Line of Duty series 1, episode 3 is a long road of self-destruction.
In honor of Line of Duty series 1 airing on BBC One tonight, we’re looking back at the best TV crime drama in any country—likewise, from the very beginning.
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 3. If you missed our analysis of episode 3, you can catch up here.
The search for Jackie—or her body
This episode, entitled “In The Trap,” picks up almost where the prior episode left off. Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) arrives at Jackie Laverty’s house, but what viewers know to be a bloody crime scene has been almost entirely cleaned up. And Jackie’s corpse is nowhere to be found.
That’s because Tony Gates (Lennie James) has cleaned himself up, and feeds Steve a story about having arrived just minutes earlier to arrest Jackie, only to find her missing after an apparent struggle. Steve believes this about as far as he can throw Gates, but the other man has rank and starts up a missing-persons investigation. While also wiping his fingerprints off and pocketing the second glass that proves he was drinking with Jackie before her death. Yes, he’s in full CYA mode.
Knowing that he needs to get a step ahead of Gates before the other man can keep setting up an obviously false narrative, Steve returns to CID and finds out from Rita Bennett that Jackie killed her accountant, and that Gates was aware of the victim’s identity. He weaponizes this fact when Gates is called in for a second interview, in which he tries to claim that Jackie was his stalker and the entire affair was one-sided.
Steve is still not impressed. Honestly, Line of Duty could do a whole montage of just Martin Compston’s perfectly unimpressed faces.
But this underscores an important point: Steve can hold his own with Gates, and that’s because Martin Compston can hold his own with Lennie James. Lennie James happens to be one of the top British actors working today—an incredible performer who brings so much intensity to each of his roles. It’s no small feat to measure up to him, and it’s also critical for Line of Duty‘s success.
There’s a certain David and Goliath dynamic inherent in the show’s premise, and we need to believe that only can Steve Arnott stand his ground against someone like Tony Gates (and all the folks after), but that he can beat them. Otherwise, the whole series just comes off like an exercise in futility. Luckily, Compston has the stage presence his role demands, and it’s clear that he and James were able to build a great rapport together.
Tilting at windmills
If you hadn’t noticed them before, “In The Trap” is the Line of Duty episode that really jams home the parallels between Steve and Gates. Both of them are relentless and supremely dedicated, and both lose their minds in this one.
As referenced previously, Steve is still very new to how Anti-Corruption works, which is not like any other police unit. He’s incredibly smart—as evidenced by how he hammers Gates effectively in the interview scene—but he doesn’t know how to handle the facts.
Knowing his nemesis has the glass, Steve decides to personally search Gates’ car in the TO-20 parking lot, which is a truly boneheaded move. For one, how the hell does he think he’s going to get into said car without a warrant? For two, as Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) points out, it makes him look desperate. And it also clues Gates into exactly what Steve’s plan of attack is.
On top of that, Steve thinks it’s a good idea to smooth-talk his way into Gates’ house with the idea of putting pressure on him to turn himself in. Aside from all the operationally wrong things about that, it’s just the wrong approach. Gates is not a soft touch and that’s not what he responds to. From a writing standpoint, though, the scene is a nice bookend by Line of Duty to the episode 1 moment when Steve met up with Gates to be a sympathetic ear. Now Steve wants him to know he’s there to hurt him, not help.
When Steve encourages Gates to think about his family, though, you get the sense that he actually, sincerely means that rather than how so many TV cops say it like a veiled threat. You also get the impression that at least part of the reason Gates has no interest in turning is that he doesn’t want to give Steve the satisfaction.
However, Tony Gates is literally losing his mind. He’s hallucinating Jackie Laverty in the restroom, and he’s got his own kind of desperation. Getting a message from her phone convinces him that she must still be alive—but really, how many people survive having their throat cut? He ought to know better, but he needs her to be alive. That’s how he ends up going off on his own, getting himself abducted (no surprise there), and seeing her body in a freezer. Because on TV if there’s a freezer, there’s usually a body in it.
This is our first introduction to Tommy Hunter (Brian McCardie in a voice-only role), the drug lord pulling all the strings. He helpfully explains to Gates, and thus to the Line of Duty audience, that Jackie was working for him with all that money laundering—but now he’s got an even bigger fish on the hook.
Both of these characters are spinning out of control, and both of them need to take a breath and get their stuff together. Does the phrase “mutually assured destruction” sound familiar?
Broken loyalties and empty words
Gates decides to run a loyalty test on his team, giving them each a false location on the glass to figure out which one of them is the AC-12 mole. Kate is able to see this coming, while poor Deepak (Faraz Ayub) takes the bait and gets kicked out of TO-20—but not before asking his now ex-boss if he’s going to take them all down with him. It’s a fair question!
Here’s where Line of Duty sets up opposites instead of parallels: Gates has all these allies, but he is no more in control nor protected than Steve, who thinks he has to lone-wolf everything. There’s a scene where Gates tries to talk to Chief Superintendent Hilton (Paul Higgins) and rightly points out the man had no problem supporting him before he got into trouble. They’re both capable of ending up out in the cold; the difference is that Steve has chosen that. He’s used to it. For Gates, it’s a reality check.
The psychology of Steve Arnott is actually quite fascinating, as evidenced by Line of Duty‘s subplot during “In the Trap” where he gets a visit from one of his ex-colleagues. Colin Brackley (Darren Morfitt) has come to beg Steve to play along this time, in exchange for his former teammates not scapegoating him. Colin’s the messenger, while also talking about how he’s still devastated over his having shot and killed Karim Ali. Both things are true—he feels genuine agony, but he’s also trying to get Steve to shut up and fall in line with a broken system.
And in the end, Steve can’t excoriate Colin the way he goes into their meeting wanting to. The talk instead has him looking inward, and he sends a text to his AC-12 team declaring that he’s “the wrong man for the job.”
Here’s where dramatic license comes into play. Line of Duty wants us to think that Steve is giving up, but the seasoned viewer knows he’ll almost certainly be back; it’s the middle of the series and you don’t see characters vanish so abruptly, unless it’s like Lisa Faulkner in Spooks. So the ending of the episode comes with a grain of salt, but it does speak to Steve’s state of mind and why it’s so engrossing to watch the wheels in his mind turn.
The essence of Steve Arnott is doing the right thing. He signed up to be a cop to do the right thing; he didn’t lie as an AFO because he wanted to do what was right; and he went to AC-12 to likewise be right. If he no longer believes he’s doing what’s right—or worse, if he thinks he’s now doing the wrong thing—he’s betrayed himself.
When he says in the text “Gates has won,” that doesn’t come across as him thinking Gates has beaten him; it comes across as the sense that Gates has pushed him into being someone he doesn’t want to be. That he’s crossed some lines already and to keep at the investigation would have him crossing a few more. By matching wits with Tony Gates, he’s become the kind of cop that he abhors, and the only way to stop it is to get out.
That conceded, though, Steve is reminiscent of another awesome TV hero: Jack Bauer of 24 fame. For both characters, their mission isn’t just what they do; it’s part of their identity, inherent in who they are. As much as Jack wanted to quit and frankly deserved to after all the things he endured, he never did; Steve is not the guy who can throw his hands up and go work in another unit. He may want to, he may even attempt to, but after what he’s seen and what it’s taught him about himself, there’s no going back.
Like Jack Bauer, he’s a good officer who then becomes made for this specific calling based on the personal experiences that he’s gone through. Of course, Jack went to some pretty dark places and fell off a time or two over his run, so the question will be how much of Steve’s idealism ends up being sacrificed to his ongoing mission—but that’s a story for another season.
The hook now isn’t will he come back, but what’s going to make him turn round…because this will be another one of the definitive moments in his entire life, and potentially Tony Gates’ life as well.