Line of Duty’s Steve Arnott is TV’s most complex, and compelling, crime fighter

Martin Compston in Line of Duty series 5. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Acorn TV.)
Martin Compston in Line of Duty series 5. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Acorn TV.) /
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How Line of Duty’s Steve Arnott became TV’s most compelling crime fighter.

TV doesn’t make heroes any better than Steve Arnott in Line of Duty.

The BBC drama has been a smash hit from the beginning for many reasons, but Steve has been the eye of the storm for five series and counting. Between Martin Compston giving an incredible performance episode after episode, Jed Mercurio writing gut-wrenching pitfalls, and the great ensemble he’s gotten to play off of, Steve has transformed into a fantastic crime fighter—and a character who’s incredible to watch evolve as a human being.

How did he get here? And what made him climb to the top of the genre?

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for the first four series of Line of Duty. If you’re not current, you can get caught up with Precinct TV’s episode commentaries here.

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Every hero needs a solid foundation. Steve is introduced in Line of Duty series 1 as a point-of-view character—a character who stands in for the audience because we’re seeing the story as it unfolds through his eyes.

Steve starts the program not as AC-12’s hotshot officer, but as a member of the counter-terrorism division dispatched to apprehend a suspect. Jed Mercurio uses the same point-of-view setup that he’d later utilize in Bodyguard, by putting the audience alongside Steve (and at one point literally over his shoulder). For the first terrifying sequence of the series, we are Steve Arnott. We see what he sees, feel the fear and tension he feels, and know what he knows…or unfortunately, doesn’t.

Steve is immediately relatable. He sidesteps two very common pitfalls of the TV crime drama genre: the main character who has to be The Best, and the hero who’s more of an antihero.

TV crime dramas often serve up the protagonist who’s the best detective in the division, or has some special talent, or whose reputation precedes them amongst their peers. It’s the easy way of making them stand out and providing a hook to the audience.

Especially in the last two decades, heroes with some kind of dark side—a bad attitude, a traumatic past, a problem with authority—have also become prevalent. Unfortunately, because these two devices are used so often, they’ve lost their effectiveness.

Steve Arnott is remarkable because Line of Duty doesn’t give him any of those trappings. He’s just an ordinary cop trying to do the right thing. That becomes his through-line during the entire series: he can be wrong, he can make mistakes, but the audience always knows that Steve is trying to do what’s right, and he’ll work as hard as it takes for it.

Putting the audience by Steve’s side isn’t just about making him relatable, though. Viewers are on the inside of who he is from the inciting incident that leads him to AC-12 to everything after. With each successive season, sometimes each episode, we see him grow and chances are, we’re right there with him—because he’s asking a question we want to ask or learning something we didn’t know either. There’s no separation between Steve Arnott and the audience.

He’s constantly dynamic, and that’s also down to who’s playing him.

Narrative framework is just a concept without an actor who can translate that into something human, and that’s where Martin Compston comes in. Compston delivers the emotional cues, most of them nonverbal, that let the audience see what’s going on in Steve’s head and feel what’s in his heart. He provides so many extra layers that aren’t on the page, not because anything is lacking but because he’s got such an adept sense of character.

So many TV cops are about toughness, but Compston’s biggest strength is that he’s not afraid to be vulnerable. He’s transparent with the audience about Steve’s doubts, insecurities, and things that tick him off, and you can watch him evolve his game as Steve evolves throughout the series, too. He provides the emotional subtext that gives additional meaning to every scene, no matter how mundane (or how long those interviews are!), and that’s how Steve really comes alive. The wheels in Steve Arnott’s head always seem to be turning.

Line of Duty is a show with a lot of long looks and pauses, and from that first set of events where Steve seems on the verge of emotional exhaustion, Compston can always communicate to the viewer what his character is going through. Mercurio gives Steve Arnott his brains, but it’s Martin Compston who gives him his heart—and it’s the heart that’s so key to his character as he’s been broken down through the series.