Luther is one of the most schizophrenic drama series in recent years. The first three episodes offer standard psycho-of-the-week plots, in which an off-the-rails policeman, John Luther (Idris Elba), simultaneously dazzles his colleagues with his genius and terrifies them with his impetuosity. In response, his boss, Detective Superintendent Rose Teller (an underused Saskia Reeves wielding a wobbly Cockney accent), calls Luther’s presence on her team “nitroglycerin.”
But this formula gives way in the last three episodes to riveting drama. These start with the horrifying disintegration of a lower-middle-class working man into the madness of serial murder and end with a tangle of corruption and killing that recalls the stomach-churning violence of classic crime movies of the ‘70s.
Some of the initial problems with the series stem from Elba’s own overwrought performance. But more arise from weak plotting and Luther’s excessive psychological baggage. Ironically, the drama kicks into creative overdrive only when he is no longer the show’s sole focus. Although Elba captures the moody slouch of the disaffected Londoner—shoulders hunched, hands jammed in his trouser pockets—he pitches his performance too intensely from the beginning. When a simple obstacle precipitates Luther’s loss of control, he has nowhere to go when facing a more fundamental shock, whether an abduction scene decorated in screeds of nonsense written in blood or his estranged wife’s rejection of his reconciliation attempts.
Creator/writer Neil Cross includes the recent cliche of the selective psychopath, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), as Luther’s new best friend, and an irritatingly passive-aggressive romantic rival, Mark North (Paul McCann). In some scenes, the desperation on Elba’s face seems as much a response to his reading of the script as to the repeatedly noted burdens of Luther’s job. The show includes other clichés as well, including Luther’s inspiring his fellow cops to talk up his imagination and daring, even as his crime-solving seems pedestrian. In the first episode, which premiered on BBC America 17 October, Luther’s soi-disant brilliant revelation of a murderer’s secreting the lethal gun in the stomach of a dead dog was semaphored right from his earliest observations at the crime scene. And in Episode Three, his supposedly ingenious ruse to trap killer Lucien Burgess (Paul Rhys) seems more like the fitting up that once marred the Metropolitan Police’s reputation for probity.
As frustrating as this slow-burn beginning may be, it also guarantees that the amped-up intensity of Episode Four will catch the viewer completely off-guard, as do the cascading plot twists that follow. And the intermittent glimpses of Luther’s quiet vulnerability suggest how he secures the loyalty of not only DCI Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh), but also the support of his very young, very by-the-book new partner, Justin Ripley (Warren Brown), with whom Luther develops his most eloquent relationship.
Although Luther scarcely develops over the series, both Reed and Ripley are transformed. The two rework very familiar cop show roles, the trusted long-term back-up man and the rookie partner, the actors investing each with unusual complexity. When Ripley trots alongside the taller Luther in the first episode and tells Luther how he transferred specifically to work with him, he radiates eager puppy-dog sincerity. But behind the hero-worshiping façade, Ripley’s physical persistence and stoical expressions suggest he’s also struggling to maintain a moral line he never thought his profession would ask him to cross. Here Brown conveys how Ripley’s determination matches Luther’s own. For, while he admires Luther’s successes and reputation, he has no intention of compromising his own integrity to follow him, or anyone else.
As Ripley finds his own way, Reed bears more and more of the burden of Luther’s lack of control. The low-key Mackintosh slowly intensifies Reed’s nervous gestures and his lack of affect, appearing to shrink within himself and so inviting viewers to contemplate the corrosiveness of Luther’s hubris. In the final two episodes, Reed’s trajectory indicates what happens when an intelligent, self-aware man is asked to choose between personal survival and his loyalty to a more charismatic colleague with whom he is always implicitly compared.
The pay-off for persistence with Luther is so rich that it is worth suspending judgment on the show for its first episode, and even for its second and third. Summon your patience and settle in for the long haul. By its end, the series’ exploration of how ordinary human fallibility is transformed into shocking human depravity is compellingly inventive.