Line of Duty series 3, episode 1: Do you ever outrun your monsters?

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 3, episode 1 unravels a new murder mystery.

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 and 2 in the books, now we move on to series 3.

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for and discussion about Line of Duty series 3, 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 third season with Line of Duty series 3, episode 1.

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Who’s the real monster?

Line of Duty series 3 is the most interesting, structurally, of the entire show to date. Firstly, it’s in a unique position because it’s the third series.

This isn’t a new program trying to prove itself (series 1), and it’s also not a hit series that’s working to avoid a sophomore slump (series 2). At this point, everyone knows what Line of Duty is and how good it is, and so that provides a different feel altogether.

And at this point the audience also has a feel for the general framework of the show: the season’s new antagonist/suspect is introduced, they have their first meeting with AC-12, and Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) goes undercover with another new identity. So what Jed Mercurio has to do from a writing standpoint is to continue to find ways to tinker with that basic formula in order to keep the show from feeling like it’s painting by numbers—even if they are really great numbers.

Enter: the season that’s about Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays of Ashes to Ashes and the upcoming Des), but not really about Danny Waldron. Danny isn’t the story; he’s the audience’s key to getting into a much bigger story, which automatically differentiates him from both his predecessors.

To wit: Danny and his squad of Authorized Firearms Officers are sent to detain Ronan Murphy, but it’s clear from the look on Danny’s face that he has prior knowledge of the suspect. That’s born out in his actions; he chases Murphy down like a man possessed, then murders him in cold blood. But Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), himself a former AFO, knows better—despite Danny’s attempts to utilize his squad to engineer the perfect crime.

There’s so much to unpack in “Monsters.” There’s Danny as someone who’s immediately and clearly established as guilty, and unapologetically so. There’s the fact that Danny’s team hates him, which is taking things up a notch on the enmity ladder again (first we had Tony Gates’ ride-or-die TO-20 squad, then we had Lindsay Denton getting roughed up by her own colleagues, and now it’s just blatant and kind of mutual hatred).

Then there’s moving to yet another different kind of unit, and also to a different rank (we’ve gone from DCI, to DI, to now Sergeant). Line of Duty throws in these variables each season to show that not only can police corruption happen anywhere, but that every case must be handled differently, just like any “common” inquiry. The song remains the same but the meter, the instruments, all of it changes.

And in this case, it goes to some pretty dark and uncomfortable places beyond what the audience has seen before.

A hard look in the mirror

The best part of Line of Duty series 3, though, is the juxtaposition between Danny Waldron and Steve Arnott. The underlying thematic engine of the show has been how Steve plays off each of the antagonists and the way that he grows from each case. We had rookie Steve head-on with the experienced Tony Gates in the first series, and Steve having some common ground with one-time whistleblower Lindsay Denton in series 2. Now we have Danny being everything that Steve isn’t. If this were Star Trek he’d be the Mirror Universe version of Steve Arnott.

Daniel Mays is great in this role; there are times he looks like a lost little boy (which makes a whole lot of sense in the final third of the episode—more on that below) and other times where he looks like an utter sociopath. But keep in mind this is an actor whose character in Ashes to Ashes was implied to be Satan, so he’s pretty good at that whole “making your blood run cold” thing.

The comparisons start fresh out of the gate. The viewer tracks Danny and his squad as they prepare for their operation, the same way that Line of Duty opened its first series by tracking Steve and his colleagues racing to stop a terrorist. The difference is in how Mays rolls through those scenes; that look of recognition is carried through every step of the way. He’s tense, he’s distant, he’s plotting ahead. Even if you didn’t know anything about the series, it’s like watching a ticking time bomb as you know Danny’s going to do something to Ronan Murphy.

When Steve arrives at the crime scene—another fun change-up from prior seasons, when AC-12 doesn’t usually get the case in the field—you can see in Martin Compston’s eyes and hear in his tone when Steve tells Hastings it’s their case that he’s having a flashback to his own incident in series 1. He knows what it’s like for an officer to shoot an unarmed man, even though he’s not the one who pulled the trigger.

He also knows what an accidental shooting looks like; he can tell this is clearly not it, and he’s quietly seething. There’s an underlying thought of how dare someone use this as a cover story when it actually happened to him and put him and others through hell. It’s a testament to Martin Compston’s talent that he conveys all this with body language and about four words.

That continues in the initial interview between Danny and AC-12, in which Steve hacks away at all of Danny’s indignant assertions with his own expertise as an AFO. His own past experience is not only coming to bear but he’s using it as a weapon, knowing that Danny is full of it. Waldron may be able to push off everyone else—including the show’s new bureaucrat played by Rome‘s Polly Walker—by rattling off facts like a machine gun, but he can’t fool Steve’s keen instincts as a man who’s legitimately been in the same situation that Danny is claiming.

It goes on from there: Steve asks Danny about his personal life but he doesn’t have one. Line of Duty then immediately goes from that topic to showing Steve with his newest girlfriend, Sam Railston (Aiysha Hart). Danny’s on an island—no girlfriend and no friends among his colleagues—while Steve’s celebrating his anniversary and is part of a tight-knit AC-12 team (at least for now). Danny goes on the immediate offensive all the time because he’s constantly running hot; Steve is as cool as the other side of the pillow and prefers to sharply counterpoint.

Just watch for Steve’s face when he brings up the stray gunshot residue that proves Danny committed murder. The expression he trains on Danny can only be described as an “F-you” look.

Line of Duty only shows the two of them together once more, when Steve decides to confront Danny outside his apartment building. Off the record, Danny tells Steve that he knows he’ll pay for what he’s done. Yet even so he’s willing to become a human wrecking ball in the lives of his VC teammates for pure self-preservation. Why not just admit to the murder and take the charge then? Because he’s so convinced he’s morally right, even though he’s legally wrong. He can’t humble himself.

Steve can do that. Steve, in fact, does that to a fault sometimes. And whereas Steve had reserved judgment about Gates and Denton, this is someone he wants taken down straight away. Because this is the kind of guy Steve Arnott never wanted to be—the type of man Steve Arnott spoke up to prevent becoming.

He dealt with his monster and turned it into something constructive with AC-12. Danny Waldron, however, let his monster eat him alive.

So, about that ending…

When it comes to “Monsters,” the most talked about moment is clearly the final scene, in which Kate finds Danny bleeding to death from a gunshot wound to the neck while the rest of his team all stand there apathetic. It’s pretty clear from the amount of blood that he will not survive into the next episode. The implied question becomes Which one of them killed him?

In that moment, Danny Waldron goes from killer to victim—from prime suspect to subject of the investigation. It’s a novel turn, and immediately complicates the viewer’s point of view tenfold. It’s clear that we should scorn Danny for not only what he’s done, but also how he’s done it; he’s done all but give AC-12 the middle finger.

While revealing his motive doesn’t excuse his behavior, it allows the audience to understand it; who wouldn’t want revenge on people who’d violated them? And that same question can then be posed to the rest of the VC team. Danny’s threatened and bullied all of them, which doesn’t make killing him okay, but you can understand why they’d want to do it. They’ve had enough, just like Danny had enough.

They’re just like him even as they’ve committed the ultimate act of rejecting him.

What’s also interesting to note is that all three series so far have involved children in some way. Tony Gates originally got involved with Jackie Laverty to support his children’s expensive private school education; Lindsay Denton was trying to save teenage Carly Kirk, and now Danny Waldron is connected to a child sex abuse ring. Is that an intentional theme or just a series of thematic coincidences?

Whichever it is, Line of Duty has done another nice 180 with the series 3 opener. Whether it’s in the structure of the story it’s telling, or the new characters it introduces, it’s opened a whole new can of worms for AC-12 and TV crime drama enthusiasts. The only shame is that Daniel Mays isn’t around longer, but he might have Line of Duty‘s most dramatic exit.

Next. Martin Compston talks Line of Duty and The Nest. dark

Line of Duty series 3 is now streaming on Amazon Video, Acorn TV (with a 7-day free trial) and BritBox. For complete Line of Duty coverage, follow Precinct TV.