The Complexity of Finding Balance in ‘Luther 3’

[30 September 2013]

By J.M. Suarez

The third season of the BBC’s Luther continues the twisty plots and suspenseful tension that has made the show such an addictive pleasure to watch. Idris Elba’s Luther is a larger-than-life character whose unorthodox approaches to police work remains the main focus of the show, but also continues with Luther’s personal life playing an important role.

As the season begins, Luther’s methods have prompted an undercover investigation into his police work. Led by DSU George Stark (David O’Hara), the investigation also includes Luther’s former colleague DCI Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird). Gray, a by-the-book police detective, has always been uncomfortable with Luther’s way of conducting detective work. However, Stark is more than suspicious; he is determined to bring down John Luther by any means necessary. The contrast between Gray’s more rational approach and Stark’s obsessive need to destroy Luther can sometimes come off as too extreme, but Luther is a series that often works in extremes, and in turn, the intensity only serves to ratchet up the stakes.

Luther has never shied away from showing the very grisly aspects of murder and this season is no exception. A fetishist copycat assaults, kills, and poses women in a wholly disturbing fashion, yet while Luther simultaneously deals with that case, another is assigned to him by DSU Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley). The second case involves an Internet troll who’s been murdered in particularly dramatic fashion. In trying to balance both caseloads, Luther is stretched thin and unable to devote his full attention to either one, a continuing thread from previous seasons.

Complicating matters is the fact that Gray and Stark begin their campaign to bring DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) onto their side as an informant. Luther is Ripley’s mentor and Ripley idolizes him, so the case they bring to him needs to be as convincing and persuasive as possible or they run the risk of exposing their investigation. Luther’s relationship with Ripley has been one of the few given the opportunity to grow organically through the seasons and their rapport has always been an integral and engaging part of the series.

Adding to the drama in Luther’s already complicated life is his relationship with a new woman, Mary Day (Sienna Guillory), whom he meets when they are in a small car accident. Their relationship moves quickly, but unfortunately, it fails to fully resonate. There’s already so much going on in Luther’s life that adding another problematic romantic relationship to a season with only four episodes is mostly distracting. It’s only upon Alice’s (Ruth Wilson) return that Mary’s presence becomes more interesting.

Alice’s dramatic reappearance at the end of the season is completely welcome, even if it is a bit convenient. Fortunately, Wilson’s chemistry with Elba is so wonderful to watch – it’s always been a highlight of the show – that it’s easy to forgive her superhero-esque exploits. Alice is especially interesting this season because she has to contend with Mary. Alice’s notorious jealousy of the women in Luther’s life adds further layers to her interactions with them both, culminating in a dramatic standoff that reveals more about Alice than previously intimated.

At this point in the series, the cases are just as intriguing as Luther’s professional and personal relationships and the show recognizes this by devoting equal time to both. His tendency to become fixated on a case most certainly also impacts those closest to him, usually negatively. However, it’s often Luther’s unmistakable devotion to justice that brings people into his life in the first place.

The complexity in trying to find balance is at the heart of Luther’s difficulty. He’s unable to separate from one in order to be entirely focused on the other, making for a frequently messy life filled with disappointment for those around him and frustration for Luther himself.

Season three of Luther reinforces the series’ strengths in creating tension in cases where the killer is already known to the viewer right away. Somehow the series manages to strike a balance between the policy of police work and Luther’s version of justice. Most importantly, Elba continues to shine in a role that plays to his considerable acting skills and captivating presence. The intensity of a character like Luther could easily wear thin if played by the wrong actor, but Elba is a consistently terrific, making Luther as watchable as always.

The DVD release contains only one bonus feature, a “Making of Luther” featurette. It’s informative and entertaining, but something more substantive, such as commentary tracks, would have been a better addition.

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