Line of Duty series 2, episode 1: In which everything turns backward

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 2, episode 1 has the show turning upside down.

In honor of Line of Duty series 1 having re-aired on BBC One this summer, we’re looking back at the best TV crime drama in any country—likewise, from the very beginning. With series 1 in the books, now we move on to series 2.

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for and discussion about Line of Duty series 2, 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 open up the second season with Line of Duty series 2, episode 1.

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Back in action

First things first: second seasons are hard to do, especially for critically acclaimed TV shows. Audiences expect that series 2 is going to be as good as, if not better than, series 1—while the writers also have to smooth out rough edges and continue to move the universe forward.

A good example of this is 24; the first season was so tightly plotted and it came together amazingly in every aspect. While the second season (and subsequent ones after) were also excellent, it was clear that the writers were more making things up as they went in later years as opposed to that first season where every detail felt painstakingly hammered into place.

Line of Duty series 2, at least in “The Ambush” (which picks up a year after series 1), is much the same.

Without Steve Arnott’s story to give the audience an immediate in, the episode starts from the other direction: the perspective of the accused, Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes of Spooks and later on, Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard). It’s almost eight and a half minutes before the audience sees anyone related to AC-12, and that’s a risky move; it relies on Hawes alone to hold the audience’s interest.

When AC-12 finally do roll up, Denton is the only survivor of an ambush that killed three officers and nearly killed an unidentified witness. If you watched the prior episode it’s not hard to figure out that the witness is gangster Tommy Hunter. Mercurio deserves a lot of credit for keeping the two seasons interconnected when he could have taken the easy route and started with a clean slate. Those callbacks immediately heighten the tension for existing viewers and it’s wonderful to see a writer with that level of attention to detail.

He’s also worked hard to tell a story that’s distinct from that of Tony Gates; however, in trying to make sure it doesn’t feel familiar, this episode goes too far in the other direction and spends a lot of time away from what makes Line of Duty great.

Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) begs off the case because one of the deceased, Jayne Akers, was a friend—and because the married Kate is having an affair with Jayne’s husband Richard (played by Niall Macgregor). It’s positively cringe-worthy to see them hooking up on the same day as Jayne’s funeral.

The approach is sound: weave some personal stakes into this season for Kate in the same way that the first series was about Steve’s personal journey to AC-12 and his moral code. But Line of Duty suffers when Vicky McClure has relatively little screen time. She’s such a strong actress and after Kate and Steve seemed to form a bond at the end of series 1, it feels off to see them acting like they’re on opposite pages again.

It doesn’t help that Kate’s replacement, new arrival Georgia Trotman, is relatively underdeveloped and adds nothing to the show. Jessica Raine is a fantastic actress in Call the Midwife but not in this role; she doesn’t have the presence that McClure has opposite Martin Compston. The script can’t decide if Georgia is a wide-eyed newbie or a cynical cop who wants to challenge Steve, and it’s an honest cliche when the two share a kiss (despite having just met maybe two days ago).

That’s the kind of thing a lesser TV show throws in for pure drama, and Line of Duty doesn’t need it. When Kate finds a hook that means she has to get involved in the case and McClure is back in action, then “The Ambush” really starts to feel like it’s cracking on.

The long, strange trip of Lindsay Denton

Line of Duty creates antagonists who leave the audience guessing and then casts them with top-tier actors who are able to play both sides of the line. A massive reason why the first series was a smash hit was the presence of the incredible Lennie James and the push-pull chemistry that he had with Martin Compston.

Keeley Hawes is a big name to land, too, but this episode points Denton in the complete opposite direction of her predecessor. She’s not high-profile and she’s an incredibly passive character; she doesn’t ask enough questions before the titular ambush, is pretty ineffective after it happens, and AC-12 expose how little she knew or didn’t think to question. At times, you have to shake your head at how aloof this supposedly good cop is.

We also spend a large chunk of time in this episode either hearing about or seeing how depressing Denton’s life is; she really is the total opposite of Gates, living alone with financial difficulties while doing a lot of brooding. And where Gates’ TO-20 team closed ranks around him, Denton’s fellow officers assault her in the restroom, with her superior officer (Steve Toussaint) watching it happen. She’s not someone the audience can immediately root for like Gates.

Hawes has a tough job here; she’s stuck in that dark place a lot of the episode, and it also can’t be easy acting with a massive neck brace on 75 percent of the time. But when the episode does let her tip onto the other side in the final act, whether it’s getting into an altercation with her neighbor or just her final silent walk through, she shows Line of Duty fans that she’s got that killer instinct.

The natural question is why she’s taken such a back seat if that’s the case, and “The Ambush” explains that by saying Denton has informed on several fellow officers over the years. That’s a big sign that the show is going to play her off Steve, since he just did the same thing. His developing a more cordial relationship with Denton would again be a counterpoint compared to the tooth and nail rivalry he built with Gates. But will it be as compelling?

(And also, when Denton first phones Deputy Chief Constable Mark Dryden, does he call her Linda? Plus, check out Life on Mars alum Liz White as Dryden’s PR flack—now let’s just see if White ends up getting scenes with Hawes, who starred in the Life on Mars sequel Ashes to Ashes.)

A crashing halt

The biggest talking point about “The Ambush” is the ending. That’s in part because the rest of the episode is so off beat, but also because Line of Duty series 2 feels like it just pulled a Spooks series 1 to show the audience that it still means business.

Steve and Georgia—after taking way too long to ask if she’s okay—find that the “nurse” treating the witness is actually trying to kill him. Steve pushes him off but then doesn’t actually check to make sure the suspect is incapacitated and is knocked unconscious, before Georgia is thrown out the window to her bloody death.

Steve should have known a little better; yes, he wants to get the syringe out and save the witness, but he also needs to remember there’s still an active bad guy behind him whose first instinct will always be to hit Steve! And why doesn’t Georgia rush in to help her partner then, perhaps being able to grab the syringe while Steve holds down the suspect, rather than trying to handle him on her own when there’s no other choice?

It’s another slightly questionable sequence of events, but it does result in a Line of Duty gut-punch akin to Lisa Faulkner’s exit from Spooks. For those who don’t remember, Faulkner’s character in the spy drama was a junior MI5 agent named Helen Flynn who worked with the show’s main hero Tom Quinn, during which she met a gruesome end by having her head shoved into a deep fat fryer in only the second episode.

Helen was killed off to prove that no one on the show was safe; Line of Duty seems to be going for the same thing with Georgia—a fresh-faced and expendable character, thus expended to kick the tension up several notches and traumatize the main character.

But how affected will Steve be by her death? Professionally he has to be responsible for her; was the personal subplot thrown in to give him even more reason to be upset? If so, that’s trading on something that doesn’t ring true.

In fact, the missed opportunity in this episode is not exploring a bit more of Steve’s evolution since we saw him last. Line of Duty made clear mid-series 1 that it wasn’t going to shrink its characters, but given how much Steve went through, it would have been interesting to get at least some of his perspective now that he’s processed it and settled in as a member of AC-12. The only clue that we get to him being different is that he’s trying on a five o’clock shadow.

Maybe we’ll dig more under his skin in the next episode, because this one feels like the fuse is still burning and the powder keg hasn’t gone off…yet.

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.