When power meets trajectory, you get a series that can make your head spin; and Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio’s writing has a tendency to make the viewer feel like a low-ranking tennis player being hit full and hard in the face while trying to return a serve by Sam Groth.Worries had been expressed in some quarters that the switch from BBC Two to BBC One might have necessitated some compromises or ‘dumbing down’ for the more mainstream audience. ‘New viewers’ were duly thrust straight into a ferocious and cinematic trademark opening,but the end of this episode left we stalwarts wondering if our favourite cop series – in its effort to up the ante – was in danger of jumping the shark in spectacular fashion.
NB: Spoilers ahoy!
After bidding goodnight to pals after a night out, a girl is knocked down in the road while running towards her bus – but this is no banal hit-and-run; the balaclavaed driver grabs the girl, bundling her into his car, and drives off under the gaze of stunned bystanders. When she throws herself out of the passenger seat in an alleyway, he hurls her into the boot.
DCI Roz Huntley (Thandie Newton), head of Operation Trapdoor into a string of similar abductions, quits stacking the dishwasher at home to hare off to the abduction site, firing off a staccato stream of instructions to her team on her mobile, then haranguing her husband to get home to the kids with a nicely banal rejoinder “and I’ve put the bins out”. Huntley, we surmise, is a practised multi-tasker.
The abducted girl Hana (Gaite Jansen) is tracked by dogs to a house that’s booby-trapped to explode as police approach. Huntley and colleagues get Hana clear and in by-the-book questioning (recorded by a fellow officers bodycam), try to get a description of the kidnapper.
Forensic co-ordinator Tim Ifield (the ubiquitous but fabulous Jason Watkins) arrives at the frantic scene, complaining to Huntley about her unit scampering across his team’s vital evidence. It’s clear from this initial conversation that Ifield is intensely territorial bordering on paranoid, and more than a tad sceptical about Huntley’s modus operandi. They obviously have ‘history’ because she seems pretty assiduous in not cross-contaminating their suspect in absentia, Michael Farmer (Scott Reid), who is already on the sex offenders list after raping a school pal. Is he also responsible for three abductions?
Farmer’s brain – like his mobile phone – isn’t a smart one and he’s arrested at work. At interview, he and his solicitor can’t supply an alibi.
Ifield is jigging around in the corridor to nab Huntley to quiz her over items of ‘trophy’ jewellery found in his fingertip search of Farmer’s home. When she blanks him, he stalks off petulantly as only Watkins can. Scorning Ifield will probably prove to be a Big Mistake.
Meanwhile (Oh, joy of joys), Paul Higgins (Malcolm Tucker’s Rottweiler Jamie from The Thick of It) is back from series one as venal, self-serving careerist Chief Superintendent Derek Hilton.
We had half-expected Hilton’s return last series after the death of gangster Tommy Hunter, as Matt ‘Dot’ Cottan had told him he was nicknamed The Caddy at the end of series one. As we asked here during series three, how did he stay out of that investigation?
Admittedly, in the debut series he came across as pretty vacant about the complexities of proper coppering – preferring the limelight of press conferences, where he could claim the credit for everyone else’s work.
Hilton has since been promoted to assistant chief constable and is Huntley’s boss. He strides into Polk Avenue Police Station to put her under pressure to get an arrest (and the reflected glory) within the 36-hour window.
‘You’re right to be meticulous, but we need a breakthrough – they’ve been killing us on Twitter… I’ve stuck my neck out for you … plenty would have taken you off the case by now. I have every confidence in you,’ Hilton tells Huntley. See? Publicity-mad and disingenuous. Watch your back, girl.
Ifield texts Huntley to say his forensic results throw doubt on Farmer’s guilt – smash-cut to champagne corks popping in the squad room as Ifield glowers through the window from the corridor.
And if he’s not impressed, neither are our friends at AC-12 as they watch Hilton preening on the news – “Full marks to the ACC on his Crimewatch audition,” observes Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) tartly.
But Huntley’s relief at ‘case-closed’ is short-lived. Ifield pops straight to Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) with his findings on the victims’ jewellery, which carries no fibres from Farmer’s home. He says be believes evidence has been planted or suppressed.
Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) goes undercover as a ‘mispers’ liaison officer to suss out Huntley and talk to Farmer, who would be a perfect fall guy for a bent cop as he is mentally challenged. Later she reports back to Arnott in our favourite graffitied underpass – ah, the memories. We notice that the relationship between the erstwhile solid mates seems much more strained these days – it can’t be unconnected with the fallout from Cottan’s death. And is Fleming aware that Arnott is angling for promotion to inspector?
“How do you tell when an executive officer is telling lies? Hastings asks Arnott after a lunch with Hilton. “His lips move,” replies Arnott.
Hastings’ antenna is twitching. Fleming and Arnott work a pincer movement on Huntley’s squad; Fleming is attached to her unit and Arnott rattles her cage with his AC-12 calling card. The game is on.
The paranoiac Ifield is proving relentless in his pursuit of Arnott. “I feel I’m alone. No one else at Polk Avenue realises what’s really going on… and of all people, you know what that’s like,” he adds archly, claiming he and Arnott are kindred spirits because Arnott was the whistleblower when Karim Ali was killed by police during the anti-terrorist operation that sparked events in series one.
AC-12 aren’t the only ones doubting the forensics on Farmer – Huntley sends for the file only to find it has been pulled by Ifield, whom we are now certain has another agenda after he tracks down coffee-shop waitress Hana.
So it’s all bubbling up nicely, which led us to a breathless last 10 minutes – Ifield was revealed to be… well, a balaclava man (but the balaclava man?) and a man, when pushed, who will push back very hard.
Early criticism from the right wing-press decried Line of Duty as a revisionist left-wing fantasy in which the police are fundamentally corrupt, and was all about plot and with no characters to arouse our sympathies. This proved to be totally wrong in subsequent series. Admittedly, few of the characters are heartwarming little saints, but we do empathise with them, which is the key point of drama. You don’t have to love us; just understand why we do what we do.
Guest star Daniel Mays’ was unceremoniously dispatched before credits rolled on the first episode of series three (as was Jessica Raine in episode one of series two) – so given Line of Duty’s track record (and its gasp-inducing episode one finale) it’s not unfair to wonder whether Newton’s character will make it through next week’s episode.