Line of Duty series 1, episode 2: Standing at the edge of the earth

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 2 pushes its characters into the abyss.

In honor of Line of Duty series 1 airing on BBC One, 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 2. 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 re-open the file on Line of Duty series 1, episode 2. If you missed our analysis of episode 1, you can catch up here.

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Battle lines drawn

In “The Assault,” the gloves have come off and everyone has their back up. Action opens as Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) arrives at TO-20 to start looking around in their files, covertly aided by his teammate Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure).

Line of Duty has an opportunity to self-sabotage now that the audience knows Steve and Kate both work for AC-12, as many shows would use dramatic license to write scenes of them covertly talking in hallways (to be almost interrupted by someone) or “accidentally” running into each other. The two have one meet-up in this episode and some brief phone calls. Mercifully, Jed Mercurio never puts drama over what makes actual sense.

Steve doesn’t initially agree with Kate’s assertion that the hit-and-run is relevant—until, in the course of following up on the original infraction, he interviews the waitress at the cafe and learns that Gates was with a woman matching Jackie Laverty’s description.

(Fun and almost certainly irrelevant fact: the civilian employee who filed the paperwork on the hit-and-run case, Rita Bennett, shares a name with Julie Benz’s character from Dexter.)

The pieces quickly snap into place. Steve confronts Gates and then Jackie, while in between doing more research and figuring out that she’s been laundering drug money through the businesses in her holding company—which in turn immediately connects Line of Duty viewers to the other part of the ongoing story. This isn’t a show that drags itself out hoping to wring out suspense.

It’s also interesting to watch Steve’s continued evolution as an anti-corruption officer; remember that he’s only been on the job maybe a week at this point. He makes a few missteps here. The first is responding to the flirting of said waitress, being that she’s a witness; in fairness, he eventually realizes that’s a bad idea. The second is spelling out to Jackie Laverty exactly what he has on her before formally interviewing her; as TV crime drama fans know well, it is never a good idea to tell a suspect what you know and give them a chance to get back at you.

He’s lucky that doesn’t bite him, but he’s still got some growing up to do.

That’s if he manages to save his own skin. Unsurprisingly, word of Steve’s investigation into DCI Gates has spread beyond TO-20 (it’s not like anyone is being subtle about it), and now his former colleagues in counter-terrorism are suddenly trying to pin the blame for the Karim Ali shooting on him. It’s a clear case of retaliation, and it’ll be worth watching to see how Line of Duty squares that up with what we saw in the first episode.

The pilot fleshed Steve’s ex-colleagues out as being flawed but human, but if that’s what they are, surely they’d have some remorse for framing him, too? Or are they holding a grudge that he left, even though he was kicked out by his boss before he took the offer to join AC-12? This doesn’t jibe just yet, but it’s hardly started. And it adds yet another thematic layer to Line of Duty, because if you’re going to be the person impugning other people’s reputations, you’d better damn well have a good one of your own.

Is Steve willing to stand the heat of his character and fitness being called into question? Can he get out of that shooting case intact? If he doesn’t, his comeback is finished, and possibly his whole career. We don’t know a lot about him personally yet, but he seems like the guy who’s never wanted to be anything but a cop. So this could be not just his future but his identity on the line. And it’s going to be another eye-opening experience, that’s for sure.

The way that Mercurio has set up his dominoes, audiences are truly going to get to see who Steve Arnott is and what he stands for—a critical exploration to take when the entire purpose of the series is about integrity in policing. Steve is our protagonist, and if we don’t trust him and believe that he’s doing the right thing, then we don’t have anything.

Still a job to be done

Even with Gates officially under investigation, Line of Duty continues with its secondary case of drug dealing and murder. That’s another really important aspect of the show—crime doesn’t stop because the people chasing the criminals are being investigated. It would be unrealistic if the whole show was just about AC-12 and ignored the repercussions or the happenings elsewhere in the department. Not only does the secondary plot give the show credibility, it gives the audience something against which to juxtapose AC-12’s investigation.

We can hear from everyone how Tony Gates gets results and what a great cop he is, but that’s all just dialogue unless we see it for ourselves and understand the impact he has on the community. “The Assault” doesn’t only give us Gates as the boss behind a desk; it shows him doing detective work, most notably interviewing a witness in the double murder. He is what he’s supposed to be, which of course, then makes it harder to pick a side overall.

The audience also learns more about Gates’ motivations: it’s more than just professional pride on the line. As Kate points out, top crime figures give TO-20 access to the best possible resources, and Gates is able to deploy those resources to make a difference, whether it’s helping her with the poor guy who keeps getting burgled or giving Detective Sergeant Nigel Morton (Neil Morrissey) a new opportunity despite his handicap.

Unfortunately, he expects the same loyalty in return, like strong-arming Detective Constable Deepak Kapoor (Faraz Ayub) into spying on Steve.

One of the closing scenes of “The Assault” involves the witness being found dead, quite obviously killed off by the same people who committed the double murder. The bodies are falling, the drugs are in the wind, and this is what TO-20 are supposed to be able to close. Can they still function with the specter of internal investigation over their heads? As much as the audience may not trust Tony Gates at the moment, they kind of need him.

Sounds like a personal problem

Jackie (Gina McKee) continues to be the thorn in Gates’ side in this Line of Duty episode. He tells her off not once, but twice, and she continues to hang onto him like a desperate stalker. But just as he understands the full extent of what she’s dragged him into, it’s too late.

Gates has more information at his fingertips than Steve does; he knows that the man she killed was her accountant. When she shows up at the station, he informs her (via Post-It Note) that they are finished. And thanks to following Steve’s lead, he’s able to also deduce the money laundering, which in turn leads to a third bombshell deduction: Jackie didn’t hit her accountant on accident. He found out what she was up to, and she killed him.

It’s a lightbulb moment for the viewer, because everything truly is connected. The drug dealers’ money was going through Jackie, who committed murder to cover it up, and then ran to Gates for help, which then provided further reason for him to be investigated.

He does what he should do in this situation, and arrests her for manslaughter. However, Jackie does what TV crime drama viewers know she’s going to do, and turns on him. She threatens him with selling him out—first to Steve Arnott, and then to his wife. Gates cracks under the pressure of losing his family and changes his mind.

If there’s one eyebrow-arching moment Line of Duty gives us here, it’s why Gates continues to indulge Jackie’s obsession with him. She exhibits the behavior of a spoiled child, refusing to leave him alone, and while he takes steps to hold her accountable or at least get away from her, he ends up going back on those moves. She lies to him and yet he continues to listen to her. Why doesn’t he know better?

Part of it is the obvious rekindling of their romantic relationship, but there’s got to be more to the story; it would be too simple and frankly uninteresting if lust was his only motivation. But there’s a hint in this episode: notice that right after Superintendent Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) asks Steve what’s in it for Gates, Line of Duty cuts to him attending a function at an expensive private school. There’s a mutually beneficial relationship here, much like with the crime figures; Gates is a man who will do anything to take care of those closest to him.

He’s stuck with her. Maybe he even played on her obvious fixation with him, seeing an advantage he could gain. But regardless of who made the first move, he never had all the details until now, and he’s well in over his head. Lennie James’ best moments come as Gates, who’s supposed to be such a shrewd investigator, processes that he’s been blindsided. He let himself take one step across the line and in classic genre fashion, that one step was enough for a hard fall. One way or another, there’s no real coming back from this, either because he’ll face charges or because he’ll have to live with himself.

But Jackie, for all her numerous failings, is murdered at the end of “The Assault.” (Why didn’t she check who was at the door before she opened it?) And Tony Gates’ prints have been placed onto the murder weapon. Gates might be many things, but the audience knows he’s not a killer. And he’s going to need serious help to get himself out of the predicament Jackie left behind, or he’s going to end up a fall guy—not unlike Steve Arnott almost became, and might still become.

Is it possible that he and Steve may end up joining forces to get to the people pulling the strings, even if it means Gates has to answer for the crimes he did commit? If Gates helps Steve bring them down, is that mitigating in any way? Does everyone have something to answer for? We’re only two episodes in, and Line of Duty has already made clear that there’s no turning back. Not just for this moment, or even this season, but permanently.

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