This review contains spoilers.
Echo Delta Nine Zero Five. Charlie Zulu Five. Standby for sit rep. MOPI notice. Reg 15. OCG. RTA. UCO. DIR. The nominal.
Bask in it, Line Of Duty fans. Drink it all up. The mad poetry of AC-12 is back.
And with it – hallelujah – a story complex and engrossing enough to take our minds temporarily off the world outside. For the next five weeks, we are but willing rats in a maze of creator Jed Mercurio’s design, his fingers poised over the reward and shock buttons to dispense food pellets and electro-jolts as he pleases. Zap us, Jed. Lead us astray.
The misdirection began well before this episode. In every bit of press leading up to it, we’d heard that series five was diverting from the usual format. Guest star Stephen Graham wouldn’t be playing the customary bent-or-not copper but a criminal villain. Not so. Graham’s character is both. DS John Corbett is a rogue undercover officer (UCO) and leader of the organised crime group (OCG). OMG, IKR? OFC.
It’s a strong gambit. Since series two, Line Of Duty’s guest leads have been puzzle boxes AC-12 has had to pat all over in search of the secret spring-release. Under pressure, Denton, Waldron and Huntley all improvised façades to cover their actions, but an undercover officer is trained in that very art. DS John Corbett presents AC-12 with its toughest challenge yet.
The fact that crack team Steve and Kate mistakenly assumed he was a woman called Lisa for the first hour wasn’t the best start, but at least now they’ve been put straight. If only those two had the benefit of our experience, they’d have known never to assume. The viewers have been trained too well by this show to take anything as a given.
Apart, that is, from the moral integrity of one Ted Hastings. We know that to be as unchanging as the rock beneath his feet and the blue Irish skies in his eyes.
Fun is being had at Ted’s expense this series, and it’s up to us, the Ted-Faithful, to rise above it. His premature-sounding congratulatory speech on the ‘Hilton was H’ theory this week was clearly intended to fuel a ‘Hastings is secretly H’ conspiracy, but we won’t be drawn that easily. Even sneakily editing OCG Lisa’s ringing mobile next to Ted calling someone on the phone won’t shift our belief.
Ted might be sad. Ted might be lonely. Ted might be in debt. But Ted is not the years-long secretly corrupt criminal leader of the drug-dealing, murderous gang that’s created almost every bent copper his department has investigated. Who was he calling on the phone, you ask? His soon-to-be-ex-wife. A plumber to fix his flush. The speaking clock. Anybody. Anybody else.
Ted being true blue though, doesn’t make him a paragon, especially not this week. Ted’s inflexibility, the very thing we admire him for, was a factor in poor Maneet’s needless death. His hurt and anger at her betrayal appeared to lead directly to her taking the risk with the OCG that led to her murder. Had Hastings followed Steve and Kate in being more understanding and taking a less black-and-white position in that interview (a full 15 seconds, the DIR tone in that one. Is that a record?), Maneet may not have felt the need to act heedlessly alone. RIP, PC Bindra. Despite it all, you were good police.
Is there a chance we could say the same for Corbett, the partridge in Operation Pear Tree? The extent to which he’s gone rogue is the question of this series. Has Corbett moved wholesale to the dark side (four dead police officers say yes) or could he still be working his undercover op? (Saving the lorry driver’s life, getting five million quid’s worth of heroin, a load of dirty cash and another OCG off the streets this week say… maaaaybe?) Are his showy drug-taking and even more performative heterosexuality simply part of his persona?
Another question: how long Corbett has been in place? This particular OCG has pulled the strings in every Line Of Duty series so far. Assuming that the group doesn’t operate a fast-track management training scheme, Corbett must have put the hours in to have risen to the top. Is it possible that Central Police has had a man on the inside since the start? Did Corbett know about Dot Cottan? About ACC Hilton? Was he the one pulling their strings?
And just what is Lisa McQueen’s story? Her doll-based deceptions (God bless this show for pairing the reveal of that plastic blue-eyed face in the carseat with a such brilliantly dramatic musical sting. What a punch line!) may be the scourge of the city, but her shaking hand, toilet panic attack and mercy shown towards the officer who survived the hijack paint her as unsuited to the (literally) cut-throat world of OCG-ing.
Who, what, why, when, how? With expert precision, a Line Of Duty series premiere sets up query after query to which – and this is the crucial part, the bit other crime dramas rarely manage – we’re desperate to find out the answers.
All that, and we’ve yet to mention Kate’s promotion, Steve’s poorly back, Vihan’s pronouns… It’s too much. Perhaps it’d be easier to take this discussion to the pub. If you’d care to chat further, join me at The Red Lion. The gaffer’s put some money behind the bar.
Read Louisa’s review of the series four finale here.