The opening twenty minutes of the first episode of Bodyguard are simultaneously tense and predictable: a bomb is planted on a train by a Muslim couple, but its prevented from exploding by … wait for it … a troubled veteran of the war in Afghanistan. It’s a suitable metaphor for the show as a whole – productive dramatic suspense quickly collapsing into a series of clichés and clumsy tropes.
In the two weeks since the new series started, reviews have claimed it is the ‘biggest drama on British TV in over a decade’, ‘a truly terrorising thriller’, ‘dark and moreish’ and ‘positively pornographic’. With viewing figures of 6.6 million last Sunday, viewers are clearly hooked on a cocktail of tension, fear, and sex. But its compelling elements are outnumbered by its flaws.
From the outset, Bodyguard is laden with clichés. In the first few seconds of the series we hear what sounds like rapid gunfire, only to find that as David Budd (Richard Madden) and bodyguard to the Home Secretary Julia Montague, played by Keeley Hawes, opens his eyes, it was only the sound of rattling train tracks – the first of many, many hammed up PTSD flash-backs.
Rather absurdly, Budd’s scars serve as a topic of intimacy with Montague; Montague surprises him in his sleep and he strangles her. She then reflects on, “Whatever your training has made you…”; in each of these depictions Budd is the subject of conflicting tropes of both PTSD and masculinity. He is reduced to a collection of stereotypes: a troubled, hyper-sexual object of desire, a violent lover, and a particularly foolhardy Action Man. It doesn’t help that Richard Madden seems to have mistakenly been told he is playing a pastiche of a Daniel Craig-type James Bond, and can’t seem to utter a word longer than a sardonic ‘Ma’m’.
Many reviews have praised the fact that Mercurio does not shy away from showing us a dominant female lead and her rich sex life. Whilst it is true that Keeley Hawes plays a fabulous Home Secretary, dripping in steely confidence and dominance, her relationship with Budd feels out of place. In giving Montague an absolute sense of power – we see her blackmailing the PM, defying her ex-husband the Chief Whip, making difficult high-stakes political decisions, and asking Budd if he’s not another ‘man who can’t deal with the woman being more powerful – we get a picture of an empowered political woman that feels natural and contemporary.
Seeing a woman on screen take agency over her sexuality and admit her wants and desires is progressive, yet it shouldn’t have to be, and the relationship between Montague and Budd falls short in many respects: it is layered in the tropes of illicit work-place relationships and it fails to add up with Hawes’ powerful portrayal of a motivated, ruthless, and determined politician.
That dissonance becomes most explicit in the scene when Montague pulls Budd into the ladies loo of their hotel to kiss him: it seems dangerous, rash, and incompatible with her otherwise meticulous and ruthless demeanour. The same dynamic is at play here – productive character build-up collapsing into a morass of cliché driven motifs.
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In the three episodes of Bodyguard that have graced our screens so far there has been one failed bomb on a train, a thwarted attack on a primary school that still ended in the detonation of a bomb and the death of multiple police officers, an assassination attempt on the Home Secretary, and a bomb during a speech of the Home Secretary’s. Episode three felt noticeably slower than the previous two, with only one terrorist event happening right at the end.
This dramatisation of the ever-present threat of terrorist violence is genuinely convincing; cleverly, real political commentators and reporters are employed throughout the series to lend events a ‘real life’ feel. But this week alone there has been a terrorist attack in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, Libya, Columbia, and an attempted attack in Cairo, very few – if any – of which received media attention in the U.K, whilst a fictional drama about terrorism has been covered almost daily in every national newspaper. So perhaps there’s something else at play here: a curious form of British self-obsession, this desire to wallow in the titillating promise of real-life catastrophe.