It starts with a long and excruciating scene. A guy on a train, late at night in England, is fussing over his two kids, trying to get them to sleep. But he’s not sleepy. Highly alert, he begins to notice that something is happening on the train.
That something is a possible terrorist attack. The man with the kids identifies himself as a police officer and, when he acts, he saves the day. While this might sound like a conventional action-sequence opening, what’s unconventional is the sheer harrowing tension of what unfolds. You can’t take your eyes off it.
Bodyguard (streams on Netflix from Wednesday) is bloody brilliant from the get-go. And if you watch, pay close attention to the terrorist who is tackled. It will be important later. Saving the day is David Budd (Richard Madden, who plays Robb Stark on Game of Thrones), and he’s a “special protection officer.” That is, he is the bodyguard to visiting dignitaries. He’s ex-army and served in Afghanistan. All of this is relevant as the terse, twisted six-episode narrative unfolds. There is nothing you should be observing casually.
And observing is David Budd’s job. He seems brilliant at it: stoic, controlled, attentive. After the train incident, he gets a promotion. He will be the personal protector to the Home Secretary, Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), a stone-cold politician with very firm views on fighting terrorism. But you might ask, as other characters do, if her convictions are real or just another tactic to make her the prime minister some day.
What’s special about Bodyguard is the precision of it. For several episodes, there isn’t a wasted word or glance. We learn about David’s PTSD almost elliptically. We learn about his resentment of those who sent soldiers to Afghanistan as if it is just another part of a compellingly private and stiff individual. In no time at all, he emerges as a man as dangerously close to exploding as the bomb on that train.
The series is tagged as a Netflix Original, but it’s actually a BBC drama, and when it aired in Britain in late summer, it brought the BBC its biggest audience in 10 years. It became the proverbial water-cooler show, its flaring twists and shocking turns much discussed every week. (On Netflix, you can just binge this one.) There was mixed reaction to the ending and that’s to be expected. After the clenched tension and one significant, shocking death, the conclusion was always going to dismay some but not all viewers.
Bodyguard was written by Jed Mercurio, who was also responsible for much of the series Line of Duty (you can see it here on Super Channel) and for a revisionist film version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He specializes in astringent, high-strung drama but also in subverting expectations and revealing the dangers of stereotyping. This is particularly true of his female characters.
In Bodyguard there is a subtle build-up of expectations around key female characters. There is the politician Julia, the counterterrorism boss Anne (brilliantly played by Gina McKee) and Vicky (Sophie Rundle), David’s estranged wife. Also, crucially, there is the female terrorist David encounters in the terrifyingly gripping opening hour. In each case, the audience sees these figures as archetypes. But in each case, expectations are upended. There is both a narrative-twisting aspect to this tactic and a larger point – lazy stereotyping can be calamitous when the stakes are high.
The interaction between David and Julia dominates the first portion of the drama. And it is formidably restrained but meaningful. He tells her, “My job is to keep you safe, ma’am, I won’t tell you how to do yours.” Thing is, as an army vet he could tell her how to do her job. “I’m expecting a colleague and I need you to eff-off, no offence,” Julia tells David curtly. He murmurs, “None taken.” But his eyes are sizing up far more than the room he’s in, and his focus is not on the woman who is patronizing him.
There is a glacial quality to Madden’s sublime performance as David. At times, he’s so stony he might seem emotionless, but that only heightens the indirect revelations of the under-the-surface trauma he’s experiencing. In the end, for all the thriller elements and the shocking twists, Bodyguard is about the idea of being selfless. That’s not the same as heroism. It’s a far more complex human endeavour.
But, while one could blather on about themes emerging, what’s vital is that Bodyguard is so well-made. Watch one episode and you want the next instantly. The tension is unbearable, and still you want more, and that’s the hallmark of exquisitely crafted TV drama.