‘Line of Duty’ exposes the banal reality of police corruption

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BBC entertainment | Wikimedia Commons

Line of Duty is, at its core, an extremely silly show. Although writer Jed Mercurio based its premise on real-world policing, the central plotline of a ‘clandestine network of corrupt police officers’ feels more conspiratorial than plausible. The idiosyncratic ‘bent copper’ catchphrases of Ted Hastings have been memed to death, Dunbar himself even parodying his character on BBC panel show Have I Got News for You, and as thrilling as the show’s gunfights always are, they tend to border on incredulity.

   Last Sunday, the finale to Line of Duty’s sixth series aired to mixed reviews. Although the series’ previous episodes had been met with critical acclaim, the response to episode seven resulted in #fuming trending on twitter for hours after the episode concluded. To summarise: for the past three series, the AC12 anti-corruption unit had been investigating the identity of a figure named ‘H’, a corrupt senior police officer working with organised crime, and in this final episode the identity of ‘H’ had been revealed. However, the identity of ‘H’ was not what many expected. While the speculation around ‘H’ had presupposed him or her to be a criminal mastermind, the corrupt police officer was revealed to be DSU Ian Buckells (Nigel Boyle), a character not understood to be particularly intelligent. ‘I just can’t accept / understand how Ian Buckells was H’ one twitter user wrote.

   So what went wrong? Was making Buckells ‘H’ the right opinion? From my perspective, many of the problems that fans had with series six come from differing ideas about what Line of Duty is supposed to be: a thrilling cop show, or a reflective drama that examines the nature of policing.

   One interesting way of contextualising series six is comparing it to Line of Duty’s earlier episodes. Series one perhaps had more to say about British police work than later series. As well as the explosive corruption scandal, it also goes out of its way to show how the police force’s prioritisation of crime statistics leads to some forms of crime being ignored. Series one also highlighted the hostile relationships between police officers and the communities that they are meant to serve. Since season two, however, these themes have largely gone untouched. Rather than explore police issues at an institutional level, Line of Duty’s most popular series focus on the hunt for ‘bent coppers’, implying that that corrupt individuals are the sole problem with the police force rather than systemic issues.

   Series six, then, reconnects with the themes the show previously explored in series one. As well as the ‘bent coppers’ themselves, AC12 is forced to reckon with powers within the police that wish to turn a blind eye to police corruption. Chief Constable Philip Osbourne (Owen Teale) was suspected by many over the course of series six to be the corrupt ‘H’, due to his dedication to limiting the size and scope of anti-corruption investigations in Line of Duty’s police force. However, since Buckells was revealed to be ‘H’ rather than a higher-ranking officer, it makes more sense that Osbourne’s actions were politically motivated, since corrupt police officers damage the reputation of the force.

   By the end of series six, even though AC12 has ostensibly defeated ‘H’, they had been unable to stand against the systemic issues that allow corruption to flourish. Mercurio himself has stated that he didn’t want to allow himself to give Line of Duty a ‘cheat’ ending by finishing the plot on a triumphant note. By series six, he seems to have wanted to make clear that the failures of the police go beyond a few corrupt officers, and are instead caused by political forces that even AC12 can’t fight.

   If anything, the series’ pessimistic ending is a norm for Line of Duty at this point. Over the course of the show, only a minority of corrupt officers and organised crime members arrested by AC12 have actually been imprisoned. Characters Derek Hilton, Dot Cottan, and Ryan Pilkington were killed before they could be brought to justice, while others, such as Gill Biggeloe and Joanne Davidson, were moved into witness protection in exchange for further information. Is it really surprising that series six ended the way it did given the shows precedent for undercutting its endings?

   The other major issue that fans had with series six was the bumbling personality of Buckells. Again, it seems pretty clear that Mercurio was trying to develop the show’s themes rather than provide the audience with a satisfying conclusion. The point he seems to be making is that corruption is banal: rather than a conspiratorial ringleader, Buckells was just a greedy idiot who managed to exploit police unwillingness to investigate themselves. The parallels between Buckells’ corruption and contemporary politics have already been interpreted by many, made especially relevant by the multiple parliamentary scandals coincidentally happening during the show’s release.

   Whether you enjoyed series six probably has a lot to do with what you expected going in. For the last four seasons, Line of Duty had defined itself as a show about unravelling an enormous web of conspiracy, so many fans were understandably disappointed when series six didn’t meet their expectations. Personally, I enjoyed that Mercurio was able to make a show that matched his creative vision rather than feeling pressured into making a show that just satisfied audience expectations.