The BBC’s Luther is the kind of crime show that comes along every once in a while and immediately surprises with its intelligence and sophistication. It’s a layered and excellently plotted six episodes that leave the viewer alternately shocked and troubled, yet satisfied.
Focusing on homicide detective John Luther (Idris Elba), the show jumps right into the action with a chase scene culminating in Luther letting a suspect fall to his death. Immediately, the series sets Luther up as the antihero: morally ambiguous at times and overly involved with and invested in the victims of the crimes he investigates. As the series flashes forward seven months, Luther is just being released from hospital stay for an apparent emotional breakdown. Nevertheless, despite his personal life being in disarray, he’s eager to get right back to work, obviously most concerned with getting his professional life back in order.
One of the clearest storytelling choices that set Luther apart from many other crime shows lies in the fact that the murderer is always revealed early on in each episode. They are not focused on uncovering the killer, rather, the series is more interested in the psychological underpinnings of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the crimes. There’s also quite a bit of concentration on the procedure of police work. Luther is often confined by the bureaucracy of the department and here his own sense of right and wrong can frequently be at odds with the responsibilities of his job.
By interspersing Luther’s personal life – namely, the disintegration of his marriage –with his professional duties, there is another layer to his work and in turn, a deeper investment by the viewer. Even though the killer’s identity is not in question, there is a great deal of suspense throughout both related and unrelated to the cases.
Luther’s first case upon his return to the department involves Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a disturbed and complex young woman with whom Luther forms a strange and complicated relationship. Her odd interest in Luther leads to a somewhat uneasy alliance between the two, in spite of their reluctance to trust one another. Luther’s unique approach in exploring this relationship is yet another reason the series functions as more than a well-paced procedural. There’s a real commitment to character which often leads to surprising moments, not the least of which deals with the bizarre criminals Luther comes in contact with. While they range from the supremely creepy and unstable to the just plain sad, they are nonetheless, smartly drawn and executed, Alice being the best example.
Luther’s relationship with his estranged wife, Zoe (Indira Varma), and by extension, his understandably strained relationship with her new boyfriend, Mark (Paul McGann), are important components in fleshing out Luther’s character. The workaholic, insensitive detective is a trope that has been trotted out in too many shows to count, but Luther is more than that. By showing the difficulties of these relationships and the ways in which they intersect with his work, Luther becomes more than a stereotype and instead he’s a three-dimensional, albeit flawed individual.
In some ways, Luther’s partner, Detective Sergeant Justin Ripley (Warren Brown), also serves a similar purpose in the series. His initial meeting with Luther paints him as young and in awe of his new partner, but as Luther shows other sides of himself that have led others to form less than favorable opinions, his loyalty is tested.
Luther’s quickness to anger and violence, mostly centered around the failure of his marriage, along with his moral ambiguity throughout the six episodes, make for a character whose choices are often questionable, despite his intentions, and in turn, he makes those around him alternately frightened and in awe of his skills. He inspires a loyalty, especially in Ripley, that is a key component to understanding him. Luther’s longtime work colleague and friend, DCI Ian Reed (Steven Mackinstosh), also plays a prominent role in revealing more emotional aspects of the detective. He is flawed, but redeemable; tortured, but single-mindedly focused on justice.
Luther is as complex a television character as it gets and Elba plays him with complete commitment. He imbues him with an intensity that translates wonderfully to a character as multifaceted as Luther. Throughout the six episodes, there are continuing themes and problems that are explored and moved forward toward a climactic ending and Luther strikes a balance between resolving cases and maintaining the ongoing story just unsettled enough to keep the audience guessing.
Luther does an excellent job in creating a story that is smartly paced and very well acted. The strength of the series lies in its ability to create and maintain suspense even when the identity of the killer is apparent early on. There is a sense of unpredictability to the show and its lead that sets it apart right away. In only six episodes it quickly establishes Luther as compelling and original, making Luther that rare series that manages to skillfully bring together story, character, and tension.