This week saw the return of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty, the gripping drama featuring the work of police anti-corruption officers.
If I’m honest, I rated the first run as merely ‘okay’ as it felt to me to be a little too obsessed with overtly mocking the politically correct health and safety regulations that police officers in general have to work under. The point of the story in that first season is that one can either follow the rules but achieve little of note, or be a successful law enforcer with the best arrest and conviction record in the Force in which case one’s career will be wrecked for the perceived cutting of corners. Most searingly of all, the lesson was that no one could do both at the same time but had to choose which side of the fence they came down on.
After this somewhat over-worthy first run (which featured Lennie James as the stand-out turn playing the detective chief inspector under suspicion), the second series spectacularly exploded into brilliance with the tale of the unit’s investigation of DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes) after a convey transporting a protected witness was ambushed and Denton left as the only survivor. Was she complicit in the crime or framed? This uncertainty drove six episodes of truly stunning drama in which any health and safety swipes were introduced as natural background details rather than as the central part of the series’ raison d’etre.
After that brilliant series it’s hardly surprising that it’s taken Mercurio two years to come up with a third season. I had fears that the follow-up was never going to equal the superb second series, but if anything the first episode of series 3 could actually prove to be Live of Duty’s finest hour.
Where the second season left us in doubt about the central character’s guilt or innocence, there appeared to be no such shades of grey in the opening minutes of the 2016 run which features Daniel Mays as Danny Waldron, an officer in an armed response team deployed to arrest a dangerous drugs kingpin. We see Waldron charging off solo and shooting the suspect dead in cold blood in a cul-de-sac, and then menacing his team to fabricate their statements to support his own version of events. The investigating AC-12 team, led once again by Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and featuring DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) and DC Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), have their suspicions about Waldron’s conduct but can find no proof.
Almost every one of the first 60 minutes of this opening episode is packed full of drama at its best. The opening scenes of Waldron’s team getting briefed and then going through the process of signing safety forms, checking out their equipment and testing it before piling into the van are both high adrenalin and utterly absorbing in their procedural detail; the actual armed confrontation is thrilling and shocking; then the stand-off interrogation scene between Waldron with his lawyer and the AC-12 officers is writing of the highest order and a superlative piece of character building.
All this time Waldron clearly appears to be an unrelenting monster; and yet his sweet, anxious courting of a girl he meets in the pub shows a new side of him even as he starts to go off into even deeper vigilante territory and we start to understand that there’s much more to his actions than simply a uniformed psychopath at work. Meanwhile, Fleming goes undercover in Waldron’s team and starts to pick up on some dark and dangerous undercurrents involving Rod Kennedy (Will Mellor), Hari Bains (Arsher Ali) and Jackie Brickford (Leanne Best), culminating in a tense scene on a drugs bust that goes terribly and inexplicably wrong leaving the first episode with one of the most jaw-dropping climaxes ever seen and entirely not what we expected, one that will surely send the subsequent episodes spiralling off in a completely different direction from that which we thought it was destined.
There’s so much going on in this first episode that it’s a wonder it makes any sort of sense at all, but Mercurio’s writing keeps the story firmly on the right rails and completely coherent throughout even though we know that there’s a huge amount going on under the surface (or alternatively over our heads) that we simply don’t understand – yet.
I’m hopelessly hooked by the latest Line of Duty and can’t wait to find out what happens next. Rumour has it that some familiar faces from previous seasons will be popping up again, and it has to be said that Mercurio gives no quarter to those who aren’t intimately familiar with the story-so-far. If you haven’t seen them already then it’s time to check out the DVDs of seasons 1 and 2 so that you’re ready to try and hold on to the coattails of the fast-moving investigation into Waldron and his team. Even so, chances are that it will still manage to perplex and baffle you as well as shock and awe you with its twists and turns, but no matter – this is still one of the best things you’ll see on TV all year.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Line of Duty airs on BBC2 on Thursdays at 9pm and is available on DVD from May 2 2016. Series 1 is already available on DVD.