The BBC’s Bodyguard (now playing on Netflix) has been going head to head with ITV’s Vanity Fair in a battle of the Sunday evening dramas. Where Vanity Fair is light and satirical, Bodyguard is tense and firmly rooted in real world politics. There is a time and a place for both, but Bodyguard is definitely the winner of the Monday Morning Metaphorical Water Cooler Topic Of Conversation award.
It’s really hard to talk about Bodyguard without diving face first into spoiler territory, but the basic set up is as follows: Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) plays David Budd, a former military man now a Specialist Protection Officer (or bodyguard, if you will) for the Metropolitan Police in London. On a train journey, he spots some shady activity and offers his services to the terrified conductor. Within minutes, he saves a train load of people, catches the mastermind behind the bomb, and saves the suicide bomber (Nadia) — from her scary husband, from the bomb strapped to her, and from the specialist unit sent to prevent the bomb from being detonated. They have been given permission to use lethal force; he knows he can talk Nadia down. Following so far? Roll opening credits.
Budd — now approaching folk hero status — is the new Specialist Protection Officer poster boy, and is promoted to protect the Home Secretary, Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes, Spooks). There are just a few problems. Budd has PTSD from his time in Afghanistan, and won’t seek help. Montague is a massive Tory who repeatedly voted for military intervention in Afghanistan and approves of the use of lethal force that Budd protected Nadia from on the train. Conflict established.
Montague is perceived by some of the characters as a total psychopath, capable of being charming, but always on the lookout for more power, more control. She’s jockeying for position in the party and has a shot at taking over from the current Prime Minister. She’s not above dirty tricks to get there. At the same time, she’s pushing for a piece of legislation known as RIPA 18, which would increase surveillance powers for the security services. It’s a snooper’s charter, and Montague sells it with the all-too familiar line of “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. As a result, she becomes the target of assassination threats. Finding out exactly who is behind these threats, and what their motives might be, becomes a labyrinthine conspiracy full of twists and turns that fans of Jed Mercurio’s other work (like Line of Duty) will find familiar.
There are potential enemies everywhere, and twists and turns with every episode. The biggest shocks were in the middle, and so for some, the ending proved slightly anticlimactic, but that was probably because audiences were expecting an escalation of shocks, with double bluffs, triple bluffs and triple bluffs with a twist on the top. And after the middle, well, there wasn’t that much further the show could go.
This was a blistering series, with each episode ramping up the tension to incredibly uncomfortable levels. My shoulders were up by my ears after each installment, and like many watching the finale on Sunday night, those shoulders did not come down again until we were well into the closing credits, just in case. At the heart of it all is Madden’s terrific performance as David Budd.
Robb Stark is all grown up now. This is a role that gives Madden the opportunity to show his range, with scenes of unbearably intense emotion to break up the ‘stiff upper lip’ bodyguard moments. Budd’s motivations are often ambiguous, but his pain never is; if one of the show’s messages is about the importance of seeking help for mental health issues, Madden completely sells this. In one touching scene, Budd has had the absolute worst day of his life, and as he sits with his children and his estranged wife for dinner, bruised and broken, he can barely hold it together. When his children ask him what’s wrong, he can’t tell them. He says, simply, that he needs a hug — at which point, his children rush to comfort him. For a rare moment, he lets his mask fall, and receives only love and support in return. His greatest fear — people thinking less of him — proves unfounded.
Madden and Hawes have incredible chemistry, and like Madden, Hawes balances the public and private faces of her character with ease. It is only rarely that her vulnerability shows, and like Budd, Montague’s motivations are often ambiguous. Neither character is perfectly good or bad. Both are competent and yet wildly unprofessional. Both are tough and vulnerable, brave and terrified, cold and warm.
The series is packed with women in positions of power, and although the initial premise of the abused suicide bomber on the train might make you roll your eyes, try to suspend judgement. This show does not go where you think it will. Things both are and are not as they seem. And Mercurio saves some punches for the end.
This is a show that reminds you to challenge your assumptions, and be careful who you trust. Mercurio warns us not to underestimate the power of women, and reminds us it’s OK to ask for help. And my goodness, he makes you need a drink to calm your nerves afterwards. Will there be a follow up season? Mercurio is cagey on the subject so far, but the show has proved so popular that there is certainly the demand for it, even if some of the characters seem, uh, less likely to reprise their roles…
Bodyguard is coming to Netflix in October.
If you want to discuss spoilers in the comments, please use spoiler tags, and be mindful that while the series has finished in the UK, it hasn’t aired yet in the US… And you don’t want to be the person who prevents this array of ‘Watching Bodyguard’ faces from happening around the world:
Header Image Source: BBC