Line of Duty series 1, episode 5: Self-destruction and self-realization

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 5 is a startling conclusion.

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 5. 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 with Line of Duty series 1, episode 5. If you missed our analysis of episode 4, you can catch up here. We’ll return with Line of Duty series 2 commentaries on Tuesday Aug. 25.

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Rescue and a reckoning

“The Probation” begins with Tony Gates (Lennie James) following his conscience after all and rescuing Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) before Tommy Hunter’s thugs can kill him.

Steve gets to spend the rest of the Line of Duty finale working one-handed, but he’s alive—which is good news for him and for the viewers, because it means that we’re not losing Martin Compston. One of the things about writing a TV series well is knowing when you have great talent and when to hold onto them. Too many shows, particularly TV crime dramas, have killed a character off before realizing their full value.

But this opening sequence is impressive for more than just Steve’s survival—it’s where he and Gates finally settle up. Steve knows, by that act, that Gates still has (and has had) a moral code and while he’s many things, he’s not a killer.

Note that Lennie James doesn’t have a single line of dialogue in the whole thing. Compston does, because Steve isn’t sure Gates didn’t just want to kill him himself, but James says everything in a look. That’s how incredible of an actor he is, and again (like the memorial sequence in the episode prior) an example of how Line of Duty prefers to minimize where other shows would maximize.

It’s not that Jed Mercurio doesn’t want to write those big moments; he’s certainly done massive scenes of dialogue, both in this series and in Bodyguard (the first 15 minutes there are a master class in how to build tension and character through language). But with Line of Duty he shows a real awareness of the TV crime drama genre. It’s like he knows the beats that every other series would hit and he’s making a point of avoiding them.

Gates then exits stage right and goes home to tell his wife (Kate Ashfield) that her life’s in danger; when she won’t leave without him, he finally confesses that he was cheating as a weapon to get her to turn on him. It’s an irrevocable move, as it breaks their marriage, but it’s the only way he can make her leave.

Meanwhile, the psychology of Steve Arnott continues to be a veritable case study. Remember that this is Steve’s first assignment with AC-12, the events of this series having taken place over a few days or weeks, and he’s gotten abducted and maimed. How does that affect him? Might he want to think about his job choice again? Does he wonder what the heck happens after this? This is his template for how this job is supposed to go, and it’s a grueling one.

That might be why for much of this episode, Martin Compston’s primary facial expression is a flat look like Steve is over this now. It’s a subtle demonstration of his give a damn having broken.

Series 1 serves as the sort of coming of age of Steve Arnott, as by the end scene he has closed the chapter of his life in counter-terrorism and embarked upon a new life in anti-corruption. His eyes are wide open now to things he never saw before, and the audience has watched him come alive. This isn’t where Steve ever wanted to be, but it’s clear that AC-12 is where he belongs; now he’s realized that, and they need him just as much.

This all seems familiar

The primary questions in the first episode of Line of Duty were “Who do you serve?” and “Who can you trust?” Here in the last episode of the season, the answers have flipped again.

Steve’s own moral code means he wants to cut Gates a break after the man saved his life, so he denies that Gates was at the scene before or after his kidnapping. However, Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) finds out from interviewing Tommy Hunter’s errand boy that Gates was there, and she rightfully calls out Steve for lying to her.

Later on, Steve sets up a clandestine meeting with Gates through Nigel Morton (Neil Morrissey), and likewise lies to Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) about it. But Hastings is also on to him, since he had put surveillance on Steve’s home in case Hunter’s goons decided to finish the job. Not only is Dunbar’s aggravation in this moment pitch-perfect, you have to love how Hastings refers to Steve as “Steven” as an extra little way of pointing out how annoyed he is.

This is the second time Steve has gone rogue from his AC-12 colleagues—first to take Gates down and now to help him out. They have every right to be upset with him, because as Kate tells him, he’s jeopardizing their work. But also because they’re supposed to be on the same team, and especially on a team that’s about finding the truth, you can’t be telling each other lies. They have to be completely transparent, and thus completely vulnerable, with one another.

Steve, who’s always got a certain amount of tunnel vision, can’t quite do that yet. This is the guy who wakes up in the hospital and the first thing he asks is if there’s been any sign of Gates. Not if the doctors saved his finger—they did—or any worry about himself. He’s still thinking about the case. This case is now how he defines himself.

But “The Probation” sets up a poignant 360 for Steve Arnott in that sense. He started out in that first episode sympathetic to Gates, even apologetic about Hastings’ dogged pursuit of him. After everything he’s sympathetic toward him again but for entirely different reasons. Now Steve can see the full scope of who Tony Gates is and what he’s into, and he’s doing the same thing he was trying to do originally: get a good cop out of a bad way.

Steve’s character hasn’t changed; his perspective has. He’s always wanted to make things right, in whatever form that may be. He’s not just about taking people down; he tries to salvage the good out of any situation, too. It’s a shame that it doesn’t actually work.

After Gates joins forces with TO-20 to locate Tommy Hunter, get him on tape confessing to all of the crimes, and have him arrested, the other man refuses Steve’s offer to run. His marriage being demolished, his career well over (we’ve now heard the phrase “dead man” numerous times in that respect), he has nothing left to live for. The last good thing he can do is commit suicide, so that his family receives death-in-service benefits and his pension.

“That’s what you owe me. This and nothing else,” he tells Steve; in exchange for saving Steve’s life, Steve has to let him take his own.

Gates steps into traffic and is near-immediately hit by an oncoming truck; afterward, Steve does indeed tell Hastings and Chief Superintendent Hilton (Paul Higgins) that Gates died doing his job, with Fleming wordlessly backing him up. The investigation is finally over—but Line of Duty doesn’t stop there.

The aftermath and the way forward

It’s important to talk about the end of “The Probation” and the end of Line of Duty series 1, because endings have become an incredibly overlooked part of TV crime dramas and television in general. So many series choose the negative or twist ending, because there’s the shock value of the final few moments and then the audience gets to turn it off and walk away. Rarely do we see series that pursue serious consequences.

Line of Duty is one of those by not stopping after the suicide. There’s a psychological aftermath for both Steve and Kate, who not only just watched a man die, but both of them were close to him in different ways. Kate saw Gates genuinely start to open up to her, and you got the sense that she’d developed a certain empathy for his struggles, even if she didn’t approve of the actions that led to them.

And Steve got uncomfortably close to Gates, realizing by the end that they weren’t as far apart as he would have liked. He saw more of himself in the other man, and Gates saw a little of himself in Steve, even though they could never be on the same side. Diametrical opposites always have a bit of truth to them.

The audience is prompted to wonder what will happen to them after this. How do they get up the next day or the next week and live with what they’ve seen? Do they just go back to work and go on to the next one? Particularly for Steve, who just started down this road, how does this change his outlook going forward? The questions are put out there even though this could have been the end of the whole show (thankfully it wasn’t).

Line of Duty also makes use of an epilogue that specifically tells the audience what happened to all of the major players—something it has done in every series.

The audience learns that the police higher-ups never used Tommy Hunter’s confession and instead gave him an out in witness protection; meanwhile, Steve testified against his former colleagues in counter-terrorism, but none of them were ever charged, either. So after everything we’ve just been through, no criminal charges were actually filed against anyone.

It’s a slightly controversial conclusion, because it definitely qualifies as a negative ending and it could also make the viewer feel like the whole show has just been a waste of time. But in a weird way, it doesn’t come off like that, because there are some deeper messages underneath.

AC-12’s corruption case against Tony Gates goes down as “not proven” and while no details are provided, one wonders how much of that had to do with our heroes taking into account what they knew and making the conscious decision not to push forward with something that would only do further harm. By “The Probation,” Steve and Kate know Gates’ true nature, so why tear a generally good man down and take away those benefits? Did they walk away from the factual case for the greater good?

Contrast that with Steve’s inquest. The counter-terrorism officers knowingly turned away from the truth as well, but they didn’t do it for any good reason; they did it to save their own skin, and they got away with it because there were more of them than there were of Steve. The fact that Steve was still willing to stand up in court and speak the truth was noble, and a reminder to the viewers that there’s still at least one good cop out there, who’s going to keep fighting.

While it may have ended badly overall, Line of Duty shows us that there are moments of human truth beyond the facts of any given case. AC-12 might have been able to pursue postmortem charges against Gates and be legally right, but someone did a morally good thing in protecting the best interests of his family. Steve did a morally (and legally) right thing in testifying even though he could have been scapegoated and seen his whole career go down for it. The truth might not be on paper, but it’s still in there somewhere, as long as there are people willing to look for it.

If this had for some reason been the final episode of the series fans would have left feeling like it wasn’t a complete victory, but there was still something to look forward to. Knowing as we do now that it was just the end of series 1, it sets the stage—because there’s plenty of work to be done.

AC-12 still have to work around people like Hilton, who’s too happy to cut deals with Tommy Hunter and offer Cottan a promotion before Gates is even out of his office (which, kudos to Jed Mercurio for how he subtly sets up the reveal that Cottan is a mole…as well as a big hint toward a plot in a later season that we won’t spoil in case this is your first watch). They still have to fight for the good cops, not just search for the bad ones.

That’s what makes this show remarkable: it truly digs into the moral, emotional and psychological territory of policing through the lens of anti-corruption. It’s a breath of fresh air not just because it is a unit that rarely is focused on in films and TV, but because like AC-12, Line of Duty itself goes into all corners and never flinches. It wants us to talk, to think, to be frustrated and inspired.

And it is filled with actors who can take those moral dilemmas and emotional breaks off the page and make them palpably real. It’s an incredible piece of entertainment, but it’s also the TV crime drama that the genre needs.

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.