Special agents, terrorism, the shadowy side of state institutions—it seems there’s an insatiable appetite for this type of TV nail-biter after Homeland, Scandal, Quantico, 24. And yet the BBC series Bodyguard—a six-episode adrenaline rush led by a steely Scotsman with a moral code as strong as his jawline—has proven an implausible record-breaker: In the United Kingdom, it’s the most-watched show since viewership records began in 2002.
At a glance, Bodyguard, which hits Netflix Oct. 24, seems like pretty standard stuff. There are solemn Brits in black suits (posh accents for the politicians, Scottish brogues for the muscles), minimalist office buildings, perpetually overcast skies. There are covert meetings and thrilling car chases and approximately 80 mentions of “CCTV” (video surveillance) per episode. Periodically, the pulsating thrum overlaying much of the action will build into a buzzy, suspenseful score that alerts us to imminent danger.
None of this is new. But somehow, once you’re a few episodes in, Bodyguard is difficult to turn off: it’s sexy and moody, full of stressful twists and semi-satisfying payoffs. Much of the plot is conventional, yet it’s buoyed by a quantity of captivating characters, none of whom we’re ever sure we can trust.
As with Jack Bauer in 24 and Carrie Mathison in Homeland, Bodyguard’s center of gravity is our devoted hero David Budd, a military veteran-turned-police officer played with grand stoicism and allure by Richard Madden (best known as Game of Thrones’ Robb Stark). We’re introduced to David on a barreling train where he’s perched beside his two sleeping children. He’s off-duty, but his mind is on: His eyes dart around the car, primed to detect any suspicious activity—which, of course, there turns out to be. The taut opening sequence that ensues is a taste of what the rest of the show will provide: ticking-clock anxiety, suspense, near-catastrophe—but not before Sergeant David Budd can jump to center stage, coming to our extravagant rescue.
David’s gallant train feat inspires his boss to reward him with what should be a welcome promotion: chief bodyguard for Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes). Julia is a chic and haughty woman, immediately disdainful of David’s efforts to protect her. “She likes to be seen,” her assistant informs David when Julia sneers at his suggestion that she use a back entrance for safety. She also takes a steadfast pro-war stance, which revs David up even more than her snobbery.
For while he may seem like he’s got everything under control, David is privately suffering. Recently separated from his wife and battling PTSD from his time in Afghanistan, David is something of a misanthrope. By day he throws himself into his work, a loyal public servant who cares deeply about his duties; but by night he drinks alone and has trouble sleeping, haunted by memories of combat. He is, basically, a paint-by-numbers troubled macho man, repressing all emotion and scoffing at his peers’ insistence that he could use some counseling, or just use a break from the job. “What have I told you about crying?” he chides his son while taking him to school one day. “Never show weakness, they’ll only hurt you more!”
The new job proves complicated in ways we can’t predict. There are assassination attempts, blackmail, and espionage schemes—not to mention the mounting sexual tension between him and the Home Secretary. The series isn’t gripping on a minute-to-minute basis; as characters interact, there’s just enough blank governmental jargon for you to tune in and out without missing any major developments. But this actually proves helpful, especially in show that can, in less sexy moments, feel oppressively dark. Where in a James Bond or Jason Bourne flick the dialogue would be peppered with quips or one-liners, Bodyguard is somber to the death.
There are also several dubious moments with race—Islamophobia isn’t handled with the utmost grace, and at one point David falsely, and bizarrely, claims to be of “mixed race,” presumably to embarrass a politician who refers to him as a monkey. One problem in shows dealing with terrorism is who to make the menace: militants from a particular racial or religious group? Disgruntled veterans? Mentally ill rogues? Villainizing any group, especially a marginalized one, is a tricky business.
There are numerous enemies that pop up in Bodyguard, but to its credit, the show presents the most insidious threat as coming from within: the treachery of the British government itself. This type of villain—not a terrorist, not an aberrant employee, but the entire political machine—feels fitting for a post-Brexit, post-Trump age when distrust of establishment systems is accepted as the norm.
There may be nothing groundbreaking about Bodyguard, but it’s easy to see why it’s breaking records. Like its politico-thriller forerunners, the show is taut entertainment for our time, selling the fantasy that an ethical, capable, disarmingly handsome hero is out there, keeping us safe.