The BBC's 'Luther' Offers a Stark Perspective

Ross Langager

Luther’s daring leaps of investigative logic and contests of intellect with brainy, mysterious killers make for much more diverting television than the Wrestling with Inner Demons stuff that can be found practically anywhere else on the dial.


Airtime: Wednesdays 10pm ET
Cast: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Dermot Crowley, Michael Smiley, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Aimee-Ffion Edwards
Subtitle: Season Two Premiere
Network: BBC America
Director: Sam Miller
Air date: 2011-09-28

Upon last glimpsing Detective Chief Inspector John Luther (Idris Elba), we found him at the center of a grand tableau of dire, spiraling violence. Having busted open a desperate and gruesome diamond-heist-related kidnapping case, Luther discovered that his longtime police colleague DCI Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh) had a hand in the theft. Reed knew that Luther knew, and framed him for the murder of his ex-wife (Indira Varma), in an attempt to get off scot-free himself.

Through a convoluted set of circumstances, Luther cornered Reed beneath the vaulted glass ceiling of a railway station, flanked by his dead ex’s grieving fiancé Mark (Paul McGann) and Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a sociopathic redheaded murder suspect with whom he’d struck up an unlikely kind-of-friendship. Reed’s shotgun ended up in Alice’s hands, and he was blown away, as wailing sirens approached.

Following a cliffhanger of such operatic tensions was always going to be difficult for the BBC and series creator Neil Cross (previously responsible for the similarly strained spy drama Spooks, aired stateside on PBS as MI-5). The first season of Luther was television brinksmanship, constricting the flow of ethical oxygen to the narrative over six episodes until the usual principles governing individual conduct could barely draw breath. The outrageous conclusion described above made it seem that this otherwise well-orchestrated but fundamentally pedestrian psychological police drama had something much more profound and eternal to say about the human moral condition than it actually did.

Now, Cross and company are making another series of questionable choices for Luther’s second season. The four-episode order precludes the slow burn of misguided objectives and unintended consequences that gave Luther’s descent into moral compromise a compelling backbone in the first season; bad things happen suddenly and showily, manifesting as incidents rather than as experiences. It also only allows Luther and his reconstituted Serious Crimes team enough narrative space to tackle two serial cases while also laying out a less interesting sideline dilemma for the troubled hero, misconstruing the initial terms of the show’s appeal in the process.

Because, honestly, Luther’s daring leaps of investigative logic and contests of intellect with brainy, mysterious killers make for much more diverting television than the Wrestling with Inner Demons stuff that can be found practically anywhere else on the dial. Elba is nicely at home in these investigative scenes, stalking and thinking aloud in his scruffy blazer, a more imposing, caged-beast version of Columbo. The case that consumes him for the first two episodes, featuring a pretentious failed artist in a Punch mask (Lee Ingleby) approximating the city-wide terror of Victorian urban legend Spring Heeled Jack, commands our attention in spurts but is repeatedly shunted aside by the intrusive subplot.

This subplot is the latest in a long line of Luther’s attempts at redemption through the salvaging of lost causes, among them his dogged quest to revive his comatose marriage and interactions with the twisted Alice in the first season. This time around, Luther springs a messed-up teenager named Jenny (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), the daughter of a killer he once put away, from an internet sex-slave ring, therefore earning the ire of the underworld types who operate it and consider her their property. Despite a delightful “gotcha” moment that reveals Luther’s own ingenuous scheming, the whole storyline seems barely worth the man’s time, and certainly not worth ours.

Luther’s exchanges with the childish Jenny lay bare the most glaring absence of this season: Ruth Wilson’s seductively dangerous Alice Morgan. Taking the whole of the blame for Reed’s murder in order to save Luther’s skin, Alice begins this season in a prison-like mental institution (although, with Luther’s perhaps dubious aid, she might not end it there). An interview between the two of them in Alice’s whitewashed cell in the premiere episode positively crackles with sublimated attraction and skin-deep revulsion. It’s the kind of verve that the rest of the season is missing, and most of it comes via the magnetic Wilson. Her eyes twinkle and flash, her upper lip perpetually curved lusciously skywards in an expression of mingled invitation and warning; she kind of unnerves you when she’s onscreen, but you miss her when she isn’t, which is basically the rest of the season.

The changes in Luther’s unit are more of a mixed blessing. The new unit head is Schenk (Dermot Crowley), a penetrating, bespectacled, officious man who was hot on the trail of Luther’s breaches of protocol and legality last season but is his firm ally in this one. Though he has less to do as boss than he did as righteous inquisitor (he makes the most of one rat-squeezing interrogation, mind you), Crowley is always an enjoyable screen presence, his sentences be-jowled, his disheveled hair clinging to his scalp much like bare, tenacious bushes cling to mountainsides.

Detective Sergeant Ripley (Warren Brown), meanwhile, is plucked from the intake-desk uniform duty where his loyalty to his rogue DCI had landed him, and promptly breaches even more ethical guidelines to cover for the rogue’s misdeeds. He ever remains the Holmes-ian Luther’s dependable Watson, though, and can be relied upon for not only unshakeable support but for indefatigable puppy eyes as well (even while being tortured).

There’s another DS in the mix, too, an ambitious, by-the-book riser named Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird) who can’t quite abide Luther’s rule-bending, labeling him, in one of those wonderfully British turns of phrase that UK TV thrives on, “a dirty copper.” The intimation that casual corruption is not only an inevitable but even a beneficial element in law enforcement may not be one of the show’s proudest moments, but it certainly is par for the course in the moral scope of Luther’s modern London.

Even if it makes for far less gripping viewing in its sophomore iteration, Luther remains notable in the police drama pantheon for this stark perspective: that it’s an unwise thing to do good purposely, and a simple thing to do evil inadvertently, and neither one leads to any greater reward, in the end.


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