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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Line of Duty
Martin Compston and Vicky McClure in Line of Duty series 5. (Photo Credit: Aidan Monaghan/Courtesy of Acorn TV.) /

Steve Arnott is the one TV character in the last two decades who’s giving Jack Bauer a run for his money. Jack, as perfectly played by Kiefer Sutherland in 24, was a force of nature—but he had to be, because he kept getting hammered over and over again. Over eight seasons plus a miniseries and a movie, Jack was brutalized; and Steve isn’t that far behind.

The fourth episode of Line of Duty involves Steve getting maimed by Tommy Hunter’s goons, and that’s just the first of his many trials. He takes a physical and mental beating over four series that culminates with him suffering severe head trauma in the middle of series 4.

Emotionally he’s watched his then-partner be thrown to her death in series 2, been accused of misconduct and framed for murder in series 3, and that’s not counting the shock of what he saw and went through to get to AC-12 in the first place. It’s likely he’s dealing or has dealt with some kind of post-traumatic stress.

Yet like Jack Bauer, Steve Arnott keeps coming. He’s been through Hell and back, but he always has to go headlong into the good fight, because he’s driven by that sense of right and wrong. He is that idealistic, unstoppable force that we all want to believe exists.

That may not make him the most endearing character (even Martin Compston has called him arrogant), but his moral intractability is incredibly noble. He stands for something even when he has to do it alone—look at the third series, where he doesn’t have anyone who’s solidly in his corner. Even his girlfriend dumps him once he’s been arrested. Maybe it’s not so much ego as he just can’t take anyone else’s bullshit.

Instead of crumbling in the face of all that drama, what Line of Duty fans have seen is Steve Arnott learning to play the game. At the midpoint of series 1, he tried to quit on AC-12. He would never do that now. With each successive season he sharpens his edge, as he learns more about the dark underbelly of policing, particularly in the ranks well above his head—so it’s no wonder that by the time we get to series 4, he’s burned most of his fuse.

It’s not that Steve has stopped believing in good policing or that he’s become another of TV’s countless cynics. But his emotional and physical arc across the whole of Line of Duty to that point has taken him to a place of frustration both with the particular case, and with where he is in life.

Going after Roseanne “Roz” Huntley (Thandie Newton) strikes a nerve with Steve because of the charges against her: that she’s railroaded an innocent man over multiple murders. This is an affront to everything Steve stands for and a bad flashback to series 1, where an innocent man was shot and his counter-terror superior couldn’t give a damn. Not only is she wrong but she refuses to even consider that she could be, and that’s galling, as is the fact that she outranks him.

Think about it for a second: Steve has given everything he possibly can to his work at AC-12, including his health and emotional well-being, and he has yet to be even really acknowledged for it. There’ve been plenty of disparaging comments made about him. But he’s now brought down multiple high-ranking officers for their misconduct. Aside from Superintendent Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), does Steve know anyone over the rank of DI who isn’t a terrible person?

So he’s doing everything he can to do good in the world, and getting screwed for it, while other people certainly don’t deserve the ranks they’re holding. Steve has a right to be frustrated about both not feeling validated and just wondering how many more pieces are going to fall out of the glass ceiling. He takes it out on Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), which isn’t the right thing to do, but when you see your partner get bumped up twice before you can get promoted once, you might feel like you’re out on an island.

Especially if you’re Steve Arnott, because Line of Duty has made clear that his identity is tied up in AC-12. Being a cop, and now fighting corruption, is who he is. Hitting the promotion wall is something he takes personally, as is the proverbial math. Of course there are always going to be anti-corruption cases, but his involve seemingly the whole of the establishment he’s fighting to preserve. Where does it stop, and how much more does he have to do to make it stop?

As frustrating as all that is—for Steve and sometimes for the viewer who’s rooting for him—the struggles the character has been through serve a purpose. He earns every one of his victories and never goes down easy in defeat. His character is infinitely more fascinating than the cop who just arrests the bad guy and goes on to the next. And his adversity leads the way to realization: Steve knows without a doubt that he has a purpose and that purpose is to be the “blunt instrument” of AC-12.

Jack Bauer would be proud.