'Luther' Is Shocking, Troubling and Satisfying

Luther is that rare series that skillfully brings together story, character, and tension.


Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Steven Mackintosh, Indira Varma, Saskia Reeves, Warren Brown, Paul McGann, Dermot Crowley
Network: BBC
Release Date: 2010-11-23

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.