In Hollywood, there is a story-writing guru, Robert McKee. After listening to one of his talks, many years ago, I gained the abiding impression that the most powerful story endings are those that you didn’t see coming and yet, with hindsight, the narrative had been building to that all along. One of McKee’s favourite examples – and mine – is Casablanca.
BBC’s Line of Duty cried out for an ending of such proportions. After all, this latest series had been deemed important enough to feature in news broadcasts. (And not just the BBC News. If you haven’t seen the final episode yet, stay away from today’s newsstands: several of the papers have a prime plot point plastered all over their front pages.)
But the writer, Jed Mercurio, seemed to have long ago abandoned any attempt at such a climax.
As a captivated audience, we were following the path of the characters on screen who all wanted to find the identity of the Fourth Man (the officer formerly known as “H”). But, as with so many thrillers: if everyone is behaving suspiciously, there is very little pay-off for the audience in merely discovering which one of them the writer has chosen to be the guilty party. A mere reveal isn’t enough; it needs to come with a twist if the story’s ending is to live on in history. Think of The Usual Suspects.
Last night’s Line of Duty exposé offered little by way of a twist. It’s true that one of the characters – no spoilers, so I’ll call them “J” – thought they had been framing someone who turned out to have been guilty all along. But that particular nugget emerged some while after everyone, including the audience, had learned the identity of H. (Dear Mr Mercurio: Did you ever consider reorganising the climax by having J present at the big reveal: “But he can’t be H. I framed him.” “No, mate. You just thought you were framing him.”) Instead, it was used almost as a throwaway line in sorting out which were the key plot points and which were irrelevant – the “Jed herrings”, as they are now known.
In the absence of a twist worthy of the label, the audience was, instead, put through an unnecessarily long delay in the reveal. The AC-12 triumvirate were shown the truth written on several pieces of paper and the crucial documents were passed from character to character without telling us whose name was on them. There followed several scenes, still without telling us. And then an extremely drawn-out series of camera shots – H’s legs, H’s back, H’s hands (if not actually edited by the guy who does the Mystery Guest round on A Question of Sport then using all his tricks) before our side of the fourth wall was allowed to see who had been brought in for the latest iconic interview with Arnott, Fleming and Hastings – by now the AC-12 triumph-irate.
Like everything in Line of Duty, it was huge fun to watch. But every artificial delay, every camera trick, every dramatic device used to separate the audience’s knowledge from that of the protagonists served to emphasise that we were watching a story, not involved in it.
Line of Duty was, of course, more than just a cop show. Somewhere along the Line, it had become a political allegory: the promotion of incompetents is the ultimate form of corruption. But incompetent bosses in police drama (or real life) is nothing new. For dramatic impact, ineptitude is usually most visible in an officer one rank above the central character. So, in taking it all the way up to the very top of the organisation, Mercurio was breaking new ground.
But that part of the story has yet to be closed out – on screen or in real life – so perhaps we are still waiting for an ending, after all.