The premiere of Bodyguard sets up an interesting dynamic — can a man who feels betrayed by his government protect one of its most vocal members? It’s an extreme situation but also relatable in a time of more and more passionate positions regarding terrorism and wartime. What if your job required you to care more about the life of someone you considered reprehensible than your own? It’s part of David Budd’s DNA to protect, but what happens when that half of his personality conflicts with the half that feels like the British government ruined his life?
The table is set for Bodyguard by the kind of attention-grabbing sequence that’s perfect for a streaming service like Netflix, which hopes you’ll put the Smart TV remote down and not pick it up again for six hours.
The first third of the episode consists of a harrowing introduction to David Budd, played by Richard Madden. We get details about him through action, seeing him on a train with two sleeping children, revealing that he’s a parent. He’s also remarkably observant. He sees a man acting funny when the train stops at a station but appears to let it go until he sees an employee knocking on bathroom doors. Who’s she looking for? She stops at a door at the front of David’s car and knocks several times, getting no answer. David soon learns that there has been a report that a suicide bomber could have boarded the train. He tells her of the suspicious behavior and learns that they’re going to divert the train to a derelict depot, so it doesn’t come into the crowded station in London. David appears ready to push a man with a bomb around his waist out an open door on a moving train, but he hesitates. The man has no device. It appears everything will be fine.
Everything is most definitely not fine. After a moment of calm, David goes back to the bathroom to see whether the man planted a device there, and he finds what was left behind, the man’s partner, a terrified woman with a bomb around her midsection. David goes into action. He senses that she’s scared; she doesn’t want to do this. He sees in her a commonality. He too feels like he was used by his superiors to commit war crimes as a soldier in the Middle East. He appeals to her humanity, even showing her a photo of his kids on his phone, and learning her name is Nadia. It’s a very well-directed and acted sequence, the kind that immediately draws in viewers. In a lot of ways, David is the foot on the mine here. If he moves, it will go off.
That sense of immediacy is enhanced when David realizes at the depot that everyone around him wants Nadia dead. Not only is he going to stop her from blowing up the train but he’s going to keep her alive at the same time. He puts his body up against hers, blocking the sniper’s shot and ignoring orders from the officers who have now boarded the train. It’s a lot going on in one tense scene that serves not only as action but character development — David is willing to sacrifice himself to protect someone who, just moments ago, was ready to kill hundreds of people. It works. Nadia is safe, and David makes it home.
Well, he makes it to what’s left of “home.” We learn that David’s marriage is on the rocks. He’s separated from his wife, and it’s clearly more her preference than his. Later, we’ll learn that his ex has moved on to another man and that David likes to call her after a few too many drinks.
Before then, David will meet Julia Montague, played by Keeley Hawes. Julia is the Home Secretary, and she’s a war hawk, someone accused quickly of using the train incident to fearmonger into further invasions of privacy and possibly even military action. David is assigned to lead her protective duty, first butting heads with her demands, including not using the underground garage so she can be seen entering her building and bristling when he wants to change the route on the way home.
We meet a few people in Julia’s orbit, including a PR adviser named Chanel Dyson, played by Stephanie Hyam, who gets axed after an incident involving spilled coffee. She tries to go to the press to spill the beans on Julia, but disgruntled employees don’t make great sources. We also meet Julia’s ex, Roger Penhaligon, the Conservative Party chief whip and a political opponent of Montague, as well as Rob McDonald, the special adviser to the Home Secretary, who appears to have more than a professional relationship with Julia. Later, we’ll meet Andy Apsted, played by the excellent Tom Brooke, a vet and friend of David’s who leads the Veterans Peace Group and castigates David for working with the government that betrayed him.
All of these supporting characters are interesting, but the premiere of Bodyguard is intended to set up the conflict in David Budd’s daily existence. He now has to protect someone with whom he radically disagrees. There’s a disconcerting scene in which David almost appears to lose his grip on sanity a bit, watching Julia say “That doesn’t require apologizing for the past” over and over again on a loop. Julia won’t apologize for the conflicts that ruined David’s life. How will this truth affect his decisions when he has to save her? Julia senses this rift — it’s probably not the first time it’s happened with one of her guards — and says “I don’t need you to vote for me. Only to protect me.” Will he? There’s something somewhat chilling in the final real line of the show: “Looks like the Home Secretary couldn’t be in safer hands.” We’ll see.
• There are several reports on the show that indicate that the terror threat level in the U.K. has been raised to “Substantial.” If you’re wondering how that ranks on the levels, it’s in the middle. The threat levels go, in order, “Low,” “Moderate,” “Substantial,” “Severe,” and “Critical.”
• If you’re wondering what the U.S. equivalent is to the home secretary, Julia Montague’s position, there really isn’t one as the duties are apportioned differently in the U.K. The home secretary there handles immigration in ways that we don’t really have an equivalent position for and deals with national security overall, but one could argue that the attorney general may come closest here. The current home secretary is Sajid Javid. Wonder what he thinks of the show.
• If you’re wondering how this show did in the U.K., the answer is that it was huge. It was the highest rated new BBC drama since 2008 when it ran there in August of this year. More than 17 million people watched the finale last month. Only time will tell if it catches on in the States to the same degree.