Line of Duty season 6 spoiler-free review: BBC One’s hit drama is on fine form with a stressful, compelling first episode

Kelly Macdonald makes her debut as DCI Joanne Davidson in the new season of Line of Duty, but it's hard to get the measure of her just yet.

Vicky McClure and Kelly Macdonald in Line of Duty

Writing a spoiler-free review of Line of Duty‘s season six opener is quite a minefield. I could tell you – no, I can’t tell you that. Or what about the return of – oh no, not that either. But ahead of Sunday’s episode, I can tell you that the BBC police anti-corruption drama remains on fine form, and we’re about to spend the next two months obsessed with unpicking the truth behind Jed Mercurio’s knotty plot, as well as getting to know the show’s excellent new guest lead DCI Joanne “Jo” Davidson (Kelly Macdonald). The opening episode is also intensely stressful in the best kind of way.

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Fans do already know, because the BBC has told us, that the season begins when new information comes to light about a potential suspect in the unsolved murder of journalist Gail Vella (Andi Osho), a year after her death. DCI Jo Davidson “appears keen” to bring Gail’s killer to justice, but “her conduct soon arouses suspicion, and it’s not long before AC-12 are on the case.” Their investigation, as you might imagine, goes on to uncover “deeper and darker information”… and we’re off!

Line of Duty

Judging by her performance in episode one, Macdonald – the Scottish actress known for Trainspotting, The Victim, Giri/Haji and more – is a clever addition to the cast, and her character DCI Jo Davidson is a classic Jed Mercurio creation. The season six guest lead has been teased as AC-12’s “most enigmatic adversary yet”, and as Macdonald herself told press: “She’s this unknown entity, and I think you never know where you are with her. Sometimes she seems like a friendly face, and other times not so much.”

As a character, DCI Davidson has something of season two’s DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes) about her, although she seems a lot more popular with her co-workers than unlucky Lindsay. But, as we saw in the trailer, PC Farida Jatri (Anneika Rose) doesn’t seem convinced of her niceness – muttering “you have no idea what she’s capable of” into her phone while looking around nervously. DCI Davidson is going to be a tough one to figure out. Friend or foe? Judging by Line of Duty’s past record of guest actors, she’s more likely to be either a straight-up bent copper or a pawn in someone else’s game. But then again – you just never know with this show. Maybe she’ll be the cop who comes out clean.

Anyway. You’ll be wanting to know more about our favourite AC-12 trio Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), DI Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) and DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), and there’s not a lot I can say, other than – boy, it’s so nice to see them again. After two years away, it’s like reuniting with old friends!

Adrian Dunbar and Martin Compston in Line of Duty season 6
Adrian Dunbar and Martin Compston in Line of Duty season 6 (BBC)

Sure, 18 months on from the events of season five, the dynamic is a little different, and some things have happened in their lives (prepare to be surprised). Nevertheless, Hastings is still coming out with Ted-isms (“hold your whist!”), Steve is still a waistcoat style icon (but now with a much fuller beard), and Kate is still the same dedicated copper she always was. So much of the success of the show rests on the chemistry between these three, and there is potential for their characters to develop in interesting ways over the course of season six.

Writer and showrunner Jed Mercurio has never shied away from making his plots complicated, trusting the audience to keep up and notice all the details. But if this first episode is anything to go by, season six is going to get really complicated – in a way which rewards loyal fans by drawing on events and characters from previous seasons, but which can also test your memory and make your brain hurt just a little bit. Before you start watching the new season, it’s probably worth reading a recap or listening to a podcast or something.

My one teeny, tiny criticism would be that, in treading the fine line between the dramatic and the ridiculous, there is a moment in episode one which steps across that line. (To be frank, it made me laugh, and I don’t think it was meant to.)

But still! Mainly I’m just incredibly grateful that they made this show at all, despite the coronavirus shutting down production part-way through and all the difficulties of re-starting filming in a pandemic, and safety protocols, and bubbling and social distancing.

To make a high-end drama in these conditions, and to deliver it to us just when we need it! To give fans something to obsess over and theorise about – for seven weeks rather than six, thanks to the bonus episode! To provide a source of stress and tension that isn’t pandemic related – just for the fun of it! Now that is an achievement, and a public service. At this point I’m desperate to talk to other fans about episode one (in far less vague terms than the above), and I can’t wait for you all to see it.

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Line of Duty begins on Sunday 21st March at 9pm on BBC One. Take a look at the rest of our Drama coverage, or check out what else is on with our TV guide.