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Line of Duty: if we want a better ending, it’s up to us

05 May 2021

In the popular BBC1 crime drama, there are no supervillains or flawless heroes, says Rachel Muers

BBC/World Productions

DCI Ian Buckells (Nigel Boyle) is interviewed by Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) in BBC1’s Line of Duty

DCI Ian Buckells (Nigel Boyle) is interviewed by Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) in BBC1’s Line of Duty

THE Line of Duty finale was, by wide though not universal consent, disappointing. “So . . . that was it?” my teenage son said, as the credits rolled and it became clear that there was no final trick up Jed Mercurio’s sleeve, and that there were no more surprises in store for AC-12.

This also meant that there were no “big bad”, no boss fight, no satisfactory fall of a criminal mastermind — and no corresponding triumph for our trio of heroes, least of all for the warrior saint Ted Hastings. Instead, run-of-the-mill good police work, mostly undertaken off-screen, achieved a small victory over a frankly dull and mediocre baddie — and then saw most of its gains rapidly disappear down the institutional plughole.

In the Line of Duty finale, we learned that there really was no criminal mastermind after the death of Tommy Hunter; the devil had left the building. Ian Buckells, the “fourth man”, was not the final dot that joined up all the dots, but just one among many patches of rot habitually ignored in the official picture of the institution.

We can read him, cautiously, as a figure of the “banality of evil” — quoting Hannah Arendt’s famous characterisation of Adolf Eichmann, as she observed him at his trial. Buckells is a not very intelligent mid-level bureaucrat who fails upwards into power and downwards into murder, without ever really thinking about it. Like Arendt’s Eichmann, he appears as a clown more than as a monster — deeply unserious, even at the moment when justice catches up with him, unable or unwilling to see what he has done.

But, in contrast with Eichmann, there is no “H” behind Buckells. As it turns out, the evil against which our 21st-century heroes have been struggling has no single controlling intelligence behind it — and does not need one. Everyday run-of-the-mill greed, laziness, pride, vanity, ambition, anger, and even misdirected love are quite enough to keep the wheels turning.

And, as we see in the ambiguous figure of the Chief Constable, without “H” in the picture it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference between the “bent copper”, in hock to organised crime, and the willingly or wilfully ignorant officer who protects his reputation at the expense of the truth.

In fact, the former — like Jo Davidson in the early part of this season, but, perhaps, also like Buckells, given the earlier scene in a prison cell, in which he witnesses the killing of Jimmy Lakewell — may well be a traumatised and coerced victim, with far more to lose than the person who turns a blind eye. The institution looks increasingly like the closed barrel in which rot will inevitably spread from one bad apple to another. At this stage, it is not even particularly useful to look for the original source: there are multiple OCGs (organised crime groups).


IF THERE are no supervillains, there are also no flawless heroes. The one unshakeable champion of integrity in Line of Duty’s world — Gail Vella, the “lighthouse” who illuminated the darkness and warned of trouble ahead — never appears in the show (except in TV footage from before she died). Ted, the warrior saint, confesses his failures and retires from his old battles.

The task of doing good is left in the hands of the patient and undramatic seekers of truth (like Chloe), the wounded fighters who need a break and can’t seem to catch one (like Kate and Steve), the troubled souls grasping at a second chance (like Farida), and even the people who have not yet chosen right, but still could (like, it seems, Patricia Carmichael).

As Arendt reflected about 20th-century terror, but might also be true for 21st-century systemic corruption: in these conditions, most will comply, but some will not. If it’s too simple to turn everyone into a villain or a hero, it’s also too simple to say that “They’re all the same.” Individual responsibility still matters, even or especially when the rot is pervasive in the system; so, at the end of the story, Buckells goes to prison, and Farida steps back into the line of duty, and there is a recognisable rightness to this, even though it falls short of a conclusive settling of scores.

The moral space in which the finale of Line of Duty leaves its characters is —perhaps appropriately for something that might or might not be the end — a penultimate space. It’s a space that calls for patient and impassioned efforts, individually and collectively, to bend the arc a little way further in the direction of justice. It may also leave its viewers in that space. Ted’s repeated, and ever more pointed, questions in this series — “When did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?” — were rather obviously aimed beyond the fourth wall.


I AGREED, and, on balance, still agree with my son about the Line of Duty season finale as a piece of television. It was a disappointment. I felt betrayed; I had trusted Mercurio to tie up all the threads and provide a resounding happy ending, not because I think resounding happy endings reflect real life, but because I expect them from crime drama.

Perhaps, following Dorothy L. Sayers, I believe that the task of crime fiction is to hold out a vision of restored moral and social order, to assure us that chaos and decay is not the final truth about the world, that sense can and will be made of all this. Perhaps, in fact, that is why I have been trying to make sense of the finale.

It is not the ending that we wanted, but the last thing that we learn in Line of Duty for 2021 is that AC-12 has lost most of its power to seek out and address corruption and to advance honesty and integrity in public life.

If we want a better ending than this, the writer admonishes us, we have to step into the story. And if we are reluctant to take that kind of message from a writer of TV drama, it might still be a message worth hearing.

Dr Rachel Muers is Professor of Theology in the School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science at the University of Leeds.

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