The two things that make Line of Duty amazing

Line of Duty is a brilliantly designed (and executed) outlier in its approach to two key ingredients of popular screen drama. Spoilers ahead!

Its approach to narration, and more specifically the unfolding and withholding of information

Some drama/fiction alerts you to its gaps, suppressions, and withholdings. Stories of crime and detection sometimes go so far as to present or describe the unfolding of a crime in such a way as to leave us not knowing the identity of the perpetrator – an example of flagrantly, self-consciously suppressive narration.

But there are subtler possibilities. Think of some of Hitchcock’s films – Vertigo and North by North West are perhaps the best examples – where the viewer is led to believe they’re being given every piece of information that matters, partly because the stories are stories of detection, only to later be supplied with a piece of information they didn’t even suspect was missing that recasts everything that came before. There’s the even more rarefied example of Fritz Lang. In his book Narration in Light, George M Wilson expertly shows how a narration (his examples is Lang’s You Only Live Once) can, without showing a frame of untruth, nevertheless be systematically unreliable, by sequencing and shaping its images in such a way that the viewer is encouraged to make inferences that lead them far astray. So subtly are the inferences planted, that it is hard for the viewer, even in retrospect, to see where they went wrong.

Line of Duty stands out in its degree of commitment to such narrative strategies. In series one, at first we think we’re dealing with a macho alpha detective, DCI Gates, surrounded by subservient subordinates, who comes to the rescue of his alcoholic mistress after she accidentally knocks over and kills a pedestrian on a drive home from a night out, by staging the appearance of her car having been stolen and going on to ensure that alternative versions of events don’t progress at the station.

We are misled by making the same mistake that Gates makes – assuming that he is the star of the story, surrounded by dutiful supporting characters. His mistress deliberately killed that man, because he was her accountant, and she wanted to muscle him out of her drug-dealing and money-laundering arrangement (or such at least is our best guess). Early in the series, we discover that one officer looking to get onto Gates’s team is in fact an undercover anti-corruption (AC12) officer. At the very end of the series, in a delicious twist, we learn that another member of Gates’s team is in league with the drug lord who ordered the mistress’s murder and has been blackmailing Gates. Not until the middle of the next series do we learn that yet another member of Gates’s team is also corrupt.

Partly, this is achieved by the series’ masterful handling of the order, pace and timing of its presentation of narrative information. Series two is particularly spectacular in this regard: only in the final episode do we get to see the crucial few minutes of action that make it at least clearer the distribution and depth of responsibility for the dire outcomes and consequences we have witnessed. It is also achieved by the second feature that makes the programme stand out.

Its commitment to shades of grey in character and motive

As I’ve already noted, the series plays with our schemas of character comprehension by belatedly revealing that hitherto-secondary characters possess more dimensions than we assumed (assumptions quietly reinforced and helped along by genre-based assumptions, stemming from the kinds of characters we are used to encountering in crime dramas).

If I had to summarise Line of Duty‘s approach to character though, and what makes it stand out, I’d describe it as anti-melodramatic.

Contemporary television melodrama – and I’m using the term in its broad sense, to apply to virtually all popular television drama (and what’s more, I’m not meaning it as an insult, just as a term to capture an extremely pervasive mode) – does not give us villains who twirl their moustaches, but it does give us characters who tend to be mainly transparent and consistent.

Transparent: melodrama thrives on moments where the mask drops. Sometimes this happens when the character carves out a moment of privacy in the company of others. Screen drama’s supreme ability to capture such moments in close-up might be part of the explanation for their frequency. Sometimes, it happens when the character is fully ‘backstage’, away from the eyes of others. Again, Line of Duty uses great sleight of hand here. In series 1, DCI Gates is, admittedly, a bit of a melodramatic character. We see his angst as he becomes increasingly compromised. But this, it turns out, is because Gates isn’t corrupt enough! The really corrupt characters are better at playing it straight.

Cut forward to series 2, and the picture deepens. Keeley Hawes’s character, who appears to us in early, workplace encounters, as a humourless, hapless stickler, returns home for the evening. She doesn’t even have a family to keep up appearances for. Surely, we say to ourselves silently, if the mask were to drop, it would now. But look, she’s just as dull, pitiful and wan as ever. This isn’t what corrupt cops look like. She’s definitely straight. Then she goes next door and smacks her loud-music-playing-neighbour’s head repeatedly against the floor!

Most characters in popular fiction are consistent in the sense that their behaviour follows predictable patterns. Tony Soprano may be a compelling and complex character, but as other writers (including Jason Mittell) have noted, what our extended engagement with Tony Soprano largely gives us is ever more detailed and intricate colouring-in within the lines that are established very early on in the series. Walter White may do things by the end of Breaking Bad he would not have done at the beginning, but he follows a straight path from one point to the other.

Line of Duty‘s deepest distinction might be its commitment to the messiness of motivation in the characters residing in the flawed-but-not-irredeemable part of its spectrum of morality. A stereotypical bent copper will be a conscience-free, Machiavellian hedonist, feeding their ego on prestige and ill-acquired perks. The only part of this picture that Gates fully fits is the prestige bit. He ‘ladders’ offences to boost his clear-up rate. When he falsifies and then suppresses evidence, we see his realisation that he is in over his head. And this is only the beginning of how over-his-head he gets. Again, series two takes this messiness and ambiguity up further notches. Only at the end of the series is it revealed that Hawes’s detective has profited financially from her corruption, but was drawn into this corruption by an act of good policing (itself a consequence, to muddy the waters yet further, of her jealously following an ex-lover), and by the promise that by participating, she would be working for a greater good.

What is the programme’s ultimate aim and commitment?

Whether or not this is a good question to ask of a television drama, it is in this case a hard one to answer. While watching the first two series of Line of Duty (which is as far as I have gotten up to now), I found myself thinking fairly frequently of The Wire. But as well as being similar, the two shows are quite different, and it’s interesting to think about how and why. I agree with Linda Williams (and Jason Mittell, who was persuaded of this by Williams): The Wire is deeply melodramatic (it’s also rather Brechtian, but that’s another story). It is driven by a deeply-felt, intelligent rage at the human cost of the corruption, ineptitude and decay within Baltimore and its institutions. Line of Duty‘s gaze, and scope, are narrower, and cooler. I detect no real disgust in the series’ presentation of its characters and their actions. It helps in this regard that the human cost of the corruption is largely relegated to the background of the series. Arnott appears mildly cheesed off when the exuberant police officer he works (and, once, sleeps) with is unceremoniously chucked out of a window early in series two, but this potential emotional dimension of the story is very much kept in its place. Of all Line of Duty‘s characters, it is Gates (in the first two series at least) who exhibits the greatest emotional range, from love for his children, to anguish and despair as the net tightens. Humour and joy are not really part of Line of Duty‘s register (they are very much part of The Wire‘s).

But nor do I want to conclude that the series is a sterile exercise in genre-stretching, or a meditation on the epistemic basis of narration, or knowledge. The best I can come up with is that the series combines the momentum, drive and excitement of a thriller – appeals rooted in tightly-constructed and intricately-delivered narratives – with an anthropologist’s acute yet detached eye for the multiple, complex determinants of human behaviour.

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