2018 has been such a manic year across the cultural spectrum that genuine, enjoyable thrills feel increasingly rare.
Which is why Bodyguard is a true October surprise. The BBC miniseries – launched in August to blockbuster British ratings and released this past week on Netflix in America – is a bullet train of political intrigue and conspiracy, terrorism, law enforcement insubordination, illicit sex, and post-traumatic stress, all within its first hour. The six episodes have so many double crosses, triple crosses, betrayals and fake-outs that having a notepad around isn’t the worst idea. Bodyguard takes no prisoners, of its characters or its audience, and its scorched-earth approach to storytelling works exceedingly well.
The titular bodyguard is David Budd (Richard Madden), a specialist protection officer for London’s Metropolitan Police Service. He is also an Afghanistan war veteran clearly suffering from PTSD, with brief but paralyzing flashes of panic and estranged relationships with his wife and children. On a trip home, he gets caught up in an attempted terrorist attack aboard his train (hence the above metaphor), and his heroic handling of the crisis lands him an assignment to serve as bodyguard for Julia Montague (Keeley Hewes), the Home Secretary of Parliament. Montague is a highly controversial figure in the government, a proponent of military intervention and spearheading a bill that would expand citizen surveillance and investigative powers. Despite their opposing views, Budd takes the role of protecting her seriously, especially as she becomes the target of assassination attempts. Personal interests, outside political priorities and David’s ongoing battle with mental health all greatly complicate his mission, and he soon finds himself trapped in a web of organized chaos that he fights tooth and nail to be free from.
it would be easy to dismiss Bodyguard as a British political rework of Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston’s hugely popular film of the same name. It is, after all, a popular trope; two people on opposite sides of power, privilege and ideals falling in love against the world. Well, David Budd and Julia Montague are no Frank Farmer and Rachel Marron. They are deeply complex characters, with contrasting, messy motivations and allegiances that are constantly in doubt. Their coupling is inevitable, but their clashing realities and complicated histories makes each encounter fraught with unknown consequences. Their dynamic is just part of Bodyguard‘s puzzle, and not even necessarily the most interesting piece. The show is a topsy-turvy government thriller where every single person is up for scrutiny, as rampaging ambition and a network of backdoor alliances reveal themselves in Russian-doll fashion. Characters that appear harmless or neutral are exactly opposite, and perspectives on events can shift within a single episode. The political maneuvering is intense enough, but the show’s terrorist plotting, with heart-pounding action sequences, ratchet up the energy to breathless levels. The first attempt on Julia’s life during the second episode is an astonishing, balls to the wall barrage of ricocheting bullets and splattered blood, made more stunning by the lack of clarity around the assailant. Even when the would-be assassin is revealed, the cards are kept close to the vest. The show insists on upending expectations of the story’s direction, which is truly exciting for much of the series. Towards the end, the twists and turns can get a bit convoluted (hence the pen and paper), but to writer Jed Mercurio’s credit, it’s never boring. The six-episode format largely works in its favor, ensuring the bloat and filler that plague other series is not a problem (a seventh episode of breathing room might’ve been nice).
Even with the violent threats and political backstabbing, Bodyguard is, at its core, about David Budd’s struggle with war-caused PTSD. Simply put, he’s not doing well. Budd is highly capable, intelligent and savvy, but his experiences in Afghanistan have frayed his nerves and cracked his psyche. The fact that Budd shouldn’t be anywhere near law enforcement with his issues challenges the story’s believability, but the show does offer a thorough, nuanced portrait of PTSD’s effects on the individual, their loved ones and, most interestingly, how they are perceived by the broader community. Much of this work is done through Richard Madden’s powerful performance. He is exceptional at conveying the hair-trigger tension beneath Budd’s stoic expression and measured phrasing; he feels like he can explode at any moment. When Budd is more open with his fear, panic and exhaustion, Madden reveals a deeply wounded man whose efforts to hold it together for his wife and kids is devastating. Madden may forever be associated with Game of Thrones, but his Emmy-worthy performance here easily eclipses Robb Stark. Keeley Hewes is just as great as Julia Montague, especially at creating just enough mystery, even during her most vulnerable moments, to make us question her true motives. The two make their intimate, complicated cat-and-mouse game work with sizzling, yet easy chemistry. While the show’s success ultimately rests on their shoulders, the ensemble cast all turn in excellent, complex performances.
It’s nice to have a show like Bodyguard that is decidedly more insane than the real world. There are more than enough twists (and some extraneous ones tossed in for good measure) to keep eyeballs straight ahead and jaws wide open, while handling more sensitive topics like terrorism and PTSD with consideration. Complicated as it can be at times, Bodyguard qualifies as one of the year’s most exciting programs.