Line of Duty series 1, episode 1: Who do you serve, who can you trust?

From left: Martin Compston, Adrian Dunbar, Vicky McClure from Line of Duty. Photo Credit: Des Willie/Courtesy of Acorn TV.
From left: Martin Compston, Adrian Dunbar, Vicky McClure from Line of Duty. Photo Credit: Des Willie/Courtesy of Acorn TV. /

Line of Duty series 1, episode 1 revolutionized the police drama.

In honor of Line of Duty series 1 airing on BBC One starting tonight, we’re looking back at the best TV crime drama in any country—likewise, from the very beginning.

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for and discussion about Line of Duty series 1, episode 1. You can stream the episode on Acorn TV, Amazon Video, and BritBox now.

Line of Duty follows the casework of Anti-Corruption Unit 12 (AC-12), a team of police investigators who are solely dedicated to stopping corruption, no matter what the cost. Created and written by Jed Mercurio (Bodyguard), it’s the definitive crime drama for the modern era.

This week, we start at the beginning with Line of Duty series 1, episode 1.

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The fatal mistake

Jed Mercurio is a master of dramatic openings, as demonstrated by the white-knuckle and heartbreaking way he introduces Line of Duty viewers to the show’s protagonist, Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (a superlative Martin Compston).

The series doesn’t just drop into AC-12; instead, it takes the time to develop Steve through showing the incident that sets him on the path to Anti-Corruption. He’s working as an authorized firearms officer (AFO) overseeing a counter-terrorism operation. But the red flags are quick and multiple: the order he’s waiting on takes longer to arrive, the sniper doesn’t have a clear shot from outside the window, and time is running out.

Much to Steve’s horror, the tactical team enters the wrong flat and kills an innocent man. What looked like 56 was actually 59—the 9 having fallen off its top hinge to dangle upside-down—and now Karim Ali is dead and the suspect has vanished into thin air.

There are so many brilliant things about how Line of Duty plays out this sequence. Most notably, the audience never sees much more than the police do, thanks to quick cuts between Steve and his team outside and the inside of flat 59. We don’t realize until seconds before they do that Ali is holding a baby sling, not a bomb harness, and we don’t find out until Steve does how the mistake was made.

That forces the audience to think and react from the police perspective. We can’t pass easy judgment on the tactical team; we don’t know they’re walking into the wrong room. And when they do, it’s important to note that the officer who pulls the trigger is just as crushed about it as our hero. Mercurio doesn’t write Steve as the one good cop in a sea of terrible ones; his colleagues feel anguish and remorse, too. They’re humanized, not villainized.

Compston also hits the nail on the head here. Much like Richard Madden in the opening sequence of Bodyguard, we need that emotional moment where Steve realizes the full magnitude of what’s happening. Compston’s reaction is what makes the shock, sorrow and anger hit home, where the audience and the protagonist are both in that same headspace. He provides the emotion that we need to feel the full impact of this moment—and it’s a gut-punch.

But that’s just the beginning.

Steve’s supervisor arrives on the scene and orders the entire team to submit false statements that claim Ali was aggressive toward them and gave them no choice but to shoot. Steve is the only one to disobey that order, leading a confrontation with his boss outside the coroner’s court. To his credit, he refuses to back down, calling the short-notice operation “a runaway train. Admit our mistake, apologize, and get on with the job of finding the actual terrorists.”

And that’s how Steve Arnott gets to AC-12, having accepted a job offer from Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar).

Hero or target?

While a shell-shocked Steve is getting re-started, Line of Duty introduces us to the season’s antagonist (or is he?), Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates.

It’s the suspects who have the most high-profile roles each series, and with good reason: Gates is played by the incomparable Lennie James, most notably of the Walking Dead franchise but who previously tangoed with the bad-cop genre in Low Winter Sun. When you’re lucky enough to get an actor of his caliber, you make sure that he has more than enough to do.

Lennie James is brilliant in this role and a perfect choice to start the series off with; his characters have always existed in grey areas without being any less sympathetic. His heroes have an amount of dark side to them, and his villains aren’t completely lost. That’s the case with Gates, who is seen having lunch with ex-girlfriend Jackie Laverty (Gina McKee, who’d go on to play Anne Sampson in Bodyguard) just before stopping an attempted mugging.

Yes, he’s cheating on his wife, but he’s also still doing good works, isn’t he? And then he’s getting an award, but Hastings looks bored to tears at the ceremony and wants Steve to find out Gates’s secret.

Line of Duty lets the audience in first: Jackie drunkenly hit something, or maybe someone, with her car. She calls Gates for help, as thanks to a previous DWI conviction, she’s facing time behind bars. He takes her keys and stages a break-in. But he knows what he’s done, and even he doesn’t have the full story.

The next morning, his TO-20 team uncovers that Jackie killed a man—though they don’t know it’s her. Gates urges her to confess, just before Steve and Hastings arrive to ask him about something inane: failing to report the free breakfast he got for stopping the robbery. It seems like Hastings has a grudge, and he’s found his way in.

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The Nest
Line of Duty — Courtesy of BritBox /

Walking the minefield

From that point on, Line of Duty does what every TV crime drama aspires to do: take several plot threads that seem to be unrelated and tie them all together. Steve meets Detective Constable Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), a paper-pushing CID officer who’s angling for a job in TO-20, only to find out that she’s working undercover for AC-12.

Kate has evidence that Gates is cherry-picking easy cases and slapping on additional charges to boost his statistics—that’s what Hastings has been getting at. Not knowing that Gates has failed to contain the Jackie of it all; not only does she not confess, but she didn’t mention that the man she killed was her accountant. An increasingly more panicked Gates deletes the link between the death report and Jackie’s carjacking report, but not before Steve has seen it.

And as for Steve himself, he’s become enemy number one thanks to a well-intentioned attempt to give Gates the benefit of the doubt. He tries to assure Gates that he believes in his innocence, but when the other man finds out that Hastings is expanding the investigation beyond the paperwork charge, Gates blames Steve and puts a target on his back.

So what will Steve do? How far will he go to pursue a case he’s not sure that he believes in? And will he end up on the outside just like he did in counter-terrorism?

Steve Arnott may be a polarizing character to some, but he’s quite admirable. His moral compass doesn’t change no matter who he’s speaking to; he’s willing to push Hastings just like he pushed back against his old boss, and he doesn’t jump on board with the mission against Gates. He has to see evidence, like a proper officer, and that integrity is what carries him.

Plus, Mercurio is willing to write him as someone who’s unsure of himself, who’s carrying the weight of his past, and so he’s a character who grows as well. So many series follow the special cop, or the supercop—Steve is just a good cop, and a good man, and Martin Compston is given the room to play him without all the cards.

Line of Duty also creates characters around him who, while their job is to catch dirty cops, are not above reproach themselves. Hastings’ determination to catch Gates could come off as the same pressure put on Steve to fall in line, just for different reasons. At least he has an opinion, unlike so many TV supervisors who exist only to scold and/or order their junior officers around. And Adrian Dunbar’s dry way of delivering everything is positively delightful.

And while Kate is dedicated to put herself undercover, and convincingly so (neither the script nor Vicky McClure make her look the least bit suspicious before the big reveal), if you’re lying to everyone around you, are you lying to yourself along the way? We leave the first episode knowing very little about her. But we do know she’s a badass, and not in the “look at us creating a strong woman” caricature way, but genuinely badass—no qualifiers required. When she walks into a scene, she owns it.

So many series want to exist in the grey area, or create antiheroes who do wrong things for the right reasons. That’s even more common in the TV crime drama genre, where every writer wants the hook that’ll make their cop show different from the pack. Line of Duty actually succeeds at being what it talks itself up to be. From the jump, it sincerely explores what it means to be a good cop, and what qualifies someone as a bad one.

As Steve learns here, anti-corruption isn’t just about taking bribes—there are many ways someone can betray their badge. There are also just as many reasons why they can do it. The pilot succeeds because it shows so much across the spectrum and paints a complete, honest and also interesting picture, rather than one point of view or the most dramatic option.

By the end we know that Tony Gates is doing good things in a bad way (does that negate the good or temper the bad?). He’s a cynical veteran, while with Steve Arnott we get the idealistic cop who’s struggling to hold onto those hopeful beliefs. With Ted Hastings we have somebody who plays in a very strict frame of rules, but that doesn’t stop him from having his own agenda.

None of the key players are painted with one brush, and whether it’s bureaucracy, personal morality, or even a bit of an identity crisis, the show tackles a lot. It also doesn’t flinch from any of it. Jed Mercurio is a marvel for being willing and able to put all these intangibles down on the page and get them onto the screen in a fully realized way. For every point, there is an equal and opposite counterpoint. And that’s just in the first episode…

Next. Martin Compston talks Line of Duty and The Nest. dark

Line of Duty series 1 is now streaming on Amazon Video, Acorn TV (with a 7-day free trial) and BritBox.