Over the course of its first four episodes, The Shadow Line has matured from an overwrought, rather confused melodrama plagued with florid verbosity into one of the BBC’s best thrillers in a very long time. In the fifth instalment, it gets even better.
Harvey Wratten’s missing partner Peter Glickman, previously no more than a phantom presence in picture frames, is finally tracked down to a clockmakers in Dublin by Gatehouse (Stephen Rea). However, the perpetually be-coated one is finally matched for Machiavellianism by Glickman (Anthony Sher), who is unmoved by the arrival of his onetime superior.
‘Hello James,’ says Glickman without turning round. ‘Peter,’ Gatehouse acknowledges from behind the colourful drapes hanging in the doorway, ‘you’re not surprised.’ ‘I saw you in the shadows.’ ‘So you knew where to look.’ ‘Where else would you be?’
The exchange between the two men is delivered in voices that are almost exactly the same in timbre, cadence and accent: the dry, emotionless discourse of two semi-retired university professors speaking of the mechanics of ships in glass bottles. Yet the topic of conversation is criminal empires, multi-million pound deals and brutal murder; and it ends with the first of the episode’s two explosive climaxes.
Elsewhere, DI Jonah Gabriel (Chiwetel Ejiofor) learns how deep and endemic the corruption within the ranks of the police has become during a fraught conversation with his boss Superintendent Patterson (Richard Lintern) and his boss’s boss Commander Khokar (Ace Bhatti). ‘I’m not one of you,’ the amnesiac detective insists to his shady superiors, but at the same time he is finally coming to grasp the origin of the case of money in his closet – is this last bastion of virtue within the force as bent as everyone else after all? It’s a gripping scene, fizzing with tension that even an over-the-top screaming match between Ejiofor and Lintern cannot dissipate.
On the other side of the shadow line, Joseph Bede (Christopher Eccleston), desperately trying to salvage the collapsing drug deal that was supposed to be his ticket out of organised crime, seeks solace with Glickman’s girlfriend Petra (Eve Best) and finds an unexpected ally in teenage prostitute Ratallack (Freddy Fox), who, it rapidly becomes clear, is a good deal more than just a pretty boy with a nice line in catty snark. The offer he makes leaves Bede’s assistant Maurice Crace (Malcolm Storry) spluttering: ‘Jesus, Joseph! The kid’s not even old enough to drive a car!’ and another of the principal characters hanging lifelessly from the struts of a motorway overpass while ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ soars on the soundtrack. It’s an almost operatic end to an episode where the theatricality of the series has found a perfect balance with the grittiness of the subject matter.
Those who have stuck with The Shadow Line through its more prosy and bombastic excesses are now being richly rewarded for their persistence and patience. If the ongoing progression and improvement continues at the same rate, the final two episodes will be simply unmissable.
Airs at 9pm on Thursday 2nd June 2011 on BBC Two.