It’s an interesting, original concept. But the execution leaves much to be desired.

She is a more than capable actor, proven in a gut-wrenching interview scene and in literally everything else she has appeared in, such as in one of the best films ever made, Trainspotting (1996). But even great actors can be led astray if they are poorly directed.

Perhaps to make it more digestible to most of the BBC’s audience, it is as if someone has challenged her to speak in her Scottish accent as unnaturally slowly as possible. Her permanently worried expression and slow whimpering voice regularly comes off as forced and melodramatic. It just isn’t as strong an addition as other such iconic characters as undercover agent John Corbett or the infamous ‘Caddy’. Tragically, I don’t even think it’s Macdonald’s fault.

Cracks gradually appear elsewhere. Steve Arnott seems tasked with reading out the plot like a gruff-voiced narrator in awkward scenes that badly needed a reshoot. At one point he literally asks his partner in crime (prevention), Kate Fleming, “what’s next mate?” It is a clumsy, awkward, and perhaps even lazy way to explain a dexterously complex plot. What it certainly isn’t, is what Line of Duty fans expect from a show that has smashed it season after season.

Time to discuss the ending, or rather, that ending. I don’t despise it in the same way many do. I think what it attempts to symbolise – that corruption is systemic, can’t simply be eliminated in one fell swoop and permeates even the highest office – is a genuinely intelligent politically inspired message. An unambiguous, ‘happy ending’ would have been crass and inappropriate.

In an age where police services across the globe have regularly failed to protect and serve the people, and where the corridors are stuffed with incompetent cronies eager to exploit the covid crisis to secure cash for them and their mates, a fairy-tale ending for this saga just isn’t realistic or warranted.

What is unforgivable, though, is the way Mercurio delivers his final remarks. As politically astute and moving as his message might be, flimsy execution limits its impact.

A plausible explanation is that the BBC, recognising that the twilight of cable television and the ascendency of streaming services like Netflix might spell their demise, leaned hard on him to ensure that another season is possible. Perhaps that is why this season ends like the previous five, wherein the audience watch a brief montage of each character whilst their fate is outlined in text.

But that is just not appropriate here. It’s nowhere close to good enough for two painfully obvious reasons.

Firstly, this isn’t just any other season. It is supposed to be the last dance, and I think it is unsatisfying to just read a brief blurb about characters when these are our final fleeting moments with them.More importantly though, this montage attempts to do far, far too much of the work that should have been covered in the main segment of the show. What is essentially a slideshow just doesn’t cover enough ground. 

I don’t mind open endings, and here ambiguity is appropriate. But this doesn’t explain why there are so many question marks over significant characters, from the infuriating and cryptic Carmichael to the top dog, the Chief Constable himself. The reality is that the ending isn’t a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ one for the characters of AC-12. Instead, it is a meandering whimper of a conclusion that leaves far too many important questions unanswered, questions which the anticlimactic final montage fails to answer.

If Mercurio wanted viewers to realise that this systemic corruption is too deeply entrenched for even the loveable yet fearsome Ted Hastings to shatter, I applaud his intentions. But I can’t applaud his execution. The ending isn’t bold enough to forcefully put this message across, and instead we are left unsatisfied. The finale leaves viewers feeling confused and cheated, even after they try and understand the message it is supposed to represent.

It isn’t that series six is awful, or not worth watching at all – it’s just disappointing. What could have been an epic finale to conclude an addictive storyline a decade in the making is instead a disorganised, watchable but ultimately unsatisfying end to one of the greatest television shows around.

Image: Thor Brødreskift via Wikimedia Commons