Saturday, November 5, 2011
The title character, John Luther (Idris Elba) is a brilliant police detective who excels at catching depraved killers. The first minutes of the show tell us a lot about him. Having cornered serial killer Henry Madsen, into a warehouse, while other officers search for the location of the killer's last victim, he maneuvers a standoff. Henry falls through old scaffolding many stories from the ground and desperately hangs on to the edge. Luther taunts him saying "You're gonna fall, Henry." and stomps the scaffolding to remind him of his plight. The panicked Henry reveals his victim's location, and with his cell phone, Luther alerts the officers and waits while they find the missing girl. Henry pleads for help, but Luther yells that he could be lying, as he's done that before, and makes no move to assist him. The officers find the girl in a trunk, not breathing as Luther listens. They manage to resuscitate her, and a relieved Luther turns back to Henry, asking him how many more there were, naming them off to Henry, as well as the details of him finding their bodies. Henry pleads for help, but Luther watches as he loses his grip and falls straight down.
The true starting point of the story, however, is seven months later. We see a young woman, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) calling the police, sobbing hysterically and covered in blood, from her house, where her mother father and dog have been brutally murdered. Meanwhile DSU Rose Teller finds Luther at the scene of Henry's fall, to inform him, he's been cleared and can have his job back, "if he wants it." He replies "I want it." She then informs him that all "proactive strategies" must be cleared by her and asks about his situation with his wife. He informs Rose, that they've been seperated, but he doesn't like it. He explains that "I did everything she asked for, got myself together, now we'll see." Rose introduces him to his new partner DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) The partners get acquainted, Ripley telling Luther that he requested to be assigned with him nine months ago. Ripley gives Luther the facts on their first case, that of Alice Morgan's family. They investigate the crime scene and Luther determines that "it's not right."
Luther calls his wife Zoe (Indira Varma) to tell her he's been cleared and back at work. He asks her to talk to him over dinner, and reluctantly she agrees. At the station, Luther catches up with longtime and former partner DCI Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh) who seems pleased that Luther is doing well. At Zoe's office, we see that she is seeing a coworker, Mark North (Paul McGann) who insists that she tell Luther about them. Luther then interrogates Alice, asking about possible motives for her parents' murders. He yawns in front of her and when she doesn't yawn, he leaves the room to inform Rose and Ripley that she did it, reasoning that her not yawning shows her complete lack of empathy. Rose reminds him that she didn't have time and without a gun they have nothing. He reenters the interrogation room and discusses her history as a child prodigy, going to Oxford at 13, and her hatred of her parents for making her a freak. He reveals that he knows she did it, and also knows that they won't find any evidence, informing her that she could slip up and criminals aren't as smart as they think they are. She seems flattered by the attention, and Luther is forced to release her without evidence.
Meeting Zoe, that night, she informs him that she met someone, prompting an outburst from him where he punches and destroys a door and she asks him to leave. Ian meets him at a bar afterwards, explaining that Zoe called. Ian just sits with him. Alice, meanwhile digs up information on Luther on the internet, finding out about Zoe. Leaving the bar in the morning, Luther talks about Alice with Ian, explaining that Alice is a narcissist and needs to impress him. He stops in to see Alice, who has picked up the cremains of her dog in an urn. ALice notices he isn't wearing his ring, and presses about his marriage. Luther informs her that she "will never understand love." as she only mimics emotion. He informs her that he knows she kept the gun, because it was a compulsion and that's what makes her weak and will get her caught. He tells her "I'm coming for you." and she answers "Not if I come for you first." Luther visit's Zoe's office unannounced and disrupts a meeting, pressing her for reasons about their split, as he needs a "why." SHe explains that he's never "all there" with her, as part of him is always on the job. She encourages him to accept things and he leaves. On her way home, Alice surprises Zoe, and grabs her from behind, frightening her and then letting her go without letting Zoe see her.
Luther is angry when he hears, but Rose reminds him they don't have any reason to hold her. Ian shows Luther a pistol with a polymer frame which inspires a thought. He concludes that the reason she shot the dog four times was to avoid an autopsy, so that the gun could be put inside the dog and cremated with it, and then set on her mantel. Luther breaks into her apartment and finds a piece of the gun. He then surprises her entering her apartment showing her the urn as he leaves. She grabs a knife and pursues him, holding it against him as he holds the urn over the river. She explains that he can't use the gun as evidence as the cremation removed forensic information, as well as his illegal obtaining of the evidence. Luther explains that he knows it isn't evidence, but he wanted to point out her need for the trophy. He throws the urn in the river and she cuts him. He tells her that if she doesn't lay off Zoe, he'll arrest someone else for her parent's murder, threatening her narcissism. ALice suggests that he's a monster acting in a corrupt way to protect a woman who treats him like garbage, suggesting that Love is supposed to exalt, not debase. He throws the gun pieces on the ground in front of her.
Luther stops at Zoe's house to talk to her. SHe calls the police and Mark attempts to force him to leave, punching him and getting himself manhandled before the police arrive. We see Alice visiting the hospital where Henry Madsen is in a coma. Luther calls Alice from the back of the police car, he's being escorted in, and tells her "There is love. You lose." Alice smiles.
The character of Luther draws from many different fictitious detectives. He has the brilliance of a modern Sherlock Holmes, as well as the obsessive methodical nature. Yet, Luther is more dangerous than Holmes, being an imposing physical figure easily capable of great violence. He understand killers very well, knowing what they struggle with, are and and aren't capable of. It's no accident that we are introduced to him, watching a man potentially die, when he could easily save him. Of course the man is a deranged killer, but allowing this to happen is clearly against his duties as a cop. This is not a small thing for the audience, or for Luther himself. We see him returning to the scene a full seven months later. He tells Rose that he's "gotten his act together." and perhaps he has, but the obsession is clearly still in him.
Like most film and TV cops, Luther's relationship is damaged beyond repair. He knows this but can't passively accept it. Indira Varma has a difficult task portraying Zoe but does it well. It can't be argued that Luther's job is of vital importance, or that it would be difficult to live with someone so obsessed with line of work. Theirs is a loving but finished relationship as she needs someone like Mark, who is able to be fully present. When Luther asks if she finds him boring, she tells him he's "the opposite of boring." but also insisting that that doesn't mean Mark is boring. What Zoe wants is the obsessive attention that he gives the job for herself when he gets home, but clearly Luther has no off switch. She's proud of what he does and of him, but simply can't handle it herself.
Mark is quite simply a fairly competent man, in over his head. His only concern is whether Zoe is with him or with Luther. He doesn't understand Luther's concerns whatsoever, having never encountered anything like him. He dismisses serious warnings from Luther, immediately assuming a power play for Zoe. Paul McGann makes Mark decent and likeable. He's not the other man who wants to be on the sly, nor is he afraid of confrontation. He's simply out of his element when he deals with Luther.
We are also presented in the first episode with a murder Luther can't do anything about, even though he knows what happened. His relationship with Alice proves to be an interesting one, and he doesn't regard her as on the same level as the pedophile murderer Henry Madsen, as much as he sees she has that potential. Alice becomes a valuable if unpredictable resource and their debate on love coninues through the series. He accepts her nature, while not condoning it, and she is fascinated by his brilliance and the nature that he struggles to keep in check. Rather than a Hannibal Lecter/ Clarice Starling dynamic however, Luther and Alice are more peers than teacher/student. Neither has anyone else that can meet them on their own level. In another interesting twist, on macho cop roles, Luther has no trouble admitting he's afraid of Alice, even though he refuses to be intimidated by her. There is a definite male/female dynamic at work, although their sexual tension is limited by the fact that both live a bit outside the world, as well as Luther's stubborn loyalty. WHatever else they are, each is a logic puzzle for the other.
Ian Reed is the closest thing Luther has to a friend, and the two know each other very well from years of working together. Although no longer partners, Ian is willing to stand on the edge of a roof with Luther discussing jumping, knowing that despite his recent mental breakdown, Luther has no intention of doing so. The two rely on each other in many ways and their relationship points out another quality in Luther. For all his brilliance, Luther is utterly loyal and an idealist at heart. This gives his friends (and wife) a large blindspot, where Luther is concerned. The fact that he cares about someone is a fact as much as any evidence which would lead to a deduction. Steven Mackintosh plays the complex role of Ian for all it's worth giving him a journey as large as Luther's in its own way.
Luther's new partner Ripley, also gives us a good window into Luther. He greatly admires the man, but has his own set of principles. He's not at all comfortable operating in a grey area, although he is very competent perceptive, and committed to doing what's right, even at great personal cost. Ripley is not afraid of going against everyone if everyone is wrong. Luther tests his limits, but the two have a good dynamic. Along with Rose, who must enforce the "do it by the book" rules, we get a sense of the cops who struggle to work withing the limits. This accentuates Luther's impatience, being many steps ahead of the game, but having to struggle to build a case to back up what he knows.
At one point in the series, Alice asks Zoe about Luther. Zoe replies "He believes one life is all we have, life and love." and stating further "I think if he'd read a different book by a different author at just the right time, he'd have been a different man." suggesting he'd have been happier as a priest. Zoe suggests at one point that Luther cares more about the dead than the living. The priest comparison works, as Luther is clearly a man who feels he has a calling he can't walk away from. He knows his job and what it takes, and it takes a great deal to make him complain about the cost. Luther shares many things with the killers he catches, but despite his willingness to bend and even blatantly break rules, he is still a genuine believer as his wife says "in life and in love." This is a great help at times but also a hindrance, as he is unable to see what those he trusts are capable of.
Luther is not a mystery show but a show about a man struggling to be his best self. The killer in each episode is revealed right away, the tension is watching Luther attempt to do things the right way according to the law so that killers are punished. His parallel struggle is the attempt to have a relationship when he has no choice but to carry all of the horrible things he knows and encounters by himself. Written and created by Neil Cross, and directed by Sam Miller, Brian Kirk and Stephen Schwarz, Luther is top notch television, both in episode form and as a larger story. Top notch actors ensure that each character has depth. Everyone, even the killers in each episode have complex motivations and a sense of history that draws you in.
The writing and pacing are smart and deep, every character providing pay offs and unexpected twists, both for the good and bad. While some events could be predicted, the whys and whens are handled well with the most possible impact. These characters all affect each other, and the closer they are to Luther, the more unpredictable to him. In a sense, he does have the off switch that Zoe would like, it just doesn't work in a way that's useful to him, other than that it allows him to sustain his beliefs and ideals in his struggle. Idris Elba gives us a fantastic performance and a truly memorable character, a Sherlock Holmes who is both more pure, rough and dangerous. He's as physically imposing as he is mentally imposing and it's fortunate he's compelled to work for the innocents, although not necessarily for him. Luther doesn't provide any easy answers, but lives in the struggle to live or not, and love or not, not presenting either way as easy or negotiable.