Spoilers below for Bodyguard’s ending.
Bodyguard, a BBC and Netflix show about a traumatized veteran turned police escort, is fantastic right up until the point it isn’t. That point arrives almost exactly halfway through the six-episode miniseries: Sergeant David Budd (Richard Madden) is tasked with protecting Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes) at an important public speaking event. Although she’s already faced death threats — and a sniper attack in episode three — Montague decides to gives a big speech in support of her governmental surveillance bill. She’s also hoping to set in motion a plan to oust the prime minister, a plan which she hopes will put her in a good position to take his place.
As Montague begins her speech, David Budd circles the university auditorium warily, looking for a threat. He leaves to investigate a briefcase, returns, and then realizes something’s awry. He sprints toward the stage, but it’s too late. There’s an immense explosion, and in episode four, we learn that Montague has died.
Until the point of Julia Montague’s death, Bodyguard is a remarkable show, slick and tense and fun, running at an impossibly fast pace and somehow managing to pull it off. After Montague dies, though, Bodyguard falls to pieces. That one plot development takes everything most propulsive about the show and, quite literally, blows it all up. David Budd eventually recovers from his traumas, both mental and physical. But Bodyguard never does.
Part of the issue is that Keeley Hawes is just so great as Montague. In her absence, the back half of Bodyguard has no one who can provide the self-possession and magnetic, enigmatic sense of power she gives to the opening episodes. Gina McKee’s Commander Anne Sampson is good, and Nina Toussaint-White is also strong as DS Louise Rayburn, especially in the moments when Louise believes David has betrayed her. But Bodyguard is designed with David Budd as the central figure, and he’s surrounded by women throughout the series. He’s almost buffeted by women: his boss, his boss’s boss, his wife, his partner, his suspect, the sneaky assistant who gets fired. He want their approval, he wants to follow the rules they set out, he wants to be subordinate to them, and he wants to suss out their motives. After Montague’s death, there’s no absence of women jockeying for power.
But Montague is the only one designed as Budd’s true foil, and the relationship Bodyguard builds between them in its first three episodes is implausibly appealing. The male bodyguard/female client is classic trope for a reason: There’s a delicious power-reversal framework that supercharges their inevitable romance. In the usual way this story goes, the client starts with the upper hand because she’s powerful and famous. She’s capable of dismissing the bodyguard at any time; she’s beloved by the whole world but truly known by no one. So when the bodyguard breaks down her emotional walls, becoming her protector emotionally as well as physically, there’s a very satisfying power dynamic swap that gives juice to their relationship. The bond between David and Julia has that in its DNA, but it’s much, much messier and more interesting.
When David first learns about the assignment, we can tell he hates Julia’s politics. His work superiors tell him to spy on her because she’s a threat to the nation, and David accedes because he agrees with them. She has no appreciation of his service in Afghanistan, and he loathes what she is: a politician who sends other people into battle with no risk to themselves. He’s also deep in the throes of PTSD, and is trying to ignore the symptoms. When David and Julia come together romantically, it has none of the valence of the client emotionally giving way to her bodyguard — except in the moments where she is literally cowering in her car covered in blood and broken glass, Julia has the upper hand in the relationship. She is always the more powerful one, and David — her chivalrous knight who’s built like a Clydesdale, the guy who can sprint to the top of a building to take down her attacker and whispers assurances while hustling her to safety — is always the vulnerable one. Even in the moment when Julia wakes him from a dream and David finds himself strangling her thanks to a PTSD flashback, Julia ends up comforting him, which is extremely fucked up! But also remarkably effective at underlining David’s status as the true damsel in distress.
That dynamic is far and away the most interesting thing about Bodyguard. The deliciously muddled chaos of their sexual politics interwoven with the politics of national security, Julia’s refusal to cede to real physical threat while in pursuit of her ambition, Julia’s wildly romantic declaration that she wants someone else to cover her security so her relationship with David can be made legitimate, David’s terror that someone will hurt her and his undeniable attraction to her power: All of that makes for great television! Plus, a palpable fraction of Bodyguard’s appeal is in watching David politely saying “ma’am” in response to whatever Julia says. His “ma’am” is alternately deferential, furious, exasperated, longing, and plaintive. I’m not saying that in a show full of bombings and sex and conspiracies and snipers that the most attractive moments are when Richard Madden says “ma’am,” but I’m not not saying that, either.
But rather than making their relationship the core of the series, or allowing David to fully confront Julia about her hawkish, invasive security policies, or further twisting the corkscrew of the power dynamic in their forbidden relationship, or pursuing a plot where their relationship becomes public and they have to negotiate the fallout (imagine the catastrophe!), Bodyguard just detonates the whole thing. The second half of the season pulls on a simplistic, follow-the-money conspiracy thread, culminating in a confused whimper of a reveal about who was actually leaking information from inside the police organization (it was David’s boss), and an eye-roll worthy Islamophobic unmasking of the bomber’s true identity (it was Nadia, who David “saved” during the attempted train bombing).
In the end, David has totally shaken off his obsession with Julia, and the final moments are of him getting into a car with his estranged wife, on his way to becoming a happy, in-control, invulnerable dad once again. Julia’s death is a tragedy overcome, and it has the corollary effect of neutralizing the threat of her female power — oh, and by the way, Bodyguard also removes a lot of other powerful woman from the rest of the story so that a sweet, wounded everyman of Britain gets his rightful place as the country’s savior.
What a disappointment! Bodyguard walks right up to the line of building this fruitful, precarious relationship between David and Julia, and then it’s as if the writers couldn’t even imagine what that relationship might look like outside the illicit privacy of their sexy safehouse apartment. It’s a failed opportunity, and the result is a story that offers tantalizing threads of complexity, only to cut them all off right as they start combining into something truly innovative.