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

Jed Mercurio has plotted Steve an incredible trajectory—from wide-eyed cop thrust into a job he didn’t want to intense anti-corruption wrecking ball in a matter of years. But all of that must then be filtered through the actor, which is where Martin Compston deserves all the acclaim he’s had and then some for how he’s portrayed Steve.

Line of Duty is a fantastic TV crime drama for how it allows its characters to grow and also shows us that development, so that we can understand how they’ve evolved and be part of that process. Mercurio has never taken the easy way out and just said “Steve is this person now.” Even when it’s between seasons or there’s a time jump, all of the characters develop organically, and Steve has a massive arc that he’s undertaken between the broken relationships and brutal plot twists.

Not many actors can handle that much weight, let alone bring out all the little things and all the small moments that it deserves. The amount of material in every Line of Duty episode is huge and then on top of that, the cast have to find their spots to get the most character out in between the procedural must-haves, like the explanations Steve, Kate and Hastings have to give in those now-infamous interview scenes.

There are three things that make Martin Compston brilliant: his willingness to be completely vulnerable with the material, his astute sense of character even in moments that have little or nothing to do with it, and his work ethic that’s clear through how he keeps getting Steve to that next level.

The first is on display from the start and carries through the whole of the series, no matter how much Steve goes through. You can always look at Compston and legitimately feel Steve’s anger, confusion, happiness or whatever it may be; he clearly puts so much energy into the role because it comes out on the screen.

Steve only has a few major emotional blow-ups in Line of Duty (the scripts use those sort of moments sparingly), but when they happen, they hit home because Compston completely goes for every scene he’s in. Which makes sense, because that’s the kind of cop that Steve Arnott is. He doesn’t hold back either.

The actor and the character share a similar path—someone who’s been doing good work for a long time but hasn’t been fully appreciated until the last couple of years. If you’ve had a chance to watch any of his work outside of the show, like In Plain Sight or this year’s The Nest, you get just how powerful he is, because he goes to intense and sometimes seemingly impossible places that many performers could never touch.

It’s simply a pleasure to watch him work, because even in the most mundane of scenes or when Steve is an afterthought to everyone else (since, y’know, he’s not one rank superior), he’s got an idea. Everyone in Line of Duty‘s core cast—Compston, McClure, Dunbar and Craig Parkinson (until Dot’s demise in series 3)—has that ability to read the scene and find their space, and that’s how they can keep us gripped even during 20-page dialogue marathons.

It’s the annoyance you can see in Steve’s eyes when he gets dismissed yet again, even though he’s got a hell of a poker face. It’s the way Compston carries himself when Steve’s in Hastings’ office on a tear. He pays attention to detail, and he finds a way to bring those details out.

And as Steve Arnott has climbed the ladder over now five series of Line of Duty, so has Compston improved, too. There’s that certain familiarity that comes with living in a character’s skin on and off for eight years, but he’s beyond that; you can see that he’s continued to work at figuring out who Steve is and where he needs to go.

There are different little details of where Steve is now compared to where he was when we met him, and while he wasn’t lacking in confidence before, by series 3 he owns a scene when he walks into the room. By series 5, now that both actor and character have been doing the job for years, it feels like Steve has always been around—rather than this being the endpoint of a journey that completely changed his career and his life.

Rarely are characters given the complexity and the detailed arc that Steve Arnott has in Line of Duty. The show has empowered Steve by taking him from such an honest, relatable place and then allowing him to find himself, even if it’s taken a boatload of trauma and some mental chess matches along the way.

He’s gone from ordinary cop to an extraordinary hero whom the audience knows is always going to be there, no matter the challenge or the cost, and there’s something so admirable in that. Steve’s journey started with him doing the right thing at incredible expense to his career, but he did it because it was right; and he’s continued to be driven by that integrity and with that courage. He’s never stopped aspiring for better, even when he’s seen the worst, and that’s particularly meaningful in a show that’s all about integrity.

At the same time, we’ve gotten to watch Martin Compston do amazing things in the role, because he’s connected with the character and been willing to connect with the character. The crime genre isn’t the easiest genre to act in (unless you’re one of the bad guys), but Compston has been great even when Steve is at his lowest point or goes a little wrong. He’s risen to every challenge and he’s kept his finger on that heart that makes Steve special—that light in the darkness that’s never been lost.

There’s still plenty ahead of Steve Arnott; we haven’t gotten to Line of Duty series 6 yet, and it’s hard to imagine the show is going to stop there. But in an overcrowded genre, and particularly in this year that’s been so bleak, it’s a wonderful thing to have a genuinely good hero played by an actor who brings us honest joy in the role. Kiefer Sutherland once said that “Real human beings given extraordinary circumstances can do some heroic things,” and Steve Arnott is exactly what that means.

Next. Revisit Line of Duty from the beginning. dark

Line of Duty series 6 is expected to premiere in 2021. For more on Line of Duty, follow the TV Crime Dramas category at Precinct TV.