Tom's Column - June/July 21
Was The Line Of Duty Finale Really That Disappointing? by Tom Beasley
One of the biggest trends of the last decade or so in popular culture has been the diffusion of TV audiences. Once upon a time, millions of people would tune in to the same channel at the same time to watch Dennis Taylor pot the crucial climactic black ball of a snooker final. Even more strikingly, half of the entire population would watch an EastEnders character hand over divorce papers on Christmas Day. But, with hundreds of channels and dozens of streaming services available at the click of a button, that communal experience is now mostly gone.
With that in mind, it was remarkable to read that the final episode of series six of the BBC's crime drama Line of Duty managed almost 13 million viewers at the beginning of May. As the great Ted Hastings might say, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey!”
There isn't much that counts as bona fide event television nowadays, but showrunner extraordinaire Jed Mercurio's twisty tale of bent coppers and the anti-corruption officers trying to track them down certainly qualifies. This sixth series finale had added intrigue as it promised to finally unmask the shadowy figure known as either “H” or “the fourth man” – the puppet master of a tangled enterprise of criminal gangs and manipulative police. Mercurio delivered on that pledge and revealed H's identity, while tying up many of the show's dangling plot threads – but fans were largely disappointed.
This is a common outcome when a hugely popular TV show comes to an end. It happened with Lost in 2010 and it happened with Game of Thrones – lauded as perhaps the last great example of event TV – in 2019. Mercurio has remained tight-lipped as to whether this finale marked a definitive ending for Line of Duty, but it certainly had the feel of a last hurrah for AC-12 and, particularly, the three main characters who have been around since the start of the show.
To an extent, I understand the fan fury. My own relationship with Line of Duty is a short one – I watched every episode for the first time in the month prior to the finale – but it is sad to see something of a damp squib of an ending to such a terrific and thrilling show. This episode had none of the “urgent exit required” spectacle of the series three conclusion – arguably the show's high point – and the identity of the Big Bad was rather less big and indeed bad than many expected. The final scenes played a rather downbeat tune, instead of offering AC-12 the chance to go out in a blaze of glory and grandstanding Ted speeches.
But what Mercurio did was opt for a more thematic conclusion. Recent years have raised legitimate questions about the actions of police in both the United States and here in the UK. The word “copaganda” is now frequently used by campaigners to describe TV shows and films which depict police forces in an uncritical and celebratory way, rather than acknowledging the deeply-rooted issues they believe exist within the profession. The Line of Duty finale was Mercurio's nod to that, creating a world in which every bent copper is dismissed as a single bad apple, while institutional corruption is swept under the carpet as something that doesn't exist – and isn't all that important if it does. His show has always been the opposite of copaganda.
Line of Duty might not have ended in a satisfying way, but the way it did conclude reflects a sad and resonant truth of the modern world, inside and outside of policing. Even when wrongdoing by those at the top is uncovered, it seldom leads to consequences. Thanks to Mercurio, that crucial message played out to the biggest TV audience in decades. And that's more valuable than hashtags and fan theories about James Nesbitt's eyebrows.
© 2021 Tom Beasley
The opinions expressed in this article are personal to Tom Beasley. Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist living just outside London and originally from Coventry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.