It doesn’t take a programming genius to figure out why Netflix picked up the international rights to the BBC series Bodyguard. Like Empire or This Is Us here in the States, Bodyguard is one of those exception-makes-the-rule phenomena that prove, for a few select shows at least, linear television isn’t entirely dead. Bodyguard premiered to more than 10 million viewers in the U.K., a staggering 40 percent share of Britain’s relatively scaled-down viewing audience, and concluded on a similarly high note. To put the six-episode season’s staggering success in perspective, Bodyguard is the highest-rated British drama since Downton Abbey, nearly as popular as Prince Harry’s televised wedding to Meghan Markle, and the most widely viewed scripted series of 2018 thus far.
If even a fraction of Bodyguard’s popularity translates to other countries, it’ll count as a win for Netflix. And there’s good reason to think it will: The political thriller from longtime TV writer (as well as former medical doctor and Royal Air Force officer) Jed Mercurio resembles nothing so much as original Netflix hit House of Cards, with the point of view shifted from the jaded politician to the neophyte assigned to protect them.
Bodyguard’s answer to Edward Meechum is David Budd, a London police officer and Afghanistan veteran played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden. (Budd is originally Scottish, allowing Madden to keep his native accent.) Last week, rumors began to circulate that Madden is James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli’s current first choice to succeed Daniel Craig as the iconic secret agent. After a starring role in a story with a fair amount of both espionage and action, the buzz feels somewhat inevitable. But while Madden proves an able eye in Bodyguard’s storm of underhanded intrigue, the confusion and vulnerability that make him so turn out to be the opposite of a classic 007. That’s mostly a good thing.
David finds himself paired with Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), the Conservative Home Secretary—read: right-wing head of a Homeland Security analog—pushing for a Patriot Act–like expansion of law enforcement’s authority. So bullish is Montague on state power that she refuses to apologize for or even express ambivalence about the British military’s intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. David’s politics are otherwise unclear, but his contempt for the higher-ups who endangered the lives of him and his compatriots is absolute. In the nail-biting, nearly 30-minute scene that opens the show, David stops a suicide bomber by appealing to her as one soldier to another, urging her not to lay down her life on behalf of commanders who view it as disposable.
David’s obligation to Julia thus introduces a fascinating series of conflicts, particularly when the personal, even intimate nature of personal protection prevents him from despising her in the abstract. Will David act on his beliefs, or will he be dissuaded from them? Would the latter be a betrayal of his principles or a victory for empathy? Can David stick to the letter of his job, or will he be caught up in the turf wars between MI5, Scotland Yard, and various political factions raging around him?
Disappointingly, Bodyguard pivots away from these questions about halfway through its run, descending into a confusing jumble of double-crosses and haphazardly introduced antagonists. The House of Cards parallels work to both its benefit and its detriment. The tension is expertly managed and manipulated; the cinematography has a chilly, crisp quality that gives the proceedings a sheen of seriousness; the on-location shooting around London adds to the feeling of both realism and expense. On the other hand, as with so many narratives about terrorism and cops gone rogue, the politics are muddled at best and outright reactionary at worst; the cynicism is unrelenting, quickly curdling from savvy to reflexive; the female character who ought to be a proper co-lead is ultimately underserved.
Holding it all together is Madden, whose portrayal of David has a surprising amount in common with the actor’s other most famous role, that of Robb Stark. David Budd doesn’t fight with a broadsword, or have a massive mystical wolf, or wage a Shakespearean land war against his family’s sworn enemies. But Budd and Stark could both be summed up as skilled, confident fighters who turn naive and uncertain when ejected from the battlefield into the far more nuanced conflicts of politics and diplomacy. There’s a great deal of salesmanship involved in making this seeming paradox read as plausible. “Innocent” is hardly the first term that comes to mind for someone fully capable of going to war or taking out a sniper, yet it’s also a convincing description of David’s bewilderment in the face of his new surroundings, just as it was for Robb’s fatal decision to marry for love instead of strategy. Madden makes this simultaneous assurance and uncertainty feel not like a contradiction but part of a seamless whole. It’s key to Bodyguard’s engrossing quality, despite its flaws.
This balancing act also makes Madden an ideal audience surrogate, a counter to the frigid realpolitik of Westeros and Westminster alike. On Bodyguard, David’s natural empathy is portrayed as more of an unqualified positive than Robb’s—something that makes him superior to the schemers in his midst, not just incompatible with them. Madden projects a guilelessness that Bodyguard equates with integrity; he’s retained more humanity after going into combat than his superiors have after years inside the machine. It helps that Madden also looks like an old-fashioned action hero, but he can embody the ideals of one, too, albeit with conflict and angst that feel distinctly contemporary.
None of these qualities are especially desirable in James Bond, a suave, smooth operator who maintains his composure where Budd’s routinely splinters. That’s arguably what makes Madden so intriguing as a modern action star, a performer who embodies unfashionable notions of clean-cut heroism in an era of antiheroes (and sometimes in the middle of quintessential antihero stories, à la Thrones). This particular round of Bond rumors feels especially perfunctory and unimaginative, doing a disservice to the franchise by neglecting to think outside the white-guy-shooting-things shaped box. Bodyguard surely introduces something new to our selection of leading men—just not a new 007.