Earlier this year, the BBC’s “Bodyguard” was a ratings sensation in the United Kingdom, with its finale garnering some 10.4 million viewers, higher ratings than any British broadcast short of the World Cup.
As the series arrives stateside on Netflix, it’s not hard to see why. The thriller star “Game of Thrones” alumnus Richard Madden as a security officer and military veteran who enters the series with no small amount of trauma and only builds up more scar tissue as it goes. Both juicy in its delving into character psychology and rippingly ready to tear up its playbook as it goes, it’s a six-episode ride that demands, and rewards, a quick binge, and one that is as likely as any of Netflix’s overseas imports to find a breakout audience.
As the series begins, Madden’s David Budd is on a train journey with his young children when he catches on to certain cues that something is awry. Soon enough, he’s working to ensure that a female suicide bomber (Anjli Mohindra) doesn’t carry out her mission, using careful negotiation tactics and an inherent belief that the would-be terrorist can be won over to keep all the train’s passengers alive. His finesse gets him an assignment to protect Britain’s Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), a deeply conservative politician whose hawkish stance in the name of counterterrorism has made her a magnet for criticism, intragovernmental intrigue, and threats of violence.
Soon enough, both guard and guarded are manipulating one another, with David surveilling Julia at his employer’s request and Julia alternately seducing David and withholding information from him. At moments, she seems to be laying herself bare, begging David not to be “another bloke who can’t handle a woman having more power.” But given what we’ve seen of her character (expertly drawn as a mix of blithe self-belief and flickers of guilt and awareness), she’s an expert enough politician to play a character well.
This covers the first three or so episodes, after which the story changes dramatically, then keeps on shifting. To get at exactly how “Bodyguard” shreds everything that had come before would be spoiling the element of surprise, so suffice it to say this show excels at both the daring, gasp-inducing twist and the methodical construction of slower-burning thrills. The finale, for instance, features a lengthy sequence of almost physically painful tension, a bravura bit of television that could only exist on a show in which we’ve been primed to understand that truly anything can happen.
Madden, beloved as the pure-hearted Robb Stark, adds new dimensions to his character here, a man with decent motives who’s a bit more at home in the moral gray zone of “Bodyguard’s” sweeping conspiracy than Robb was at King’s Landing. His performance, by turns tripping on his own empathy, and angrily operating beyond rationality, makes us believe anything is possible — a wonderful asset for a show that seeks above all else to keep us watching. With nearly as much sprightly imagination as fellow recent British thriller “Killing Eve” and a committed, gritty relentlessness all its own, “Bodyguard” makes for the most engaging sort of binge, and for a perfect fall-weekend Netflix series.
“Bodyguard,” Netflix. Six episodes (all screened for review). Wednesday, Oct. 24.
Cast: Keeley Hawes, Richard Madden, Gina McKee, Sophie Rundle, Vincent Franklin, Pippa Haywood, Stuart Bowman, Paul Ready.
Executive Producers: Jed Mercurio, Simon Heath, Elizabeth Kilgarriff.