Netflix must launch a new series every week, and at that level of saturation, it can be a struggle to wade through the middling material and find a show truly worth your time. For the skeptically inclined, Bodyguard’s 95 percent critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes and two Golden Globe nominations, for Best Actor and Best TV Drama, should be persuasion enough to give the first episode a try. After that, you won’t need any more convincing.
The riveting opening 20 minutes quickly reveal a television series of smart writing and remarkable lead performances. A terrorist attack is underway on a crowded passenger train. As Police Sergeant David Budd (Richard Madden) single-handedly tries to defuse the situation, viewers learn everything they need to about the show’s protagonist without a single moment of plodding, boring exposition. Firstly, he’s superb at his job: highly perceptive, quick on his feet, and as capable with his words as he is with a firearm. But there’s more to him than just being the cliché super-cop. He’s a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, and his experience there has left him with mental scars as well as physical ones. He resents the politicians and technocrats that rubber-stamped a senseless war where he and his friends spilled their blood. Now, armed with his hard-won cynicism, he’s not afraid to disobey an order if it conflicts with his conscience.
And, soon, everything will conflict with his conscience. Budd is later hired as the head of personal security for the British Home Secretary, Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), a steely politician who preys on the public’s fear of terrorism and espouses unapologetically hawkish views in her ambition to be the next the Prime Minster. For Budd, Montague represents everything wrong with Britain’s bellicose political establishment, and now he finds himself protecting the life of one of the very people so willing to sacrifice his overseas. In a lesser show, this could be a standard setup where two people from different backgrounds are able to overcome their shallow impressions of each other and develop a relationship that expands both their worldviews, such as Driving Miss Daisy via Whitehall. But that would be too easy, and Bodyguard is much more interested in complicating tensions rather than resolving them.
Budd’s motivations toward his new boss are never completely clear, and throughout much of the season he plays the simultaneous roles of suspect and sleuth. It’s an achievement on Richard Madden’s part to be able to ingratiate his character to an audience while still maintaining a slight edge of reserve, even downright deceptiveness. But Budd isn’t the only one not entirely forthcoming in Bodyguard. Duplicity haunts the halls of power. Opaque motivations, backroom deals, and invisible alliances spin knotty webs of political intrigue, and Bodyguard revels in tracking their labyrinthine patterns.
The show’s greatest accomplishment is the perfectly calibrated pacing with which it unspools its mystery. Not only do the whodunits relentlessly deepen, luring the audience further and further into the series’ maddeningly dubious world, but each episode is furnished with an explosive enough set piece to satisfy any viewer’s appetite for action. The result is one of the most gripping minute-to-minute television series premiered in recent months.
If there is one complaint to be made of Bodyguard’s first season, it’s that the end comes too soon. Writer Jed Mercurio has conceived such a complex mystery with so many moving parts and such rollicking momentum that six episodes seems too short an allotment to contain it all. The final episode finds itself tying up as many loose ends as possible and unfortunately forgoes the more creative means of storytelling employed throughout the season for the quick fix of interrogation-room confessions. For a show that has you on the edge of your seat the whole time, you want more from the ending than having everyone comfortably seated.
Here’s hoping for a second season to blow those chairs right out from under us once again.