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Series / The Shadow Line

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"The shadow line. That's where we walk."
Khokar, Episode 5

The Shadow Line is a seven-part British television drama serial produced by Company Pictures/Eight Rooks Ltd/Baby Cow/CinemaNX production for BBC Two. It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston, Rafe Spall, Antony Sher and Stephen Rea.

Drug baron Harvey Wratten is dead, and nobody knows who did it. From the cop with a bullet in his brain, whose amnesia leaves him doubtful of his own moral compass; to the drug-lord driven by a profound personal tragedy, risking it all on one last deal; to the brilliantly lethal puppet-master who gradually emerges from the shadows to bring the story to its shocking climax, the show explores the morality of these characters as they negotiate the repercussions of Wratten's death and attempt to navigate the fine line between right and wrong.

It has been compared, inevitably, to The Wire, being another Grey-and-Gray Morality, Four Lines, All Waiting, cops 'n' robbers drama — however, stylistically the two shows couldn't be more different. In contrast to The Wire's verisimilitude, The Shadow Line is stylised and Noir-ish, with heavy symbolism and crafted dialogue.

Broadcasting started on 5 May 2011, ended on June 16th, and the DVD is out in the UK July 14th. Not to be confused the OTHER Shadow Line.

Tropes present in this work include:

  • Affably Evil: Gatehouse, who commits horrific acts of violence but is always scrupulously polite.
  • Amnesiac Hero: Jonah Gabriel
    • Amnesiac Dissonance: The series hints he may have been corrupt before he was shot, in contrast to the By-the-Book Cop he is afterwards. Ultimately subverted, however: he was a good cop all along, and there turns out to be a perfectly good explanation for the apparently incriminating evidence.
  • And Starring: Stephen Rea
  • Anyone Can Die: Andy Dixon, his girlfriend and his mother; Ross McGovern; Bob Harris; Glickman; Penney; Khokar; Joseph Bede; Jonah Gabriel...
  • Assassin Outclassin': Don't try to kill Gatehouse. Because you won't.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Gatehouse, his allies, and Patterson are the only ones to truly come out of the series ahead. Patterson and Honey get promoted, Jay and Ratallack get their own drug smuggling empire and Gatehouse gets a new version of Counterpoint, with him clearly in control.
  • Bastard Understudy: The show is full of them. Ratallack to Bob Harris, Jay Wratten to his uncle Harvey, and later Joseph Bede, and Patterson to Commander Khokar — all of whom eventually supplant their superiors to take their place in the new Counterpoint. And even Gatehouse is implied to have been working to create the new Counterpoint before his superiors tried to kill him.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Commander Penney kills himself rather than wait for Gatehouse to find and kill him.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Commander Khokar, Commander Penney and Sir Richard Halton; the three men in control of Counterpoint.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Gabriel finds one in his wardrobe, which turns out to be a key plot point.
  • British Brevity: Seven episodes and done.
  • By-the-Book Cop:
    • The green constable accompanying Foley to a murder scene anxiously points out all the procedures he's breezily violating.
    • Gabriel gives the impression of one, but hints emerge that he's more of a Cowboy than he lets on.
    • Robert Beatty, though he's a by the book Customs officer rather than a cop.
  • Camp Gay: Ratallack
  • Chekhov M.I.A.: Glickman. His disappearance gets a lot of focus in the first few episodes, and sure enough he finally appears in person in episode 5.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Briefcase Full of Money in Gabriel's wardrobe. It turns out to be marked, and is a key clue implicating the police in drug smuggling.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Honey's sniping, which she's seen practising in the pre-credits sequence of episode 7 and later plays a key part in the episode's climax.
  • The Chessmaster: The BBC website refers to Gatehouse as a "puppet master" and he proves very adept at planning to get what he wants, resulting in his ultimate victory. Also Glickman, who manages to Out Gambit Gatehouse twice, both times nearly resulting in Gatehouse's death. Even Joseph Bede shows some aptitude for this towards the end of the series, as he manipulates Customs in order to get them off his case long enough to finish his deal.
  • Cold Sniper: Subverted - DI Honey says she'll "never get over this", and is visibly disturbed in the press conference after having shot Gabriel.
  • Country Matters: It must have taken several takes for Honey to get that reading of "constable" exactly right...
  • Da Chief: Patterson, Gabriel's boss. And Commander Khokar, his boss
  • Depraved Homosexual:
    • Ratallack; cold, ambitious, and delights in using his sexuality to make other men uncomfortable.
    • Harris, who despite using/paying Ratallack for sex, is very Straight Gay, and a very dirty cop.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Joseph Bede crosses this in the final episode, after his wife tries to kill herself and is hospitalised. He then leaves his gun behind when going to meet Jay, who he knows intends to betray him, which leads to his death.
  • Deuteragonist: Joseph Bede, who has his own plot which barely crosses over with Gabriel's investigations. In addition, Gatehouse could be considered a tritagonist, especially towards the end of the series.
  • Didn't See That Coming: Gatehouse gets one in his first encounter with Glickman when he learns Glickman knew he was coming and prepared countermeasures — namely a large bomb, which destroys his shop and almost kills Gatehouse. In the next episode, this happens to Glickman himself when he's stabbed to death by his girlfriend, who was actually an agent of Counterpoint.
  • Dirty Cop: DS Delaney, Gabriel's deceased partner. Also, virtually every police officer in the series other than Gabriel is in some way involved with Counterpoint. And Sgt Foley, though he's more aggressively amoral than outright evil.
  • The Dragon: Gatehouse, to the leaders of Counterpoint.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: While he isn't technically the Big Bad, he's undoubtedly the main antagonist.
  • Dragon Ascendant: By the end of the series, he's killed his superiors and taken full control of Counterpoint, which he can run on his terms now.
  • Downer Ending: Jay Wratten takes Bede's place at the head of the food chain; Jonah Gabriel is shot by his partner, who's working for Gatehouse; Counterpoint gets renewed with Wratten and Ratallack; it all gets covered up; and Patterson makes it clear that he will be involved in Gabriel's son's life, albeit ostensibly as a protector.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Jay Wratten delivering a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown to one of Bob Harris's men, establishing him right away as a dangerous psychopath.
    • Glickman tracking down and murdering an old associate who recognised him in hiding in Dublin, to establish that he really doesn't want to be found.
  • Evil Power Vacuum: In the drug trade, following Harvey Wratten's death. Engineered by Gatehouse to give his people a chance to rise to the top.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: Gatehouse is fond of this. In one meeting he's apparently rung the doorbell before retreating several feet to stand in a suitably ominous patch of darkness.
  • Fall Guy: Andy Dixon. He was just hired to drive Harvey Wratten to a specific location, yet ended up getting framed for his murder.
  • Femme Fatale: Petra Nayler, Glickman's girlfriend. For example, she's willing to have an affair with Joseph Bede in the hope of getting more information on her boyfriend's location. It also turns out that she's a Counterpoint agent, and when she eventually finds him she stabs him to death.
  • Gayngster: Bob Harris, and his boytoy Ratallack.
  • Generic Ethnic Crime Gang: The Turks, right down to a strong focus on "family" that Jay Wratten firmly objects to.
  • Giggling Villain: Jay Wratten
  • Government Conspiracy: Counterpoint
  • The Hero Dies: Gabriel is shot just before the end of the final episode. Bede is shot offscreen, after losing his will to live when his wife makes him give up on her. He could have defended himself against Jay, but chose not to.
  • He Knows Too Much:
    • This is why Gabriel and his partner were shot, in that they came too close to discovering the true extent of police involvement with Counterpoint.
    • Ross McGovern is killed while investigating the above, again because his investigations led him too close to Counterpoint.
    • And deliberately invoked in episode 6 by Glickman and Gabriel. Glickman sends Gabriel to confront Commander Penney with what he knows about Counterpoint, knowing that this will prompt Penney to sent Gatehouse after Gabriel to silence him. Which is what Glickman was counting on, seeing as he wants to draw Gatehouse out so he can kill him.
  • The Heavy: Gatehouse's actions ultimately turn out to be driving much of the plot, even in subplots he's apparently uninvolved in.
  • Hidden Agenda Villain: Gatehouse, for most of the series.
  • Hidden Depths: Budding chessmaster Jay Wratten. Gatehouse uses the very phrase.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Ross McGovern
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: Has an extremely complicated plot and what's really going on doesn't become clear until the last two episodes.
  • Justified Criminal: Joseph Bede. He's just in the drugs business for one last job, the proceeds of which he'll use to pay for his wife's Alzheimer's treatment.
  • Karma Houdini: Gatehouse, Jay, Ratallack, Patterson and Honey, as a result of them winning.
  • Kick the Dog: Invoked by Jay, who shows a mechanic what he's made of by partially Drowning The Cat. Doesn't really work, mostly because it wasn't his cat. Jay proceeds to point out that next time it'll be the mechanic's son, which works much better.
  • Kicked Upstairs: Ross is promoted to an editorial job in an apparent attempt to stop him digging into his corruption story.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Jonah can't remember anything about the operation that got him shot... Subverted in that a few people have expressed the opinion that it all sounds suspiciously convenient, as there are serious doubts around what went on, and how his partner died.
  • Lured into a Trap: In episode 6, Gatehouse is sent to kill Jonah Gabriel for his assumed knowledge of Counterpoint, yet Gabriel's just bait and Glickman intends to kill Gatehouse when he goes to find him.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident:
    • Ross McGovern is killed in what seems like a random traffic collision.
    • When Sir Richard Halton is killed, it's made to look like he drowned after falling and hitting his head on the edge of his pool.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: The death of a drug baron leads to the discovery of a conspiracy to use drug money to fund police pensions.
  • Morality Pet: Joseph's wife
  • Never Suicide: Both Andy Dixon and Commander Khokar are murdered in such a way that it looks like they killed themselves. In addition, Sir Richard Halton discusses killing Jonah Gabriel in such a way in episode 6, but it never comes to pass.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Near the end of Episode 4, Ross heads home to what his boss refers to as a beautiful country cottage, where his wife is. We get some nice shots of him on his bike, riding though gorgeous countryside, and we already know Gatehouse has his address, so we know something's going to happen, and we're keyed up because of the Blatant Lies above. And then Gatehouse kills him just offscreen. Literally right on the other side of a hill from the camera. All we see is his car coming over the hill toward us with a broken mirror.
  • Oral Fixation:
    • Sgt. Foley and his chewing gum.
    • Da Chief finds a pencil to suck on if he's somewhere he can't smoke.
    • Bob Harris is giving up smoking, and substitutes with gum, nicotine inhalers and, er, rent boys.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: The killing of Harvey Wratten.
  • One Last Job: Joseph.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Gatehouse. Glickman calls him James, but other than that we (and most of the characters) have no idea what his real name is.
  • Passing the Torch: An evil version in the new members of Counterpoint; Jay Wratten as the figurehead and Ratallack as the numbers man.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Jay
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Like everything else on the show, the dialogue is highly stylized. As this review from the Telegraph puts it; "it is unsettling that these characters, however diverse, all talk in exactly the same way. They speak in measured, perfect sentences, full of conscious metaphors about lines that can and cannot be crossed. They interact in a manner which allows each character to finish their perfectly modulated paragraph: no one interrupts; no one is inarticulate".
  • Religious and Mythological Theme Naming: Jonah Gabriel, Joseph Bede.
  • Revenge: Gatehouse seeks bloody revenge on his superiors in Counterpoint in the final episode, because they tried to have him killed.
  • Running Gag:
    • At no point do we ever actually see anyone being arrested or brought in for questioning. Just before and after, but never the event itself.
    • The effect of the smoking ban on the traditionally Everybody Smokes setting of the police station; see Oral Fixation above.
  • Sherlock Scan:
    • Gatehouse is so good he looks like a Cold Reader "psychic". He can read people who aren't saying anything.
    • In Episode 6, Gabriel figures out Gatehouse is lying about his peaceable intent because he's still wearing gloves. Indoors. Of course, the viewers know that "Gatehouse is lying" is generally a pretty safe bet.
  • Sickbed Slaying: Almost happens to Gatehouse in episode 6, when an assassin is sent to kill him in his hospital bed after he's shot by Glickman. However, he's able to overpower and kill his assassin and escape.
  • Signature Headgear: Gatehouse's trilby.
  • Sissy Villain: Ratallack
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Gabriel's wife, who gives birth to his son after he's been shot dead.
  • Status Quo Is God: Gabriel is shot for digging too deep. The generation of conspirators that have gone are simply replaced by their heirs and/or killers. Couterpoint is still going, but new people are starting to ask their own questions. The only substantive change to anything is that Patterson is getting a promotion.
  • Technically a Smile: Gabriel exhibits one of these when he and his boss go to talk to Khokar, laying out his theory of what happened. And then he drops the pretense and explodes with "But that's not what happened, is it?" as he points to the scar the bullet in his brain left, and the audience realizes he's actually furious.
  • 'Tis Only a Bullet in the Brain: Gabriel
  • Title Drop: Finally happens in Episode 5, after an awful lot of characters musing on the themes of shadows and light and lines. And then they keep musing, right through the final scene of the series.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Gatehouse was shown in promo pictures long before he appeared in Episode 2, and is right behind Gabriel and Bede in the BBC website header. The character description refers to him as "lethal", well before he kills anyone. The iPlayer description for Episode 5 says Gatehouse finally tracks Glickman down, with explosive consequences." There is literally an explosion. Someone at the BBC thinks they're being cute. Gatehouse will also appear on the DVD cover.
  • Vandalism Backfire: Jay Wratten proves what an utter psycho he is by half-drowning a cat in front of someone, explaining as he does so that the cat's causing him plenty of pain in return. When he lets it go the guy points out it wasn't his cat, but even if it was he doesn't know anything. The scene doesn't do much except act as an Establishing Character Moment.
  • Villain Protagonist: Despite being sympathetic, Bede is still a wholesale cocaine dealer.
  • We Can Rule Together: Gatehouse offers Gabriel a chance to join him in the final episode. His refusal is what leads Gatehouse to have him killed.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist:
    • In Episode 6, we are told that the entire "Counterpoint" scheme, according to one participant, was to get money for police pensions. The money they made was just a bonus.
    • The fact that the money goes to police pensions also means that the police have a collective interest in the success of Counterpoint's activities thus providing Gatehouse and his core team with more protection, and leverage, than any crime syndicate could wish for.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness:
    • Andy Dixon and his entire family in episode 3, after they've carried out their roles in Gatehouse's plan.
    • In episode 6, the Counterpoint leaders decide this about Gatehouse himself and send an assassin to kill him. It fails, and prompts him to decide they've outlived their usefulness.