Line of Duty series 1, episode 4: The first trial of Steve Arnott

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 4 tries to kill Steve Arnott.

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.

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for and discussion about Line of Duty series 1, episode 4. 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 4. If you missed our analysis of episode 3, you can catch up here.

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Beauty in the breakdown

When last we saw Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), he was quitting on the Gates case and on AC-12. Arnott had done the mental math on what he’d seen both as an anti-corruption officer and from his past in counter-terrorism, and he didn’t like it.

Superintendent Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) finds Steve observing Karim Ali’s memorial service, and scolds him about leaving Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) to finish the Gates investigation on her own. What could’ve been a very tense and emotional scene is condensed into a brief verbal slap upside the head.

It’s interesting how little time “Terror” spends on Steve’s crisis of conscience. Other shows would have had that big confrontation where he unloads all his self-loathing and fears on Hastings, or given us a good half-episode of him brooding and reconsidering his life choices. Aside from those few lines exchanged outside the memorial, and then a few shots at Steve’s past from Hastings after Steve mouths off to their boss, viewers don’t see Steve on the ropes for very long.

On one hand that’s disappointing because Martin Compston is killer with that kind of emotional material—just look at his recent work in The Nest—but on the other it shows how resilient Steve is, which becomes probably his most defining characteristic. In the face of everything but the kitchen sink, he may wobble but he never breaks. It’s just not in him to give less than his absolute best.

(What’s fun is that Kate refers to Steve as a “blunt instrument,” which is exactly how James Bond was described in Casino Royale. Are we getting Bond-ian vibes off DS Arnott? Hey, Kate’s surname is Fleming, after all.)

It doesn’t take long for Steve to get his self-esteem back; he’s emboldened when he believes that AC-12 can connect Gates to all three murders after they question all of TO-20 and Matthew “Dot” Cottan (Craig Parkinson) says Gates ordered him off surveillance duty early, thus enabling the first two killings.

However, Line of Duty has Steve make another dumb mistake: go off on his own to investigate a phone call from a supposed witness. Several TV crime dramas have employed this trope and it has never ended well—and it doesn’t for him either.

We’ve done the Jack Bauer comparison previously but “Terror” hits that on the head. Steve, like Jack, goes through both the emotional and physical wringer because he always has to go headlong into the good fight. He’s so driven by his morals and the rage from what happened to him that he can’t stop, and when you can’t stop oftentimes you crash. Or get your hand crushed in a vise.

The greater threat

With being framed for murder hanging over his head, Tony Gates (Lennie James) is pressed into service for Tommy Hunter’s gang in “Terror.” He passes information about the Jackie Laverty case on to Hunter, before continuing to look into the slayings Hunter’s team committed. Sort of.

As in, he comes up with the theory that it’s not drugs but terrorism. Not only is this everyone’s favorite buzzword, but it gives Gates a shot back at Steve, by claiming that said terrorists must be the ones that Steve failed to catch at the start.

But Hunter doesn’t just want Steve sidelined again—he wants him killed, and expects Gates to do the deed.

Gates, to his credit, balks at the idea even though Steve has become his nemesis. He’s able to find where he was taken during his abduction by using traffic cams and plans to destroy the “evidence” Hunter has over him, but Jackie’s body is no longer in the freezer. Out of options, Gates serves up Steve to Hunter’s gang, and leaves him to be tortured—for the first but not the last time that Line of Duty will find ways to torment Steve Arnott.

Unfortunately, he’s approached this with semi-typical TV crime drama naivete. Gates believes that sacrificing Steve will earn him his freedom, only for Hunter to not hold up his end of the bargain.

Gates should know better. He should actually know better about a lot of things, as he does his own math in this episode and sees all his misjudgments and oversights adding up. He finally tells his wife about almost all of his relationship with Jackie, and struggles to hold his team together.

It’s fun to watch from an entertainment perspective, because an unleashed Lennie James is even more amazing, but Line of Duty doesn’t hold back when pointing out that Gates’ downfall is not based on this one thing but has been a while in the making. Our idea of him as a good cop from the first episode seems miles away now when we understand that he was adding on charges and taking money, even if it was for his kids.

But there’s still some morality in him somewhere, right? Or will he leave Steve to his fate the same way he wasn’t able to help Jackie?

The enemy of one’s enemy

If you hadn’t guessed it by now, Line of Duty has set the stage for Steve and Gates to team up in an effort to take down Hunter, which will be messy on all kinds of levels. Should they succeed they then have to decide what to do with each other, if Gates doesn’t have a complete mental break first.

Turning adversaries into allies is something else that TV crime dramas have done over the years, with varying degrees of effectiveness. But with Line of Duty it works because the prior episodes have shown the parallels between the two characters. As much as they’d both hate to admit it the two of them are somewhat alike; Gates is what Steve could turn into with another decade-plus and if he’d made some different choices. And one imagines that once upon a time, before reality and the associated cynicism set in, Gates was probably a bit like Steve.

They are on totally opposite ends of the spectrum, but there’s just enough common ground that they should mesh well together, too—and that there will be plenty of internal conflict when they finally do come head-to-head and eye-to-eye.

This episode also gives us the phrase “institutionalized malpractice,” which is severely underrated and perfectly delivered by Adrian Dunbar. Line of Duty raises another issue in the scene where we see Hastings have to calm down the always-panicky Chief Superintendent Hilton (Paul Higgins, who previously played the potentially homicidal Jamie McDonald in The Thick of It).

Are “bad cops” that way on their own, a problem to be exterminated, or are they a product of a broken system worried more about appearances, quotas and other external pressures? Or both? The real answer, as Hastings subtly indicates, is likely somewhere in the middle. Which then makes Line of Duty‘s beautifully grey area even greyer.

When all this comes crashing down, as it will, who do we blame? Do we blame Tony Gates for all his misdeeds, which were mostly his choices? What about the drug dealer, the ex-girlfriend who was laundering money, the bosses like Hilton who looked the other way for too long? The show makes a compelling argument, and always has, that behind every case of corruption is not one person but an entire network of failure.

That could get very depressing and uninteresting very fast. But Jed Mercurio is careful to then present us a counterpoint in the form of Steve Arnott—whom you can torture but he’s always around somewhere. Maybe just not in one piece.

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.