In the end, it all came down to a spelling mistake.
In the seventh and final episode of Line of Duty’s sixth series, AC-12’s dogged investigative efforts brought them to the “fourth man,” aka the bent copper formerly known as H, who has been doing the bidding of organised criminals for years.
It’s safe to say that - after some clever misdirection from writer Jed Mercurio - few of us had pegged this particular officer as a potential contender, even in our wildest ‘who is H?’ theories - but at least, after years of guessing, we finally got some answers. Here’s what went down in the series six finale - spoilers, naturally, are ahead…
Things kick off with a throwback to the S5 finale - Steve is trawling through the footage of Ted getting grilled by DCS Carmichael about his social visit to banged-up thug Lee Banks - and the implications for the death of undercover officer John Corbett at the hands of the OCG. When he suggests “letting sleeping dogs lie” to Kate, she’s unimpressed, reminding him of all the times they’ve slagged off “coppers who’ve taken retirement to dodge disciplinary action.” She’s not exactly thrilled when her mate lets slip that he’s been hot-footing it up to Merseyside to conduct an absolute downer of a long-distance relationship with Corbett’s widow, Steph. “For Christ’s sake, Steve!” she hisses, speaking for the nation.
Time to head over to the OCG gun workshop, where DS Chris Lomax is presiding over a massive hole in the concrete floor, containing a strong box just like the one Gail Vella’s laptop was stashed away in.
Steve sheepishly makes his way to occupational health for that check-up he’s been dodging all series. A calming man sitting in a big chair (is he a doctor? A therapist? A life coach? God knows our boy needs all these things and more) notes that his medical declaration form included some over-the-counter painkillers - prompting Steve, a man whose poor work-life balance and general waistcoated demeanour has never screamed ‘kickabout with the lads’, to unconvincingly claim he screwed his knee up playing 5-aside. Steve, we all know your only leisure pursuit is sleeping with witnesses, and you don’t even do that any more.
He’s caught out when the doctor notes the very high doses of analgesics in his sample, before pointing out that DI Arnott has had a pretty traumatic time of it over the past six series - witnessing the shocking deaths of your colleagues (RIP Tony Gates and DC Georgia Trotman) has to take its toll on a fella. After breaking the news of his medical review to the gaffer, Steve drives off to the riverside (aka LoD’s answer to that break-up bridge Spencer Matthews used to frequent in early Made in Chelsea) to have an pensive moment.
Lomax has got the details on the strongbox, which contains… drum roll please… the gun that shot Gail Vella, plus gloves carrying Carl Banks’ DNA - finally proving that he was the killer, and exonerating poor Terry Boyle. There’s also room for some grisly nods to series past: knives covered with the blood of John Corbett and much-missed PC Maneet Bindra, which also bear Ryan Pilkington’s DNA, are stashed in there, too, as is the knife that finished off Jackie Laverty - doused in Tony Gates’s DNA (remember when Tommy Hunter promised he’d frame him for Jackie’s murder back in S1?)
“Any updates from Spain?” is not a question I ever thought I’d hear Steve Arnott utter. Chloe breaks the news that Senor Marcus Thurwell is indeed muerto, brutally quashing our hopes of a last minute Jimmy Nesbitt cameo (the whole thing was some top-tier Jed Mercurio trolling). Cyber queen Amanda Yao is on hand to explain that the Spanish IP address was just a decoy - but she’s just intercepted new messages, featuring the tell-tale “definately” spelling error, revealing that the OCG are about to target Jo Davidson, who’s currently on remand in Brentiss Prison. Ted orders Chloe to do some boring but useful admin, asking her to check the files of “anyone we’ve previously investigated” for similar spelling mistakes.
Davidson is thrown in the back of a prison van with one of the creepy guards who terrorised Lindsay Denton with a kettle, and is whisked off to presumably meet a gruesome end - but AC-12, including the usually desk-bound Hastings, are on the case. They intercept the van, Steve tasers some balaclava men (his medical review means he’s not allowed to carry a firearm) and Jo is saved - plus the guards are bundled into a police car to finally get their comeuppance. “Stick her in the back with her wee mate,” Ted sighs, with all the world-weariness of a dad charged with ferrying some underaged drinkers back from a house party.
AC-12 grant Jo permission to apply for witness protection. “You’re free to be the person you really are,” Kate promises - but there’s a caveat: they need her to reveal who the top man is. Jo tells them that Tommy Hunter made her “obey and fear” the police officer he’d claimed was her father. Her intel takes the squad - plus a whole bunch of AFOs - to the low-security prison that currently houses… Patrick Fairbank, aka the paedophile who was part of the abuse ring uncovered in S3.
In his interview, Fairbank ploughs on with his forgetful old man schtick, acting like he’s never heard of Jo Davidson, her mum or indeed the nation of Spain. It’s enough to push Ted to breaking point, and the gaffer storms out of the interrogation room. “Superintendent Hastings has left the room,” Steve notes for the DIR. Outside, a fuming Ted admits “this thing has been driving me mad for years.” You and me both, fella.
Chloe, the unsung hero of series six, has found a handwritten report from the Laurence Christopher enquiry AND paperwork from Operation Lighthouse (aka the investigation into Vella’s murder) featuring the incorrect spelling of “definately.” The team are clearly shocked, with Steve noting that “he’s been under our noses from the very beginning.” High on the thrill of nicking the ultimate bent copper, Ted offers Kate her old job back - wilfully ignoring the fact that AC-12 is about to be disbanded by Carmichael.
It’s time for Ted to speak his truth, after Kate rightly notes that “anything that might discredit AC-12” will be held against them when they make their case against the fourth man. The gaffer has some explaining to do, telling his best team that he was tricked into accepting the dodgy cash from S5, and stashed some away for potential leverage with the OCG. He later used that half to support Steph, who would’ve “been left destitute because her husband was killed in the line of duty” (drink!) As for thattête-à-tête with Lee Banks? Hastings claims he only told Banks that there was an informant in the OCG because he wanted to corner Corbett into giving himself up and abandoning his operation. He didn’t know, however, that Corbett was his old sweetheart Anne-Marie’s son. “If there’s one thing I could take back, it would be that,” a penitent Ted says. “What a terrible thing I did.” Sob.
The golden trio are back together in the AC-12 glass box for the first time in forever. The subject of their latest big beep bonanza? Please welcome to the stage - Detective Superintendent Ian Buckells, baby! Yes, the man who I have variously described in these recaps as “too much of a jobsworth to be moonlighting as a criminal mastermind,” “Central Police’s most cringe-inducing man” and “a very dim pawn” is in fact H, the fourth man.
Laptops found in Buckells’ prison cell and in his fancy residence correspond to the IP address of the mystery OCG MSN user, and he’s also been off-shoring his ill-gotten gains in the Cayman Islands. It seems our mystery man has been driven by the most mundane of motives: greed. “Crap suits, dad cars, never put your hand in your pocket when it’s your round,” says a scathing Kate, marvelling at Buckells’ double life. Our ultimate Big Bad is a blundering fool who has disguised his dodgy dealings with a general aura of incompetence - could Mercurio possibly be giving us an allegory here?
Buckells breaks his silence, making the amateur error of claiming he’s “made total mugs” out of AC-12 before asking for immunity and witness protection as if he’s trying to negotiate a better phone contract. Is this clown really the top man? Buckells claims he was just “passing on orders” - “they just kept asking me to sort bigger and bigger stuff,” he says, like a project manager whose latest gig has gone terribly over-budget. Hastings is understandably fuming. “You’re sitting on the other side of this table asking for witness protection - it’s ME you’re gonna need protection from!” he yells.
Kate notes that the OCG had no real reason to order the killing of a high profile figure like Vella - but the top ranking officers involved in the Lawrence Christopher case (ie him and Chief Constable Osbourne) certainly did. So, did Buckells and / or Osbourne collude in conspiring to murder her? Buckells starts furiously whispering to his lawyer - but he’s been outmanoeuvred by our faves: if he doesn’t cooperate with the enquiry, he won’t be eligible for witness protection, but if he admits to conspiracy, he’ll be ineligible for immunity from prosecution.
To the pub! Buckells might not have spilled all yet, but Steve and Kate certainly deserve a celebratory pint - and it seems like DI Fleming is ready to make a permanent move back to AC-12. “You don’t realise what you’ve got til it’s gone,” she tells Steve, before suggesting it’s “not too late” for him to make the two and a half hour trip up to Liverpool to watch Sky Sports on Steph’s massive telly.
Ted rocks up to HQ in his non-uniform day clothes to tell Pat Carmichael that he’s decided to launch an appeal against his forced retirement. Ted, love, it’s not worth it - just hand back your AC-12 lanyard and book yourself on that cruise. AC’s resident ice queen points out that CC Osbourne is about to make a speech on the Vella enquiry, promising that the cock-ups will be “thoroughly investigated” and claiming that “these are the misdeeds of a few rotten apples.” We’ve heard that one before, mate.
Cue another barnstorming speech from Ted, railing against the “wilful blindness of those in power” and noting that “we’ve stopped caring about truth and integrity.” Just as he’s about to leave the building, he turns on his heel and heads back into Pat’s office, where he comes clean about his involvement in the leak that led to Corbett’s death. “What do you expect me to do with that information?” a slightly chastened Pat asks, dialing down the trademark froideur. “Whatever you do, you do it because you care about truth and accountability… you do it because you carry the fire,” he says. Fellas, I think we can safely establish that Pat does not carry the fire.
Our trio cram themselves into AC-12’s transparent lift for a striking shot that carries us into the epilogue. Terry Boyle’s been rehoused by social services, thank god, Farida Jatri is back on active service and Jo Davidson has massively lucked out with her witness protection deal, living in a Center Parcs advert come to life with cosy knitwear, a lovely dog and a new girlfriend. Buckells is banged up in a high-security prison, Darren ‘son of Tommy’ Hunter is finally under investigation for Lawrence Christopher’s murder and AC-12 is undergoing a restructure. The final line of the epilogue tells us that its powers have never been weaker.
After one of the most exhilarating seasons yet, this final instalment was considerably more subdued than anticipated - perhaps because we’d spent the past week torturing ourselves with visions of Ted Hastings becoming a martyr to the anti-corruption cause and dying a hero’s death. Part of the joy of watching Line of Duty is the extravagant theorising and speculation that it inspires - and in this case, the actual conclusion was quieter than our chaotic expectations.
Looking back, series six was a masterpiece of misdirection. Jimmy Nesbitt’s Hawaiian shirt photoshoot was a Jed herring, Carmichael wasn’t bent - she just had the interpersonal skills of an Apprentice contestant - and bumbling Buckells, the blank face of institutional corruption, was the bad guy all along, motivated by nothing more exotic than basic greed. Nigel Boyle, who finally got his chance to shine after cropping up as a supporting player in S1 and 4, did a great job conveying the banality of Buckells - this was no criminal mastermind, just a woefully under-qualified man who was consistently able to fail upwards, despite a string of f*** ups.
It wasn’t hard to see the symbolic point Mercurio was making. Indeed, you could hear the frustration with “the willful blindness of those in power” seeping from every other line dished out by the gaffer, who gave this episode its emotional heft. Watching Ted come clean to Carmichael about his involvement in the Corbett case, only to be met with total apathy, felt all too real. It wasn’t the finale we were expecting, but maybe it was the downbeat ending we deserved.
Is Buckells really the top man?
Buckells wasn’t exactly a villain for the ages a la Dot Cottan (RIP to Line of Duty’s most prolific user of burner phones, I miss him). Could there have been someone else pulling the strings behind the show’s most banal bent copper - or at least working closely with him? It’s worth noting that he never (on camera, at least) answered Hastings’ questions about Chief Constable Osbourne’s potential involvement in the conspiracy to murder Vella...
Will Ted’s last-minute revelation impinge on his plans to challenge his retirement?
Always one to do the noble thing rather than the most practical one, Ted could well have shot himself in the foot by coming clean to Carmichael, jeopardising his plan to get back in that office by appealing his forced retirement. Hurricane Pat is hardly his biggest fan - but can she be bothered to follow the letter of the law and re-hash an old case? The gaffer is, let’s face it, pretty irrelevant to power-hungry Carmichael, who probably can’t be arsed with the paperwork, but she’s unlikely to look kindly upon his epic comeback plans either.
Who will survive the AC-12 restructure?
The ominous epilogue reminded us that AC-12’s powers have been drastically curtailed, with the Chief Constable’s cronies parachuted into top roles. With Carmichael presiding over drastic cutbacks at AC-12, how the hell will Kate manage to waltz back into her old job? There’s no doubt she’s a brilliant detective, but even her anecdote about the time she jumped on a bin lorry to chase down her bent colleague might not sway a HR consultant who’s been told they have to reduce headcount by 90 percent. It’s not looking great for Steve and Chloe either...
Who forged the production order?
The falsified paperwork that allowed the corrupt prison guards to transfer Jo Davidson out of Brentiss Prison featured the signatures of DS Chris Lomax and our own DI Kate Fleming - so surely it must have been put together by someone with links to Hillside Lane station, unless the guards just happened to have those signatures on file. Was it Buckells, doing a speedy Photoshop job on his prison laptop? Is Lomax dodgy? Would I even be asking this if he didn’t bear a vague resemblance (from a distance, with eyes half-closed) to Dot? The investigation remains open.
Was this AC-12’s last hurrah?
Though that knowing sequence in which the rogue’s gallery of bent coppers - from Jo Davidson all the way back to the days of Lindsay Denton and Tony Gates - was taken down from the noticeboard felt deliberately final, this doesn’t seem like the end of the line for AC-12. Kate is back on board after her awkward MIT gap year, Chloe Bishop is a great character who deserves more air time (shout out to Shalom Brune-Franklin, the breakout star of the series, tied with the phrase ‘CHIS’) and I stubbornly refuse to believe that Buckells is really the top man. This episode cleverly gave us some closure while leaving other narrative threads untied - as Kate noted, some of Thurwell’s subordinates are still serving officers, who may well have gone the way of Buckells and established OCG links of their own. We’ll be waiting impatiently for an announcement from Mercurio and the BBC.
The Ted Hastings catchphrase-ometer
I leapt up off my sofa to give the gaffer a standing ovation when he rightly reminded Buckells that “no one makes mugs of AC-12,” a phrase I would happily tattoo onto myself - or indeed onto a mug - in an embarrassing cursive font. The poor fella was truly at the end of his tether throughout the episode - from his impatience with Buckells to his Corbett confession. “Who’s going to judge what I did - her? The law? My colleagues? God?” he sighed, looking like a broken man. We will NEVER judge you, Ted.
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