Warning! This article contains spoilers.
“Now, stop making a tit of yourself and piss off.”
Expertly delivered by Vicky McClure, this much-memed line pretty much sums up Kate Fleming in Line of Duty: fearless, fantastically good at her job, but also someone who’d be a right laugh down the pub.
She’s the diamond of her trio with Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and Steve Arnott (Martin Compston). But unlike her co-workers, she doesn’t have questionable Freemasonry connections, and her judgement isn’t impaired by her wang.
Kate is even willing to dob in her boss in series three – then claw him out of the mess he’s created for himself when she realises his heart’s in the right place. In a world of nefarious corruption, where the lines between law breaker and law enforcer are blurred, Kate is the straight arrow AC12 desperately needs.
She’s also the type of character we need more of, too.
Created by Jed Mercurio, Kate follows in the footsteps of other women in police dramas, says Melanie Williams, professor of film and television studies at the University of East Anglia, name-checking DCI Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) in Prime Suspect and DCU Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) in The Fall.
But unlike her predecessors, Kate is presented as part of a team, and crucially, the best part of the team – a role seldom occupied by women in TV.
“It’s not the exclusively masculine world of the police and crime series of the past, but nor is it just the one exceptional woman who’s having to fight battles on her own,” says Prof Williams. “It’s a much more mixed landscape.”
That landscape allows Kate to shine as a great copper. Not a great female copper, just an excellent police officer, who happens to be a woman.
Unlike Mirren’s increasingly bitter Jane Tennison, she doesn’t face challenge after challenge related to her gender. And she’s no style icon like Anderson’s deeply troubled Stella Gibson, not the sexual fantasy of every man she meets.
As Prof. Williams sees it, “her ordinariness is quite an interesting break” for viewers used to seeing women in crime dramas who are extremely damaged, neurotic, sexy, or all three. Kate is one of us and this is never more apparent than when you consider her wardrobe.
“A lot of my friends are obsessed with Kate’s terrible outfits,” Prof. Williams laughs. “It’s not like the leather trousers of Saga or the jumper from The Killing. It’s norm-core, frumpy, polar necks and blazers.”
Stella Gibson wears silk blouses, pencil skirts, heels and matching lingerie while trying to catch a serial killer. All with perfectly blowdried hair. In comparison, Kate wears “functional clothes in order to get on with the job”.
She also happens to be a mother, but that isn’t harped on about every five minutes. “You’ve got a son you barely see,” taunts Thandiwe Newton’s Detective Chief Inspector Roz Huntley in series four, in rare reference to Kate’s parenthood. By series six, little Josh is barely acknowledged, except in the occasional glimpse at Kate’s screensaver.
“It doesn’t place that ‘I’m a working mother’ struggle centre stage, it’s very much in the margins,” says Prof. Williams. “That’s quite refreshing.”
This is in stark contrast to most representations of parenthood in the media, says Dr Rebecca Feasey from Bath Spa University, whose research looks at presentation of gender and motherhood in popular culture.
“The contemporary media environment is saturated by romanticised, idealised and indeed conservative images of selfless and satisfied ‘good’ mothers who conform to the ideology of intensive mothering,” says Dr Feasey. TV mothers are important, she adds, because they “have the power and scope to foreground culturally accepted familial relations and define maternal norms”.
In other words, Kate’s inability to get home before her son’s bedtime might normalise imperfect motherhood, and take the pressure off real-life working parents, even just a smidge. Seeing a family set-up where the dad is primary caregiver is also astonishingly rare.
Kate’s parenting prowess may not win her mother of the year, but her hard work is eventually rewarded, when she gets promoted ahead of Steve.
She’s among a number of women holding senior roles, from DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes), to DCI Roz Huntley (Thandiwe Newton), senior legal counsel Gill Biggeloe (Polly Walker), DCI Jo Davidson (Kelly Macdonald) and this season’s ultimate antagonist, DS Patricia Carmichael (Anna Maxwell Martin).
“That slogan of ‘if you can be it you can see it’ is quite a powerful one I think here,” says Prof. Williams. “When we see women in positions of leadership, taking control of situations, it creates the possibility within people’s imaginations to understand how that might also happen beyond fictional representations.”
Of course, most of the female characters in Line of Duty’s line-up are completely, utterly flawed. But that’s also what makes them so brilliant.
Line of Duty’s women are complex. DS Carmichael – on paper, the pinnacle of proficiency and professionalism – has a smugness that makes the blood boil. Meanwhile, Jo Davidson somehow gains our sympathy, despite her deeds, when we learn she was forced into a life of crime by her gangster family. And let’s not overlook that Kate shagged her mate’s husband in season two.
“It helps make the characterisation more rounded, rather than someone who’s unimpeachably brilliant in all areas of their lives,” says Prof. Williams of Kate’s extramarital affair. “You want to move beyond always insisting on positive representations of women and there’s a really good range in Line of Duty.”
Famously, Jed Mercurio isn’t great at talking to women in real life – he made headlines in 2019 for calling a young TV critic a c**t – but he is bloody good at writing women. And he’s helped by the brilliant acting of Vicky McClure, whose CV included stints at Dorothy Perkins and a sunbed shop before she eventually landed the role of Lol in This Is England, then Kate in Line of Duty.
Often praised for being down-to-earth and straight-talking, the actor – who still lives around the corner from her parents in Nottingham – isn’t phased when people draw comparisons between herself and Kate.
“The point for me as an actor is to make a character seem as real as possible,” she said in an interview in 2016. “So if they’re like me in some ways or in how they react to a situation… well, happy days.”
At the time of writing, we still don’t know Kate’s fate or if she’ll turn out to be H (surely not). We’re also yet to hear if Line of Duty will get a seventh season.
What we do know is that this flawed, complex woman who loves curry, catching criminals and calling everyone “mate” has raised the bar for women on screen in the past decade. And for that, we have to be grateful.