Last night saw 12.8 million people tune in to BBC Once for the finale to series 6 of, in my opinion, the best British drama of the last decade, if not longer. Was it the last ever episode? We don’t know and likely won’t know for some time. The BBC has confirmed they’re open for more (and with those ratings who is surprised?!), so we’ll have to see if creator Jed Mercurio feels there’s more story to tell. As I’ve loved this series for years now, I’d been thinking about writing about it and seeing the passionate reaction to last night’s finale on social media, now seems to be the time.
Let’s start with that finale
Expectations v. Reality
Well there’s certainly some strong opinions flying around about this finale, some good, some bad and some wildly over the top in both directions, so I’ll start with my thoughts about how series 6 concluded. I admit, I’d been anticipating a more explosive, shocking ending. That’s largely due to some previous years of the show, where it’s built to a crescendo and really leaned in to those fireworks (think series 3, but more on the previous years later). I’d wondered if one of the mighty trio would die; Steve maybe due to his dependence on drugs causing him to spiral, or Hastings because those higher up the chain wanted him out of the way. Would there be a huge kingpin brought to justice?
The fact none of those things happened did feel underwhelming and yes, disappointing, initially, but the more I think about the ending, the more it actually made sense. I’d have hated one of Arnott, Fleming, or Hastings getting killed for a start, even if it had been great drama, so seeing them all live to fight another day, back together as a team, having started series 6 fractured (Kate having left, Steve feeling bored), was a satisfying final image. They are the heart of this show after all.
As for the identity of “H” not being revealed to be someone higher up the power structure? It does make sense and I think a lot of the disappointment many are feeling comes from the intense media build-up making us lose sight of the storyline. “H” was initially supposedly the ultimate bent copper, controlling all of those below them, but that theory was changed in series 4, when “H” became just one of four senior bent coppers imbedded in the police force to help the OCG achieve its crimes. Whether that change was the best choice, I’m still undecided on, especially on how it seemed tagged on rather than planned, but personally, as soon as “H” became just one of a group, the mythical status of that person diminished. This wasn’t going to be another Keyser Soze. Finding “H” wasn’t going to be the end of the corruption, but instead would cripple the OCG’s influence and ability to influence the police as effectively. It seemed inevitable in a way that if there were corrupt people at the very top, then they’d likely not be brought to justice.
In a way, that’s one way the show could continue – the four foot soldiers and many minions like Ryan Pilkington are now out of the game, so time to focus on getting evidence to bring down those at the very top of the power structure. That would certainly be a huge challenge for Steve, Kate and Ted, especially in light of their weaker status at the end of series 6. Ted could become a private detective, retired from the force, but still determined to help get justice. Kate and Steve would need to navigate the jobs under the watchful eye of people like Carmichael, while perhaps working a side angle under the radar. Plus, who knows what other officers the OCG have blackmail evidence on who may now be called upon. That would all help raise the tension levels and be fantastic to watch unfold.
As for the complaints that Buckells was too incompetent to be a criminal mastermind, well he wasn’t meant to be a criminal mastermind. “H” wasn’t the top of the tree and we already knew that. Instead, the other three – Dot Cotton (a truly brilliant character and performance by Craig Parkinson), lawyer Gill Biggeloe and Derek Hilton were arguably all bigger players than him, but they were already gone. Thurwell was also clearly the corrupt cop who helped boost Buckells up the chain early on. As Ted said, Buckells was the last man standing and having the weakest and most easily controlled left was arguably to the OCG’s advantage. I can’t see Buckles putting up much of an argument to anything he was instructed to carry out, can you?
H’s identity also added to the discussion on, as Ted calls it, failing upwards. This happens in every industry – people who aren’t as good as others somehow climb the ladder, likely through who they know, or perhaps perceptions on who is more capable. It’s depressingly true to life. These types of issues have been covered in Line of Duty in the past, most notably series 4’s discussions about sexism affecting job promotion. There was the way Ted approached discussing promotion with both Steve and Kate, with Steve getting a relaxed drink in the pub and Kate getting 5 minutes in the office and then Thandiwe Newton’s interview scene, where she turned the focus on to Ted’s sexism. It was brilliantly handled and raised some very real issues women face in the workplace. In the same way, highlighting how someone as mediocre as Buckells, or indeed Hilton, could become so successful in their career progression strongly suggested more than just corruption pushed them up the ranks.
The easiest money James Nesbitt has ever made?!
I think the biggest surprise for me in the finale wasn’t the identity of H, but the fact we didn’t see James Nesbitt on screen as Thurwell. Is he really dead? I’m still sceptical and if there is more, surely he’d be in line to be in it, having faked his death somehow. That aside, this must be the easiest money James Nesbitt has ever made! A head shot and a couple of photos in holidaywear by a boat. It was certainly a bold move by Jed Mercurio, which did throw me off!
A more realistic, rather than idealistic conclusion?
Are there still corrupt officers at the very top of the police in the world of Line of Duty? Of course! Would I have loved to see those people dragged to justice? Absolutely! We’ve known the now Chief Constable Osborne is corrupt from series one episode one. It’s why Steve joined AC-12 after refusing to falsify his report about the botched operation in the first minutes of the show that cost an innocent man his life. He’s a prime suspect to be one of the ultimate puppeteers working with criminals for his own gain.
Yet, having the show not have an idealistic, Hollywood-style conclusion, with the heroes defeating the ultimate villain, seemed sadly true to life. Those is power protect others in power and sometimes those people are corrupt, or are willing to ignore corruption if it benefits themselves. We see it all the time and the sidelining of someone like Hastings also seemed sadly realistic. Do a good job stopping police corruption, but not too good. The higher the targets of AC-12 became, the more resistance they were likely to face. Did I want them to topple the whole game at the end? Yes, but this ending gives much more to talk about, both in the fictional world and our own.
An ending that leaves the door open for more
A lot of people also seem to confuse bad writing with their own disappointment. Just because you’ve been disappointed by the direction of the story, doesn’t necessarily mean the writing is bad. If you step back and look at the scenes in the final episode of Line of Duty, it was fantastically constructed. You just wanted something else to happen.
The other point for me with how series 6 ended is that it managed to end the story, while leaving the door open for more. Writing anything is hard work and crafting an on-going, complex, storyline like that of Line of Duty must take huge amounts of thought and planning by Jed Mercurio. It’s not as if he just flicks a switch and the ideas come. It might takes years for him to feel he has another story to tell with these characters. Equally he might leave it where it is. I’m at least happy that there are options to continue on. The door isn’t slammed shut. All my fingers are crossed for the future.
A decade of superb drama
I’ll likely separately consider my favourite Line of Duty moments in another post, but I did want to reflect on the series as a whole, in case this is the end of the road, especially as I’ve seen so many comments that just because the finale was perhaps a bit underwhelming, the whole show is suddenly written off as a waste of time. It’s like Game of Thrones all over again. For me, declaring a decade of drama as rubbish just because you didn’t enjoy the last episode is just ridiculous and here we don’t even know for sure it is even over!
Whether you liked or disliked last night’s finale, Line of Duty is one of, if not the best British drama of the decade, if not longer. It’s consistently delivered engaging, complex stories, unexpected moments and all superbly acted and shot. I missed series one live for reasons that escape me, but the buzz after the first episode of series two aired couldn’t be ignored and I quickly caught up that week. Right from episode one, it’s a series that delivered something different. It kept you on your toes and delivered some of the most shocking moments of any series.
It also managed to keep reinventing itself while keeping the focus on catching corrupt officers. Characters were brought in as if they were the going to be the focus, only to be unexpectedly killed off. Series 1 and 2 established that each year would focus on one officer, only for series 3 to upend that pattern by the end of the first episode! Series 3 had you ready for the big name to exit at the end of the opener, only for series 4 to change gear yet again in the final seconds of episode one. It was truly exciting television, which perhaps meant it had set its own bar too high by series 6. We’d been preconditioned to expect shocks.
The series also wasn’t afraid of long scenes that focused on dialogue over action. A 20+ minute scene in an interview room seems much more normal now thanks to Line of Duty and has led to shows like Criminal on Netflix, which takes place in just the interview room, like an intimate stage performance. This could only be a success if the quality of the writing met the ambition and Jed Mercurio ensured that it did. By series 6, we were all excited for the long interview scenes, waiting for the hilariously long beep from the tape recorder.
The other essential element for a series structured in the way Line of Duty was written is the quality of the acting. The intelligence and tension of those long scenes only works if the actors are the best at what they do and over the years the series has treated us to some truly superb performances. The core trio of Martin Compston, Vicky McClure and Adrian Dunbar were individually and collectively excellent to watch, Lennie James set the bar in series one for the guest actors, but Keeley Hawes took the series to another level with her portrayal of Lindsay Denton. Was she good? Bad? Somewhere in the middle? You couldn’t pin her down and Hawes set the standard of what Line of Duty could be and was followed by so many fantastic performances – Thandiwe Newton, Daniel Mays, Stephen Graham to name just three.
As for my favourite series of the show? Having rewatched the whole series in full before series 6, it’s still series 3 for me. The first episode is relentless in its tension and twists, it is jam packed with story, it brought back Lindsay Denton, had Craig Parkinson delivering a superb performance as Dot and the finale was ridiculously exciting. I watched that episode after arriving back from NYC, jet-lagged and it delivered the adrenaline shot I needed! Those six episodes can be watched on their own and still be incredibly satisfying.
So, will we get more Line of Duty? I genuinely can’t decide, but it’s certainly a possibility. Jed Mercurio has already not said it’s a definite no and the BBC have confirmed they’re on board for more. We’ll have to wait and see. I have faith that if it does return Jed Mercurio knows what he’s doing!
I’ll post my favourite Line of Duty moments later in the week, but I’d love to hear yours in the comments.
In the UK, Line of Duty series 1-6 is currently available to stream on BBC iPlayer (Netflix currently only has series 5). If you’re in the USA, I understand that the series is available on Acorn TV and if you’re in Canada, it’s on Hoopla, although I assume international audiences will have to wait a bit for series 6.