British writer Jed Mercurio builds television shows the way the Cenobites build puzzle boxes in the Hellraiser movies. Get too close to one, and its intricate mechanism shoots its hooks into you, pulling you through a portal into a gyre of suspense from which there is no escape.
Mercurio’s most successful medium is a mashup of the police procedural and the political conspiracy thriller, and his storytelling trademarks include severe psychological duress, inappropriate intimacy among public servants and the ease with which major characters are killed off. Most noticeably, he strives to keep every conspiratorial option open and every possible suspect in play for as long as possible. There are definite heroes and villains, but you might not know which is which until just before the final credits.
The latest example of his infernal abilities is Bodyguard, a six-episode BBC potboiler whose finale was, according to different measurements, the highest-rated British drama since either the Downton Abbey season two finale in 2011 or a Doctor Who Christmas special in 2008.
Bodyguard stars Richard Madden, who played the sad, short-lived Robb Stark on Game of Thrones, as David Budd, a war veteran now serving in a police unit that provides protection details. A long, tense, highly effective opening scene involving a suicide bomber on a train establishes Budd’s bona fides — he is capable and compassionate in a crisis, but he has got a twitch, a crack in his armour presumably caused by post-traumatic stress and associated problems with his marriage.
That vein of weakness is central to the progress of the plot and to the web of suspicions that engulf Budd after he is promoted to head of security for the home secretary, Julia Montague. (She’s played by Keeley Hawes, a mainstay of British TV who appeared in Mercurio’s hit series Line of Duty.)
The hawkish, ruthlessly ambitious Montague is a target, or perhaps the target is Budd, or someone else, but in any case the threat levels are through the roof. There are bomb vests, truck bombs, regular bombs and a conspiratorial stew pitting the police, the security services and the government against one another, and all against Budd.
As in Line of Duty, which follows a police internal-affairs unit, Mercurio is concerned with the revelation of character under pressure. But in Bodyguard he has not done the work of building a credible character before putting it through the wringer. Budd is hazily sketched, and the extreme measures the story takes to extend its mystery and keep his motives in question have the effect of making it hard to really care about until the season is almost up.
Stuck with this cipher of a role — he is stress personified — Madden gives a performance that is alternately robotic and slightly unhinged. Unlike Martin Compston, who plays a comparable character in Line of Duty, or Lennie James, who was excellent as the villain in that show’s first season, Madden does not do enough to distract us when Mercurio’s plot twists veer from reality or his characters refuse to act like rational humans.
In Bodyguard, Mercurio’s breakneck story feels, at every moment, both carefully constructed and made up on the spot. It is difficult to go into any further detail because the constant revelations and reversals make the show an all-spoilers affair.
It can also be a blast, if you are all about the mystery and the forward momentum and your requirements for plausibility and psychological realism are not high. Whether US viewers will be sucked in the way British viewers were is a question that won’t get a definitive answer, since Netflix releases no numbers. British shows that hit it big in America tend to be raucous comedies (Absolutely Fabulous), genteel soap operas (Downton Abbey) or historical re-enactments (The Crown), not thrillers. But maybe Mercurio’s puzzle box can buck the trend.
Don’t miss it
Bodyguard is now streaming on Netflix.