Bodyguard should come with a warning. There are several stretches of this twisty new thriller series that are so anxiety-inducing, with such unbearable tension, that I almost had to leave the room. I could have paused it, sure, but I didn’t actually want to stop watching it. I just wanted to grimace and sink as far down into the couch as possible, my heart pounding as I attempted to rationalize that the story couldn’t really do this or that, right? RIGHT? It’s stressful — in the best of ways.
Netflix’s 6-episode series comes from Jed Mercurio, and first aired on the BBC (to staggering viewership numbers). It follows the story of a metropolitan police officer, David Budd (Richard Madden), a war veteran who uses his special training while off-duty to help diffuse a potential terrorist attack in the first fifteen minutes of the series. But Bodyguard is not interested in becoming Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan, at least not yet. What makes the series work — including all of those ultra-tense moments — is how well Madden sells his badass character as a man who also has deep emotional connections and a compassionate heart.
To that end, David’s heroism during that attempted attack wins him a position as part of Protection Command, where he is tasked with being the bodyguard (hey!) for a Conservative Home Secretary, Julia Montague (the always excellent Keeley Hawes). The two are initially at odds, as David is personally angered at her political agenda, including sending troops (himself formerly included) to Afghanistan. His experiences there, and an attempt to deal with his PTSD himself — poorly, one should add — has caused a strain with his wife, Vicky (Sophie Rundle), from whom he’s separated but with whom he remains close because of their two children.
For longtime viewers of crime shows or thriller series, a lot of Bodyguard will feel familiar. David is a family man with an extraordinary set of skills, and heaven help anyone who sets them off. He’s a hardened badass, but he has a soft spot for the prickly MP he serves, as the two begin a wary friendship. And yet, all of this works and feels not just fresh but worth emotionally investing in because of the fantastic cast (including Gina McKee, Paul Ready, Stuart Bowman, and Tom Brooke). But most of all it’s down to Madden, who delivers an enthralling, absolutely heartbreaking performance.
From the onset, though, David’s protection of Julia is fraught with attempts on her life, almost all of which he has some personal connection to. Instead of straining the story’s credibility, though, it serves to create an intricate web of conspiracies around David. As he investigates a number of surprising twists, it becomes clear that while he is certainly a gifted policeman, there are levels to this mystery that even he can’t see. Bodyguard is at its best both in the moments when Hawes and Madden are able to play off of each other, but it also quickly lays a foundation that questions the loyalties and motivations of every single cast member, including David himself. The two Davids that Madden presents — one who is completely in control, and one who is completely out of control — are fascinating to watch, especially as he can slip in and out of those modes within the same scene.
With only six episodes, Bodyguard introduces a staggering number of themes, though doesn’t quite deliver on them all, and would need several more episodes (or another season) to do so. There’s a political element dealing with how much freedom people are willing to give up for security, and how secure the people are who are meant to be protecting us. There’s also a racial element, as the presumption to blame Muslim characters for terrorist actions is not really called into account. The series is much more at home dealing with both the corruption and well-meaning intentions within the police force, which both help and hinder David’s investigations, but it still leaves a lot on the table in terms of deeper consideration of the questions it brings up on its own.
Halfway through the series, though, a major event changes the entire trajectory of the story, which is a bold thing to do in such a short amount of time. But again, Bodyguard makes it work, relying on Madden to morph into even more of an action role that is still wholly grounded in intense emotional work. There are innumerable twists and turns to what becomes a kind of Whodunnit, but through it all, Madden makes us feel every single moment of what David is experiencing, most especially when confronting his insecurities about his failures as a husband and father. He has a job to do — several, in fact — and focusing on that is the only thing he believes is keeping him sane. That makes the tension of him making a mistake and losing it all a constant pulse throughout the season.
There are several things that work really well in the series’ final episode, and could leave the door open for another season, and other revelations that feel like a bit of a letdown. But ultimately, Bodyguard is an exhilarating ride that truly showcases Madden as a major talent, one who is capable of not just leading Winterfell’s bannermen in Game of Thrones, but leading this breakout series and others — or even a certain movie franchise.
The Bodyguard premieres Wednesday, October 24th on Netflix.