Line of Duty series 3, episode 4: Lies, damn lies and envelopes

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 4 has everyone turning against Steve Arnott.

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 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 continue the third season with Line of Duty series 3, episode 4. If you missed Precinct TV’s commentary on the prior episode, you can catch up here.

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Like a terrible breakup

This Line of Duty episode is the TV crime drama equivalent of a bad breakup.

Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) has officially become this show’s punching bag. Whether it’s physical or mental, he’s taking swings left and right. “Negative Pressure” opens with his reputation once again being impugned by Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes), who shows up at AC-12 demanding an apology for Steve’s alleged wrongdoing.

The bad guys couldn’t physically kill Steve in series 1. They couldn’t mentally mess with him in series 2. So now, in series 3, they’re going after his reputation—a must when you’re in AC-12. If an anti-corruption officer isn’t the pinnacle of integrity, then the whole damn thing falls apart. So if Steve can’t be eliminated, he has to be neutralized.

What’s surprising is that Steve gets very little support from his colleagues. Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) is playing along with the new lawyer, and Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) is ticked off that Steve didn’t confess his sins to her the way she did to him. Not that he’s got anything to confess, but anyway, everyone else decides this is going to be the “freeze Steve out” episode.

But that’s fine, because “Negative Pressure” also shows Steve’s mounting frustration, between said tarnishing of his reputation and AC-12’s inability to actually get much accomplished. He’s as done with them as they are with him…but they all still have to work together. It sounds like the set-up to a bad sitcom, and it’s why  Steve gets pushed into working outside the box. But more on that later.

We’ve talked a little this series, and even in the last, about faith in the establishment—both for the main characters and the audience. So far Line of Duty has seen a lot of people escape justice, and if AC-12 can’t get their targets, why should we want to watch them? “Negative Pressure” poses the other valid question: why should Steve want to continue working there? He’s still a man on a mission, but if he can’t accomplish that mission where he’s at, he’s going to go where he can finish the job.

And an unleashed Steve Arnott is an even more dangerous Steve Arnott.

Cottan’s descent into madness

If Steve is the Jack Bauer of Line of Duty, then Matthew “Dot” Cottan (Craig Parkinson) is Nina Myers. “Negative Pressure” is primarily a Cottan episode, showing his furtive movements here and there, and his increasingly desperate bids to preserve his cover as “The Caddy.”

Audiences have known he was corrupt since the series 1 finale, just like 24 fans knew Nina was guilty before she murdered Jack’s wife at the end of that show’s first season, and well before she was brought to justice. The drama, then, comes from knowing more than the characters do and watching Cottan get away with things.

That does, however, come with increasing frustration because it runs the risk of making the other characters look stupid. How does Cottan get away with just continuing to say he’ll take care of the Caddy part of the investigation, without anyone really pressing him on it? Does no one notice that he’s been especially keen whenever that subject comes up? Everyone questions Steve’s work, but nobody has a second thought about what Cottan is working on…and this is a guy who used to be in a unit they were investigating.

Maybe a bit of it’s rank; he outranks everyone but Hastings, and in one scene Line of Duty shows him asking the team’s tech support not to tell Steve about a forensics result. But still, these are smart people and by the end of this episode it wears on the viewer for them not to have at least a minor suspicion, especially when everybody hates Steve.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition and kind of feels like a double standard, because one’s having his history held against him and the other is definitely not. Unlike Steve, though, fans get the sense from Craig Parkinson’s continually high-strung performance that Cottan is going to crack sooner rather than later, and he’s going to be his own downfall.

That’s the thing when you operate with, well, negative pressure: the people you’re being negative towards, eventually start coming back at you. And no amount of those scenes staring angstily over the railing outside the AC-12 offices is going to save you.

After all, if AC-12 doesn’t catch the corrupt cop in their own unit, then they’re really going to lose credibility in the eyes of the viewing audience.

Steve in the crosshairs

By the end of “Negative Pressure,” everyone thinks they’ve got Steve’s number. The lawyer wants him transferred out of AC-12 because he’s a liability—what’s funny is she does that over dinner just before she starts flirting with Hastings. So she’s happy to pressure him professionally but then try to put a move on him personally? That’s like Denton threatening Steve and then asking him for help proving her innocence. It’s not a great approach.

Speaking of Denton, she threatens Steve again when he goes looking for her to get an outside ear on the case. Also maybe not the best way to go about things, but Steve also should have expected that. They might now have a common enemy but that doesn’t change who she is: manipulative and selfish, no matter how much sympathy the show tries to generate for her by saddling her with an inappropriate social worker (series 3 does not paint a great picture of social workers).

Hastings undercuts both Steve and Kate when they go to interview retired Chief Superintendent Fairbank (George Costigan), because there’s always a high-ranking officer involved in Line of Duty. You’d think Ted might have changed his approach after the Mike Dryden of it all, but he’s still very reluctant to poke the high-ranking bear, and happy to interrupt their interview when Fairbank asks his old friend to come over. It does make you wonder, because Hastings is always so adamant about the letter of the law but also so gunshy when those cops are above him. Is there a point where he’s not going to have the courage to continue?

And then there’s Cottan, who having failed to throw AC-12 off The Caddy’s scent, decides that he’ll frame Steve as The Caddy. This is supposed to be huge news, but it’s kind of muted by two things: Line of Duty had to make his target someone that the audience knows (we wouldn’t care if it was some other random officer we’re not invested into), and it was always going to be Steve, because The Caddy is a man, so it wasn’t going to be Kate.

So it’s not the reveal of this plan that’s the big moment—it’s thinking about how far Cottan is going to go, and how much Steve is going to mess him up when he does. Because the two already don’t like each other, and now this is an unmitigated personal attack. Get ready for Steve on the warpath, and everybody else is wise to get out of the way.

What was Danny Waldron’s story has now become Steve’s story, and maybe a bit of Lindsay Denton’s, and when you put a bunch of headstrong people under pressure it’s not going to end well for most of them.

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