My fellow critics have been raving about Luther for the past month, and I couldn’t be happier, or more amused. I’ve been saying this is an amazing show since I caught its UK run. The acclaim doesn’t surprise me. It’s as if everyone suddenly remembered that Idris Elba is one of the best actors on the small screen. Pairing Elba with both the always watchable Indira Varma (Torchwood) and material written by Neil Cross, who also leads the writing staff for a little show called Spooks (or MI-5 to the American audience), was a brilliant idea. The final product is one of the best crime dramas I’ve seen, possibly even better than Prime Suspect. Luther has been compared to that series, and it’s a worthwhile comparison; they’re both quality and both worth watching over and over again. This is the third time I’m watching the series through, and I’m still having my breath taken away.
It’s a familiar archetype: a brilliant detective with a miserable personal life. Yet Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) John Luther isn’t one of those TV cliche workaholics who broods a lot, forgets to shave for a day, and thinks staring at things makes him look smarter. He really is obsessive, with a half-crazed look in his eye and an unmistakable intensity. There’s no question that he probably has a screw loose. We meet Luther in hot pursuit of a child abductor, and when the man falls through a weak floor and is hanging on for dear life, his indifference (or was it intentional neglect?) means that the perp falls through and ends up in a coma.
Seven months later, Luther is still there, staring down the hole, wondering what if. He’s separated from his wife and college sweetheart Zoe (Varma), who’s making out with colleague Mark North (Paul McGann). He’s also getting a new partner in Detective Sergeant Justin Ripley (Warren Brown), who’s a fan of his work. Their first case together is a grisly one: Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) calls the police to report the death of her family (and the dog; was that really necessary?) but did she actually kill them herself? At the very least, Luther is convinced that something isn’t right with the alleged home invasion.
His investigation starts with interviewing Alice, who is also obviously not right in the head. Just one look at her tells you she’s a few marbles short, making it no surprise that the two understand each other on some level. It’s easy for him to finger her as a “malignant narcissist” and start turning her screws. She self-identifies as a freak and admits she hated her parents, which only encourages his theory. The two engage in a battle of wits in the interrogation room; after all, they’re on the same level. Alice may have slaughtered her family, and Luther is at risk of losing his, whether it’s his adulterous wife or his police family – his boss’s boss sees fit to remind us all that he’s a loose cannon who could destroy the entire unit. Yet without evidence, Luther has no choice but to let Alice go, to the tune of some painfully obvious dramatic music that indicates they’ll meet again.
That night, Luther turns up to meet Zoe for a long-overdue conversation about their failing marriage. He’s still head over heels for her, but she tells him that she’s met someone else. The revelation baffles him, and when she can’t tell him that she’s not sleeping with her new beau, it decimates him to the point that he flies into a destructive rage. It’s heartwrenching to see that while Luther still loves her with everything he has, Zoe is clearly beyond his reach. While his old partner Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh) is trying to console him, crazy Alice has discovered Luther’s history and his wife. It’s unnerving how much information you can find about someone with the Internet.
With nothing else to hang onto, Luther turns his attention back to the murders and back to Alice. He knows that Alice is determined to impress him (perhaps having found a kindred soul), and plans to use that to manipulate her. Their next conversation devolves into her poking at his failing marriage while he tells her everything he knows about her. All the cards are on the table. When she tries to flirt with him, he wisely walks away – and right into Zoe’s office, wanting answers about her new love interest and the disintegration of their marriage. “You care more about the dead than the living,” she admonishes him, claiming that he left seven months ago and never came back. She breaks his heart again by telling him that she loves Mark and has fallen out of romantic love with him. Maybe that’s why Luther doesn’t mention that a crazy woman who likes him way too much knows about her. That information would have come in handy, because minutes later, Alice threatens Zoe in an alley, while also claiming she’s slept with Luther.
Zoe calls Luther, who flips his desk at the knowledge that his wife has been threatened. “You realize this makes me Alice Morgan’s next project,” he warns his boss. “You know what she could do to me, to Zoe…” Of course, his boss is hesitant to believe him without any evidence, because that’s how these things go on TV. (Ask Jack Bauer.) It’s only right, then, that Luther has a breakthrough. In a truly squick-inducing moment, he deduces that Alice shot the dog four times in order to be able to put the murder weapon inside its corpse, where it would have been melted when the body was cremated. “Which do you need more?” his disbelieving boss asks him. “To prove that Alice Morgan’s guilty or that you’re right?” He doesn’t bother answering.
Instead, he breaks into Alice’s flat to inspect the dog’s remains himself, and finds pieces of the gun. He decides to tell her that he’s got them on his way out, trying to bait her yet again. I am unsurprised when she confronts him on a nearby bridge with a kitchen knife in the gut, giving him a dissertation on how his illegal search is worthless. He tosses the urn and grabs her by the throat, warning her to stay away from Zoe or he’ll arrest someone else for the murders and reduce her to nothing. “You’d degrade the law you serve for a woman who cast you aside?” she asks in disbelief. “In a second,” he tells her, before leaving her standing there.
Luther goes to see Zoe, who’s with Mark and decides to call the cops on him. A fight between the two men ensues, and a few PC’s have to separate them. Luther tells her that he still loves her, and the two of them apologize to one another while Mark looks on. Having apparently made peace with her decision, he phones Alice, who’s in a hospital ward paying a visit to the perp that Luther put into a coma seven months earlier.
You cannot go wrong with anything that puts Idris Elba in the lead role. From the moment I saw him as ex-soldier Vaughan Rice in Ultraviolet years ago, I knew he was a force of nature, and he’s proven that in every role he’s taken, whether it’s The Wire, The Losers, Takers and now Luther. Elba takes intensity to a whole other level; when he talks, you’re listening, even if everything else is on fire behind him. It’s performances like this one which show why he’s been one of my favorite actors since I was a teenager. Although I admit I’ll always be hoping for a second series of Ultraviolet, getting to see him head up Luther is almost as amazing, because he deserves all the great press he’s getting. Whether it’s his acting prowess, his physical presence, or the intelligence he brings to his work – watch the Inside Look segments and listen to how insightful he is – he’s fascinating and compelling. I really can’t say enough good things about him. I’d love to be able to talk to him someday, because it feels as if he’s on a whole other level from the rest of us.
He’s matched well with two strong women in Indira Varma and Ruth Wilson, the former falling out of his orbit at the same time the latter invites herself in. Both actresses do well in their roles, with Wilson being not just appropriately creepy, but downright disturbing, even though we don’t actually see her doing that much. It takes a certain type of actor to make something from nothing, and Wilson makes pure evil out of mouthfuls of dialogue sprinkled with action that only serves to imply far worse.
The creative team ably supports a strong cast. While there’s a lot of talking, there’s never too much, and it’s not laden down with forensic terms that you’d find in most modern crime dramas. There’s a bit of gore that does turn the stomach (okay, the killing of the dog was necessary, but I can’t say I don’t wish Cross had come up with something else) but there’s a lot of suspense generated simply with dialogue and action that is subtle rather than showy. For example, Alice doesn’t actually do anything to Zoe but grab her and threaten her, but damned if I wasn’t terrified for her anyway. The direction is appropriately dark and foreboding, giving Luther an appropriately twisted look to match the thriller’s twisted composition. The atmosphere completely supports the depth and darkness created in the characters, and sucks the audience into a place where we don’t want to stay, but can’t help but probe.
The best thing about Luther, however, is that we’ll be seeing more – the BBC has already announced that there will be a pair of two hour-long specials in 2011. One can only fathom how amazing they’ll undoubtedly be.
I told you it was amazing.