Line Of Duty series 4, and the clues hiding in series 1

Paul Higgins plays Line Of Duty’s PR-obsessed ACC Hilton, but is there more to him than it seems? Rampant speculation and spoilers...

Warning: contains spoilers for Line Of Duty series one, two, three and four (until episode four). And some wild speculation.

“How do you know when an executive officer is telling lies? His lips move.” So said SI Ted Hastings reporting back after lunching with ACC Hilton in Line Of Duty series four episode one. It was a characteristically wry comment from Hastings, a character who brooks no truck with bent coppers and PR-manipulators like Hilton. Was it, though, more than that? Was Ted calling Hilton a liar a crucial clue as to what’s really been going on in this series?

After the story of Matthew ‘Dot’ Cottan, aka The Caddy, and the connective thread between the last three series, was resolved in explosive form in last year’s finale, Line Of Duty series four appeared to have moved on to pastures new. Dot hasn’t been spoken of since he bled out on that housing estate verge, providing DS Fleming with a final testimony that named names as he did so.

In the series four opener, we met a brand new suspect for AC-12 in Thandie Newton’s DCI Roz Huntley, and a new whodunnit mystery in ‘who is Balaclava Man?’, the murderer who killed Baswinder Kaur and Leonie Collersdale, and whom it’s assumed attempted to abduct Hana Reznikova. Goodbye Tommy Hunter, Dot, Nigel Morton, Lindsay Denton and all that history, this series is a fresh start, it all seemed to say.

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Not so fast. The reappearance of series one’s ACC Hilton and DCI Ian Buckells—whom Higgins chose to replace Huntley following AC-12’s recommendation that she be removed as the Senior Investigating Officer on Operation Trapdoor—indicated that Line Of Duty isn’t finished with its past quite yet.

So, what exactly is going on with ACC Hilton?

Hastings’ “his lips move” jibe wasn’t the first swipe he’d taken at Hilton. Ted’s very first line this series was an enjoyably bitchy jab giving “full marks to the ACC for his Crimewatch audition” in reference to Hilton’s TV announcement about Operation Trapdoor charging Michael Farmer.

The hostility between Hastings and Hilton is nothing new. Ted sees the ACC as an arse-covering PR-obsessive who puts figures before police work and who, as Steve Arnott put it in series one, “blows with the wind.” Hilton, in turn, sees AC-12 as a thorn in his side that makes the police look bad in the eyes of the public, and more recently, as an outfit “not fit for purpose”.

That’s surprising talk from an officer who spent two years in Anti-Corruption before climbing the ladder and who claims to be able to “see the situation from both sides”. That’s what Hilton told Hastings over a swanky restaurant lunch in series one, the first of two such meetings between the men staged so far by Line Of Duty.

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Hastings and Hilton’s work lunches are illustrative of the values of the participants themselves. These chaps’ moral codes are written out in their menu choices. Hastings’ booze is untouched. He drinks water and—the Ron Swanson of the police service—eats only plain steak, while Hilton, a man with expensive tastes and tickets on himself, knocks back wine, seabass and moules marinière—on expenses, naturally.

Hilton enjoying a sneaky lunchtime “vino” isn’t enough to make him a villain, of course. Nor, necessarily, are his wincingly awkward coded references to Tony Gates being an officer “from the South” (in other words, black, and therefore a potential PR-risk should it appear that he was being pursued with undue alacrity by AC-12, he explains to Ted). What we learned about Hilton in series one tells us that he’s at best a careerist, disloyal weather vane, and at worst… well, let’s see.

Our first introduction to Hilton in series one showed him congratulating Tony Gates on his Officer of the Year award at a champagne reception—very much Hilton’s sort of place. He toasts Gates’ success while Ted and Steve are narrowing their eyes and generally having none of it. Gates’ numbers are too good to be true, and after an AC-12 investigation, prove to be so. Tony is found to have been ‘laddering’ to unnaturally massage his crime figures.

No wonder Hilton seemed to like him so much. Without ever coming out and saying it, massaging crime figures is Hilton’s whole game. When DS Kate Fleming does her job in series one by recording a crime faithfully, he hauls her in to his office to insinuate that she might want to take another look at it in view of the department’s knife crime figures being at an “unacceptable rate”. “Are you asking me to re-crime it?” demands Kate. “It’s not my policy to intercede in individual offences,” says Hilton – police speak for ‘of course I want you to re-crime it, but I didn’t say that’. “We down-process anything that won’t quickly lead to an offender”, he advises, making it clear how he rose so quickly to such lofty heights. Later, when a member of the public threatens to make a complaint against Kate for neglect of duty, Hilton hangs her out to dry, insinuating that he hadn’t told her to down-process anything, only to prioritise.

The massaging of figures for PR-purposes is very much Line Of Duty creator Jed Mercurio’s theme. His terrific medical drama Bodies laid terrifyingly bare the pressure put on hospital staff to get the right results on paper, if not on the operating table. Drug companies encouraged trial data to be skewed, surgeons shied away from cases that presented too great a risk of failure, caesarean sections were withheld from women who needed them when that month’s figures were already over the threshold, and management celebrated shoddy tricks like making a surgical waiting list magically disappear by shifting all the patients onto a separate ‘pre-admission’ list.

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All of which goes to say that if you’re more interested in PR than proper coppering, then Mercurio, AC-12 and Line Of Duty have no time for you, fella.

Hilton and Hastings couldn’t be more different on the matter of squad loyalty too. While Ted bristles at any criticism of “my officers”, Hilton will ditch a copper the minute they fail to reflect well on him. In series one, he went from toasting Tony Gates with a glass of fizz, to publicly giving him the cold shoulder and privately calling him a dead man walking when AC-12 began their investigation, to yet another reversal when Gates got back into his good books by fabricating a sexy counter-terrorism link to cover up a gangland triple homicide.

ACC Hilton is the definition of a fair-weather friend. Do something he can take to the Chief Commissioner for a nugget of praise, and he’s all smiles. “Outstanding work!” he told DS Janson in series one after she manipulated an injured suspect into confessing to a bunch of unsolved robberies he hadn’t committed in exchange for lighter sentencing. “The Crime Audit Office will be delighted!” If ACC Hilton praises an officer for something, you can bet that officer is doing something wrong.   

Get publicly into a sticky patch though, and Hilton is nowhere to be seen. Watch him pretend to be on the way out (“Sorry Tony, couldn’t have come at a worse time!”) when Gates needed his help in series one, or use the excuse of a ringing phone (whose call he rejects as soon as he’s alone) to get Roz Huntley to leave his office in series four. “You weren’t so shy about standing by me when the Chief Constable was hanging a medal around my neck, Sir,” said Gates, and he was bang on the money. As was Steve when he, incensed at the organised crime cover-up in series one, accused Hilton of only being interested in his own promotion.

And then there’s the matter of the officers with whom Hilton surrounds himself. There’s Roz Huntley, of course, a nasty piece of work, but before her there was DCI Tony Gates, CI Osbourne (Steve’s former gaffer in Counter-Terrorism on whom he blew the whistle for a cover-up), and, of course, ‘Dot’ Cottan.

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ACC Hilton was the one who suggested Dot—a lifelong bent officer—should go up for promotion. (“I’ve been impressed Matthew, and I wonder how you’d feel about sitting the Inspector’s exam?”). Matthew felt pretty good about it, and before the next series, DS Cottan was a DI, with all the additional access and power that afforded him to do his dirty work.    

So here’s my question: is ACC Hilton just a numbers-driven prat with a taste for Sauvignon Blanc and an outrageously malfunctioning radar for what makes good police, or is he something much more sinister?

Did Hilton know full well that Tony Gates had fabricated the Counter-Terrorism links to cover up those organised crime murders in series one? Did he push Roz Huntley to frame Michael Farmer for two murders to protect his gangland associates? Is he in cahoots with the same people Dot was working for?

Rewind back to a plot point in series two. DS Jayne Akers, who died in the ambush DI Lindsay Denton survived, kept a video recording of Tommy Hunter (the criminal kingpin from series one who was pulling Dot’s strings until his colleagues had him killed so he wouldn’t talk) in which he threatened to expose the bent officers he had working for him “…from that two-faced bastard down to the Caddy”.  At the time, it was assumed the DI Mike Dryden was the “two-faced bastard”, but ultimately, that didn’t appear to be the case. Dryden didn’t plan the ambush and he didn’t have Hunter killed, at least. We know who the Caddy was, but do we know the identity of the two-faced bastard?

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“We had a deal” raged Tommy on that video. He did too. At the end of series one, Tommy Hunter was granted immunity in exchange for giving evidence to support Gates’ false terrorism story. Who did he make that deal with? Look back at the final moments of series one and you can see Tommy Hunter chummily, smilingly, shake hands with ACC Hilton.

My conclusion for the jury: ACC Hilton is Tommy’s two-faced bastard. Dot can’t have known Hilton was in on it, otherwise he’d have named him on his deathbed. But I suggest that Hilton knew about Dot, hence the promotion encouragement. Hilton did his level best to shake Hastings off the Tony Gates investigation, knowing that more digging would reveal the links to Tommy and organised crime that ripple through the entire service.

In the most recent episode of series four, we assumed Roz Huntley was playing Hilton, leading him on then rejecting his sexual advances to get what she wanted. But had he in fact been playing her? It’s in his interest to discredit and potentially disband AC-12. It may also be in his interest to protect Baswinder and Leonie’ real killer(s) and send down Michael Farmer.

And finally, there’s the question of Maneet. At the end of series four episode four, the AC-12 favourite was seen feeding Hilton information. Not Maneet, we gasped!

No. Not Maneet. One last theory: she’s acting on Ted’s orders and running her first undercover op by pretending to be Hilton’s leak.

Scrape away Balaclava Man and Tommy Hunter and Lindsay Denton and everything else, and this whole series comes down to a clash between two elemental forces, one moral, one immoral, one fella, one worm: Hastings on the side of what’s right, and Hilton as the bent-est copper of them all. If all the above isn’t simply the ravings of a madwoman, the stage is set for an almighty showdown this series or next.

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Or, you know, Hilton’s just a bit of a dickhead who likes mussels. We’ll know soon enough.