Line of Duty and fictionalised realities


by Eleanor Taylor

The controversial Line of Duty finale kick-started a conversation about fiction’s duty to reflect reality. Was this storyline the right move or did it end up just disappointing the show’s fans?

On the 2nd of May 2021, the final series of Line of Duty came to an end on BBC One. The hugely successful police drama had run for six series since 2011 and occupied a primetime Sunday night slot. However, the closing note of the finale wasn’t what fans were expecting. Instead of going out all guns blazing, creator Jed Mercurio (Bodyguard) went with a far less dramatic, but more realistic, conclusion. Was Mercurio right for prioritising a topical, socially conscious angle over fans’ hopes for the series?

A big reveal? Not quite

To say that Line of Duty was a success is an understatement. The finale commanded the largest TV audience since 2002, with over 56% of UK viewers tuning in. Fans were enthralled with the story of AC-12 and its main trio: Kate Fleming, Steve Arnott, and their long-suffering boss Ted Hastings.

Although each series focused on a central corrupt police officer, the overarching story of organised crime was tied together by the search for ‘H’. This codenamed antagonist was the Big Bad of the show, a supposed criminal mastermind who had fooled our plucky heroes for over a decade. So, when the final episode revealed that H was in fact the bumbling supervising officer, Ian Buckells, viewers were disappointed, to say the least. There was no terrifying villain with a master plan – just a very boring man behind a computer helping organised criminals stay in contact with corrupt officers. 

Buckells’, incompetent but somehow ‘failing upwards’ despite his mistakes, is the real face of police failures. This was illustrated when the AC-12 investigation uncovered that Buckells’ had been involved in the mistreatment of a young Black man, Lawrence Christopher, while he was in custody. The character’s name was drawn from the tragic real-life cases of Christopher Alder and Stephen Lawrence, who were both victims of racist violence exacerbated by police neglect. As revealed in the finale, part of Buckells’ motive for being H was to continue this cover-up of institutional racism in the police.

It is his character that made the ending such an anti-climax for some viewers, but also made the strongest point. Ian Buckells is a disappointing villain because he’s so, well, normal. And this is what makes him the best face for institutional issues – the corruption and racism are not due to one evil mastermind. Buckells was just one man in a network of seemingly average men and women who had actually caused so much harm and facilitated even more. Although our heroes caught the bad guy, they have far from saved the day.

The line between fiction and reality

However, not all viewers enjoyed this more realistic take. One example comes from Doctor Ronx (medical doctor and TV presenter) who posted this on their Twitter:

Although the plot drew attention to racism and police corruption, it crossed the line of fiction and disbelief for many. As in the above tweet, some Black viewers who are already far too aware of racism in their everyday lives don’t also need to see it in their TV entertainment. 

Series 6 was not the first time that Line of Duty had drawn inspiration from real-life events. Back in 2016, series 3 focused on cases of child sexual abuse by politicians and other public figures. Key suspect, Dale Roach, was heavily based on Cyril Smith, former MP for Rochdale, who faced similar allegations. The same plotline even referenced Jimmy Saville, which sparked some controversy at the time.

With this part of the show’s history in mind, it would have been more off for series 6 to not represent current events. Last year saw the biggest resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement since it originated in 2014, following the murder of George Floyd on 25th May 2020 by police officer Derek Chauvin. Line of Duty’s plot continued to bring awareness to these issues of systemic racism, especially within the police, to its enormous primetime audience. And it did this without gratuitous depictions of violence against Black characters, unlike shows like Orange Is The New Black.

Power and silence

Airing a police drama amidst widespread criticism of the police would never be free from controversy. Portraying corruption as facilitated by both active perpetrators and those who turned a blind eye, drove home the point that these issues will never be solved by simply removing a handful of flawed individuals from powerful positions. Through the lens of AC-12, Line of Duty presented viewers with clear examples of how hierarchies and power contribute to a culture where it is tricky for people to speak out against injustice. When jobs, security, and social standing are in the balance, people may choose to stay silent rather than take any chances by challenging harmful ideas. This is not all dramatic car chases and guns, as shown in the series, but it is the same power dynamics at play as in real life.

No ending of a decade-long TV series would be perfect (even if Game of Thrones did set the bar pretty low). Although it didn’t have the nail-biting drama that some fans hoped for, Line of Duty’s finale stayed true to the show’s previous themes. It contextualised the fiction within our present-day realities, while still being far from a documentary.