Bodyguard is a 6 episode BBC crime thriller that’s been released globally as a Netflix Original. Created by Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) and starring Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) and Keeley Hawes (The Durrells in Corfu), Bodyguard has no connection to the 1992 Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner movie The Bodyguard. Last fall, Bodyguard became a ratings sensation in the UK, where it was shown as a weekly series and broke viewing records.
There is good reason for that. The show is gripping and intense from the first minute, when we meet main character David Budd, an Afghanistan veteran with untreated PTSD who is currently working for London’s Metropolitan Police Service as a Principal Protection Officer (PPO), or as we layman think of it, a bodyguard, for important members of the British government. He’s traveling on a train with his two children and discovers a suicide bomber, Nadia (Anjli Mohindra) hiding in the bathroom at the end of their car. In the powerful opening sequence, David takes it upon himself to talk Nadia down so that everyone comes out of the situation alive, disobeying orders from the bomb squad as he works with Nadia to ensure that she’s captured instead of killed.
After his heroic success on the train, David gets noticed by his superiors, and promoted to protecting the controversial, right-wing Home Secretary*, Julia Montague. Montague is pushing for legislation that would allow increased surveillance by law enforcement agencies, an idea that’s unpopular with many in the public and in the government. She’s also ambitious and widely believed to be considering an end run around the usual channels in order to become Prime Minister.
Julia’s political maneuvering and unpopular opinions put her at risk, making this a high stress job for David. He’s an expert at his profession, but he was also traumatized as a soldier, and is barely coping, even on his best days. He frequently meets with his friend and fellow Afghanistan veteran, Andy Apsted (Tom Brooke), to blow off steam and complain about the government that sent them both to war. David develops divided loyalties, between his responsibilities at work, his love for his family and his lingering negative feelings about Afghanistan and the people who sent him there. At times, it’s hard to guess which side he’s on, or if he’s on any side at all.
Julia lives in a kind of war zone herself, surrounded by other ambitious politicians and political operatives with agendas, who spend more time in scheming and one-upmanship for personal or party gain than they do in running the country. David tries to puzzle out who Julia really is, what her true goals are, and if she’s the same as the other politicians, although both David and Julia agree that his job is to protect her, whether or not he agrees with her.
Eventually, the schemes become political and criminal conspiracies, and David’s hand is forced. He has to decide where he stands. This brings his PTSD to the forefront, where no one can miss it. Nearly every character begs him to get help, some even order him to see a counselor. But he’s a man on a mission, and doesn’t have time for his own needs.
Bodyguard’s strengths are its cast, its thrilling pace and its handling of both David and Julia’s mental health. Everyone is well-cast, and there isn’t a dud in the bunch. Standouts are Richard Madden, Keeley Hawes, Anjli Mohindra, Gina McKee as Commander Anne Sampson (Head of Counter Terrorism Command [SO15]), Pippa Haywood as CSI Lorraine Craddock (David’s immediate supervisor) and Ash Tandon as DCI Deepak Sharma (who investigates the political conspiracy).
As mentioned earlier, in the UK, Bodyguard was shown as a weekly series, to great effect. Each episode is fast-paced and dense. The show is plot-oriented, with a large cast of middle-aged politicians who can be difficult to keep straight, and British political acronyms fly by at a kilometer a minute. It’s not a scary horror movie, but it is an intense, edge-of-your-seat watch that leaves you feeling wrung out, with plot twists and turns to sort out.
Mr Metawitches and I watched one episode a night, over two weekends, and I think we could have spread it out even further. You’ll think you’ve got the characters sorted out at a certain point, then new information is revealed, and you have to start over. It’s great fun for mystery and conspiracy lovers.
Much has been said about the handling of David’s PTSD. Bodyguard shows a man who’s already been struggling for years, but who’s refused help, because he’s afraid it will mean the end of his career and possibly his life as a functioning adult. It takes the unusual approach of showing both how David’s illness affects his everyday life and how he’s able to work around the illness to carry on with his normal life for so long. This is the reality of life with mental illness that entertainment vehicles rarely give us. It doesn’t give false optimism for the outcomes of PTSD, but it does leave viewers with hope that treatment can improve sufferers’ lives.
Julia’s mental health is also on display, though it’s more subtle. She’s a charismatic, intelligent, strong woman who’s had difficulty holding on to a romantic partner because of her political power, and has issues because of that. Then, over the course of the series, she goes through other traumatic incidents that affect her deeply which affect her sense of self and safety. She struggles bravely and quietly, always in the public eye, within sight of her enemies, and aware that as a woman she can’t show any weakness.
Unfortunately, Bodyguard’s main weakness is that Julia’s reduced to a plot device halfway through the season. The show loses some of its focus after that and the set pieces become more preposterous. It’s still a fun, gripping show to watch, but it has more heart and substance in the first half of the season.
Rumor has it that Bodyguard has been renewed for season 2 (inevitable, with its ratings), and Jed Mercurio says he has ideas for the next 4 seasons. It’s a critical and awards success, with Richard Madden winning the Golden Globe for best TV Actor- Drama and the show nominated for Best TV Drama. The series was filmed on location in London. Several British journalists play themselves, adding to the show’s air of authenticity.
Bodyguard has a diverse cast with women in positions of authority. There aren’t people of color shown in the top government positions, but that might reflect British reality, as it often does in the US. Part of the focus of the show is on the identity of the Asian characters, and the prejudices involved are discussed. There is also discussion of the expectations put on women based on stereotypes. But, the show does use a couple of glaring sexist/racist tropes.
Overall, I think it’s well done, but the series was written entirely by Jed Mercurio. The first three episodes were directed by Thomas Vincent, while the final three were directed by John Strickland. It reads like it was made by middle-aged white guys trying to be sensitive to women and people of color, and slightly missing the mark, because that’s what it is. There is no doubt that David Budd (Richard Madden) is the important character, and though Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes) is pictured next to him in all of the promotional materials as if she is an equal costar, that is in no way true.
Grade for the season: A-
*From Radio Times: In UK politics, the home secretary is responsible for all internal (as opposed to foreign) affairs, including immigration, policing, national security and counter-terrorism. It is one of the most important roles in UK government. (The linked Radio Times article is a round-up of all things Bodyguard. It’s a great resource, but be careful, there are spoilers!)
Post-Finale Commentary- Spoilers Ahead!!
As I cryptically mentioned in the review above, I felt that the season lost a lot when Julia died. It went from a show with a center and purpose, which was about two people navigating a difficult world together who had complicated lives and who might be developing feelings for each other, with a backdrop of terrorism, conspiracy, and mysteries to solve, to a murder mystery and confusing political conspiracy, centered on watching David unravel and wondering which would happen first- would he break down and cease to function in society or would he solve the murder? Both the mystery and the conspiracy careened out of control along with David, with conflicting evidence appearing and disappearing.
Then we were given an ending that only appears to wrap the story up if you don’t look at it too closely. The importance of Longcross was never explained. Anne Sampson’s machinations are still suspect. I have a feeling Anne and Lorraine Craddock were in it together. Lorraine took the fall for Anne, either because of bribery or blackmail.
The scheme involving Mike Travis, Rob MacDonald and Roger Penhaligon also doesn’t feel complete. Mike and Rob jumped on the idea of a fall guy with way too much glee for the relatively innocent acts against Julia which MacDonald confessed to. How and why the pressure sensor on the bomb that killed Julia was activated also wasn’t fully answered. Mahmood went onto the stage because MacDonald told him to, not because of anything Luke Aikens did. At least not anything there appears to be evidence for.
The case was closed based on the word of Lorraine Craddock, who spun up a story that agreed with what the police wanted to hear. Since she knew about the evidence the police had for the case, it would be easy for her to create a story that fit with it.
The same possibility goes for Nadia. I don’t underestimate Nadia or her potential to be an engineer. I’m just not clear what she was doing in the train bathroom with a bomb strapped to her to begin with. We know information and instructions were being passed between her and the outside world. The story that she is the bomb-making jihadi could be another lie.
Was she in the train as a honeypot trap to attract David and begin to set him up as the fall guy? Was his presence just serendipity that multiple villainous groups were able to capitalize on in the long run, and she really was a suicide bomber who’d already made a large cache of bombs for the cause? Or was the story she told in the finale the lie? Or maybe a partial lie? Nadia could be a mercenary bombmaker without being a jihadi, or a jihadi who lied about making the bombs.
Mercurio’s writing took Nadia straight from one stereotype to another, from the abused, victimized Islamic wife, to the evil, cunning Islamist terrorist who will stop at nothing. Jed Mercurio didn’t do islamic women any favors with the character of Nadia, whereas the two featured Asian male characters, Mahmood and Sharma, are both honest and innocent of any involvement in the conspiracies.
My biggest issue of all was the fridging of Julia Montague. And I do mean she was fridged, rather than just killed. In other words, she was a female character who was specifically killed to further the character development and story arc of her male screen partner. I don’t think that could have been more true for Julia.
Julia, despite being an important government official, was apparently alone in the world other than David Budd, her recently acquired bodyguard. She had no political party loyalists, no mentors and no one who she’d been mentoring. She had no friends and only one old white-haired lady for a relative (the mother who didn’t understand her ambition, no doubt).
No one in her government cared much that she’d been murdered by terrorists. In fact, they practically danced on her grave. None was particularly worried for their own lives, either, or asked for increased security. No one agreed with her political agenda and vowed to continue her fight.
This is all ridiculous.
No one gets to the political heights that Julia reached by themselves. She would have had an entire network of colleagues at all levels of government who helped her make things happen, exchanging favors and votes. She would have had political sponsors and have been expected to sponsor the next generation to pay it forward.
Jed Mercurio played on the Strong Female Character stereotype when he created Julia’s character, then he continued to play on it when she died. David cried over Julia in order for the show to use her memory to exacerbate his PTSD. But he only cared about figuring out what happened to her long enough to clear his name, then he forgot about the powerful woman who outranked him and went back to Vicky, the mother of his children, who works in a traditionally female caretaking field.
I’m not upset about Julia’s death bringing an end to David and Julia’s relationship. The ambiguity of their feelings for each other is something that I think the show did well, which adds to the suspense and complexity of the plot and characters.
I’m upset that the female character who appeared to be the costar was killed, not because it made sense for the story, but because there was only room in the show to tell one character’s story. It appears that Mercurio only had Julia sleep with David because after she dies, losing his lover would give him a stronger motivation to find her killer than simply losing his “principal”.
There were several ways she could have lived, David’s PTSD could have worsened, and he could still have a major crime to be framed for, then solve. For starters, instead of dying when the bomb exploded, she could have faked her death and gone into hiding, she could have been taken hostage, or the Kompromat could have been stolen in the chaos, and her life threatened until she got it back.
Julia was the only character besides David who had anywhere near the development and complexity that he did. With her gone, we were left with characters whose sole purpose was to serve plot needs or David’s needs. Julia was the only other person who was (briefly) allowed to have needs of her own.
The lesson appears to be that women aren’t allowed to need or want more than men offer them, or the tribe of men will gang up on them and kill them, aided and abetted by women who know what’s good for them. And since no one liked her when she was alive, no one will mourn an ambitious woman. In fact, they’ll be glad she’s gone.
Since, as women, our view of ourselves is supposed to be based on what men and mainstream society thinks of us, this is meant to be a devastating, if subtle message. What could be worse to a girl than knowing that no one will come to her funeral?
If there is another season, Julia could come back from the dead. I’m told that Keeley Hawes’ character on Jed Mercurio’s other show, Line of Duty, did just that, so it might be a bit on the nose. The mysterious Longcross could be involved with keeping her hidden and her survival a secret, until her injuries have healed and they’re certain that she’s safe. Early on, she did seem to have a deal of some kind with Longcross and Stephen Hunter-Dunn.
We didn’t see her in any form after the bomb explosion, so we have no idea what Julia’s true injuries were. The general rule is, if we aren’t shown a body, it’s likely the character isn’t dead. I kept hoping Julia would come out of hiding during episode 6; that they hadn’t really fridged her. The next best scenario would be to discover in season 2 that she was actually attacked over the kompromat and her political ambitions, while the surveillance bill was a decoy excuse. That would put the police and her political rivals and staff back on the suspect list.
Image courtesy of BBC and Netflix.