Jed Mercurio And LINE OF DUTY
Jed Mercurio’s work always seems to be a talking point with the Bang2writers. Whether it’s his use of tech in his storylines; those iconic interrogation scenes; his much-lauded LINE OF DUTY finales; or his female characterisation, we always seem to be putting his writing under the microscope!
The first four series of LINE OF DUTY recently hit Netflix. As any veteran of this site knows, I love structure and always thought it was a very tight show plot-wise. But since the show began in 2012, the TV landscape has changed considerably.
We’re ‘binging’ content now as standard, which means new pressures on writers like Jed. People are no longer watching TV drama week-on-week, but back-to-back. Now obviously each series is shot in one go. But if there’s only a few seconds between episodes instead of seven days, then audiences are surely more likely to notice inconsistencies and other issues. I was interested to see how one like LINE OF DUTY ‘stands up’ as it’s straddled the streaming revolution.
Here Comes The Science Part
So, for science, I sat down and revisited all four series, one after another, non-stop! (You’re welcome). No spoilers, but this was a real eye-opener. The over-arching storyline of The Balaclava Men finds its way into every character’s arc somehow. This is whether they are series regulars like Arnott, Hastings and Fleming; or visiting characters like Corbett, Denton and Huntley.
There’s fantastic foreshadowing too, especially when it comes to Hastings’ ambiguity. Right from the offset he says to Arnott in series 1: ‘There’s no one blacker than me.’
Depending on how you view this line, I felt there’s a certain dramatic irony to it, too.
B2W’s official verdict then? LINE OF DUTY is tight AF.
Story Archaeologists Versus Story Architects
In the last article on B2W, I talked to Eric Heisserer (ARRIVAL, BIRDBOX). In an off-the-cuff remark (that didn’t make it into the interview!), Eric mentioned he was a ‘story archaeologist’. He qualified this by saying he dug layers of story out of characters and situations as he goes.
I thought this was a really interesting way of describing the plotting process. On further consideration however, I thought that I actually do the opposite to Eric Heisserer. I have an ‘endgame’ for the plot in mind, then plot backwards to find the *beginning* of that story.
I guess you could say I am a ‘story architect’! This would make sense, given my love of visual representations of structure and ‘drawing the story’.
What The H
As all LoD fans know though, this over-arching storyline and its ‘Who is H?’ pay-off is STILL on-going. Jed does not have a crystal ball and can’t know if series are going to get re-commissioned too. This is why he has to ensure each series has its own contained storyline too.
But on re-watching LoD in its entirety, I had two questions:
- Did Jed Mercurio plot where The Balaclava Men storyline was going from the offset?
- If he did, does this mean he’s a story archaeologist or a story architect???
Well, there’s only one person who can really answer that! I dug out my address book and asked Jed himself. B2W was lucky enough to receive his answer right away.
‘I lean towards the archaeological approach. I’ve never thought of it that way, but it’s a very good analogy. Generally I’ve thought in terms of story having “critical mass” from which a “chain reaction” can develop.’
Jed’s idea of critical mass and chain reactions really resonates with me. Story *is* a kind of BIG BANG with sparks flying off in all directions to create new characters and situations. Love it. It makes me think of alchemy.
But I did still want an answer for whether he knew the END of that storyline from the very beginning of conceiving LINE OF DUTY …
- … Did Jed know who’s pulling the strings at the top and work ‘back’ from that, like a ‘story architect’?
- … Or did he plot LoD series 1 and the storyline sent out spores for new series like that ‘archaeologist’ Eric mentions?
‘It was an on-off process over a number of years with a few rethinks.’
Note how he doesn’t quite confirm he already knows that ultimate ending, though. Seems Jed likes to keep people guessing on this … It’s a great strategy, because everyone wants to know!
Great storytelling is great storytelling; we all know it when we see it. As writers, we need to ensure audiences connect with our concepts and characters by creating tight plots that deliver.
But there is NO right way to get there. You can do that however you want … Whether you’re a story archaeologist, architect or alchemist. Or something else.
I love your analogies re the Architect vs the Archaeologist, they are wonderful metaphors. It really does have to be both (for me anyway). I like to begin as an Architect with and plan and goal toward the end, then stop along the way as an Archaeologist to dig deeper and make new discoveries and let those discoveries organically influence the path of the story. So, it’s both, for me. The Architect holds the vision but the Archaeologist has the methods to uncover the gold in the story, and the Architect has to be wise enough to bow to the new realities uncovered by the Archaeologist to let the story become what it will become.
Thanks so much for the posting and all you do.!!
Glad you like the blog, Chris! Thanks for letting me know. I read someone on Twitter last week talking about “‘plotting versus pantsing’, saying the ideal was ‘plotting your plot’ and ‘pantsing your characters'”. So kinda like being both an architect AND a archaeologist!
Hi Lucy! Ya, me too. I guess pantsing is closer to archaeology than architecture. Flying by the seat of your pants seems unavoidable sometimes whether you like it or not! All best!
Thanks for this, Lucy. Jed Mercurio has a very apt name, think, one that almost describes a key requirement of a skilled show-runner. Not just keep ‘em guessing-all writers have to do that-but misdirect and play the cards close to the chest. There’s no way he’ll give away the final ending of LOD, or even hint at it, yet; and in recent years I’ve learnt to take anything anyone in his position says with a pinch of salt. His job is to keep us watching, something he’s managing brilliantly, and this year that has involved hinting in the week before the finale that this might be it, the end, even denying on Twitter that he was writing a series 6. Which turned out to be crap. And the whole business of H has turned out to be misdirection too. Or has it? I’m not sure from his comments that he knows. He might; or he might be still working it out. He might have had a goal in mind from the outset, but with the economics and shifts in TV and year by year commissioning, there’s a helluva lot of game-playing involved in keeping a show in the rails. It must be so difficult, and let’s not even go there with a certain fantasy series just ended to rather absurd anxious-ownership syndrome wails from some viewers. The Archeology and Architecture seem to me to be different stages of the whole process; most land sites where a new build is to start require a dig first, and I would hope the architect has to fit anything it finds into their plans. The foundations have to be safe.
What I’m trying to say is that there may need to be some archeology first, whether you’re working to a plan or making it up as you go along. It’s all
discovery isn’t it? Chandler used to have someone burst through the door with a gun if the plot flagged, and work out why in writing it. Mike Moorcock in Mother London invented a totally new “eccentric”structure based on a symphony and used it explore his characters, story, themes, ironies, the lot. It all depends on what you want or need to do. Mercurio seems to
have invented something new, at least I think it may be: the police drama as an Escher print. The thing keeps shifting, dimensionally confounding the viewer. Sometimes you see the twists coming, but they still manage to surprise you. How the hell he does this I don’t know, but it’s fascinating. Hastings’ comment about being “black as they come” might be a case in point. It’s a very Irish thing to say-it’s in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, or similar lines are, and something non- Irish people don’t seem to get, in fact I’ve heard them deny it. It never occurred to me that it might suggest Hastings’ ambiguity. But there you are. One line, two different readings, both existing in the same space. Next year, who knows? Until then, I’m watching Van der Valk to soothe my aching head.
Lost an “I” there. Probably autocorrected out of existence. Apologies.