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

Because Line of Duty starts through Steve, in every series there’s an underlying thread of Steve’s personal journey—primarily in juxtapositions between him and the enemies that he has his sights set on.

In series 1, there’s a back-and-forth between Steve and Tony Gates (the excellent Lennie James). Gates is a decorated officer, the kind of cop Steve likely aspires to be one day, and Steve isn’t sure at first if AC-12 should be prosecuting him. He starts out sympathetic toward Gates, then begins to hound him, but by the end there’s a different kind of sympathy. As much as Steve could’ve been Gates, Gates can also look at Steve and see the kind of man he used to be. When Gates ultimately commits suicide, he’s become Steve’s cautionary tale.

By the time we get to series 3, Steve is face-to-face with Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays). Danny and Steve are mirror images of one another. The incident that puts Danny on AC-12’s radar has an eerie resemblance to the one that put Steve on their radar—except Steve can tell that Danny is in the wrong and how dare he pretend otherwise. The two are equally intransigent, leading to an incredible scene where Steve confronts Danny outside his building and can literally see that Danny has been consumed by his own monster.

Steve took his demons and weaponized them to work for AC-12, but as he finds out after Danny’s death, the other man was fighting a larger war he could never win. It’s fitting then that the tables turn and Steve finishes Danny’s crusade (at least as much as Line of Duty allows). He’s looked into the darkness and it’s looked right back at him. In series 4, he’s reached his breaking point.

But it’s not just his opposition that’s made Steve Arnott who he is. His relationships with Kate and with Hastings have their own effect. They obviously care about each other yet things are complicated—Hastings’ professional judgment has been clouded a time or two, and Steve spends as much time pretending he doesn’t know Kate as he does working with her. Neither of them have completely supported him and he’s pushed back against them both.

This makes great television; the best TV crime dramas are ones where the heroes disagree, and aren’t just following each other around out of blind loyalty. Kate and Hastings have led by example and shown Steve how things are done, but he’s taught them a few things, too. He’s challenged the AC-12 status quo—and because they’re not always on his side, that only adds to his lone wolf mentality. He’s got allies, but he ultimately has to rely on himself.

If Steve’s characterization has one major flaw it’s his shambolic personal life. Particularly in series 2, Line of Duty hit a massive cliche by having Steve hook up with the partner he’d just met, and a few other people besides. It’s an uninteresting TV trope to have characters cope with emotions by sleeping around, and if the point was to knock Steve off his moral high ground, that didn’t work either. Even his relationship with Sam fell flat considering she didn’t support him when he needed her most.

But when heroes throw so much of themselves into their work, they normally leave a trail of broken relationships behind, and Steve Arnott has been no exception. Steve has continued to learn more about himself with every Line of Duty series through everyone he encounters, yet he’s not in a position to truly connect with anybody. Hopefully he’ll find happiness eventually but there’s likely always a part of him that will put the work first—like the hero we need, but not the one he deserves.