English television at its best. Idris Elba as the leading man. Ruth Wilson as the delectable psycho killer bitch Alice Morgan. What more would you need to recommend this piece of television history?
Nothing really, but for me it’s all about the sub-text.
You can never be sure that others see what you see. You can’t even be sure that what you see is what the creators intended. But it’s all there regardless. Once it’s released, the mise-en-scène and dialogue don’t undo and recreate themselves in some alternate fashion.
What I see is that Luther and Alice are the same person. Split personality. Two halves of a whole. Yin and Yang. Call it what you will.
Luther is confronted by realities so brutal and contrary to all the ethical platitudes we inculcate about even criminal norms that he either breaks or becomes an automaton. A machine like some of his colleagues, who can’t see past the bureaucratic rules governing what they do. A corpse is just a particular stack of paperwork for them. Not a person who suffered anguish and pain.
Luther remains human in his responses to the inhuman, and makes his peace with the idea that sometimes the broken is human too. That is Alice. The broken who is human too, and the flame sung about in the title credits by Massive Attack. An ally and the only constant in a sea of people who lack substance and integrity.
For some time it seemed that Warren Brown as Justin Ripley might have become another of those constants, but the series creatives led the character up a few dark alleys before they killed him off. For a Thai kickboxing champion, Brown delivered a pretty solid performance.
The drama is carried not by the horrific crimes Luther encounters, which probably added to its audience appeal, but by the interplay between Luther being human in impossible circumstances, and his colleagues having a hard time coming to terms with the reality that it makes him a better copper than they can hope to be, even while he breaks the rules. Perhaps because he breaks the rules.
In the first season we come to see how this delicate balance in Luther’s psyche ruins his marriage, and in the second season there is a scene where his estranged wife Zoe demands an urgent meeting he puts off because he has his hands full with an ugly case. So Zoe intrudes on him at the police station to tell him that despite an apparent reconciliation it is over between them, not least because he is closed off and uncommunicative. Yes: an odd cliché for an otherwise tightly scripted show. Zoe sees only her own need for closure, and Luther explodes. He throws in her face the photo of a kidnapped woman, and says he has her tongue, which has been cut out by the kidnappers. The woman will be killed unless he can stop it. Would she like to see the tongue. Talk about the next body part to be delivered if demands aren’t met – or the criminals caught.
It’s not quite clear whether Zoe realises that in comparison to this reality, her own pressing needs either take a back seat, or Luther cannot function as Luther anymore. But if she does realise it, why did she lead Luther on and then rationalise it as a last goodbye fling?
Maybe this was a poorly executed stab at developing the theme of unrealistic expectations people have of others. Unrealistic because they are not grounded in the realities faced by the pigeonholed people.
That Alice can understand this reality, and support Luther through it, to her own detriment, is part of the character’s charm. That is to say, her charm to my own subjectivity about such circumstances.
In the third season Alice not only rescues a new flame for Luther, but emerges from the imminent disaster as Luther’s companion, with the other woman realising she simply cannot be part of his life. A life that only Alice really understands, and can withstand.
As a tangent, I wonder whether Jessica Chastain borrowed from Alice for her performance in the film Miss Jones. It is an odd movie, made even more odd by the fact that the critics liked it and I didn’t hate it, the way this normally turns into an infallible cause and effect relationship: critics like it and I’ll despise it.
Luther was not harmed at all by the understated and thereby doubly effective use of pedestrian faces to populate a rogue’s gallery of nightmare criminals. But especially so in the representation of the internal affairs cop, George Stark, played with barely suppressed rage and the best whisky gravel voice by David O’Hara. Probably outdone only by Luther’s boss, Martin Schenk, played with a disturbing and priestly creepiness by Dermot Crowley.
The two season 4 Luther episodes strike me as incomplete. Does Alice’s reported death, still shrouded in doubt and mystery, mean Luther is finally reconciled with himself? Cured of his schizophrenia? Become normal and useless as the copper he was? Or does Alice return against all expectations? As a storyteller I wouldn’t have asked these questions, or left them open-ended: that’s the drearily well-worn device to hint at a sequel. Luther was always good enough, and better for it, as self-contained stories. Each season not needing the previous or the next to stand on its own merits.
It is said that plans to make an American version of the series have been on hold since 2015. Being bumped in the ridiculous queue of superhero nonsense. The relative success of House of Cards should make me cautious about writing off an American Luther renaissance, but I suspect that there’s simply no outdoing the original.
BBC Drama Productions, colour, 57 minutes per episode. 2010: six episodes. 2011: four episodes. 2013: four episodes. 2015: two episodes.
Created and written by Neill Cross.
Featuring Idris Elba as DCI John Luther, Ruth Wilson as Alice Morgan, Warren Brown as DS Justin Ripley, Dermot Crowley as DCI/DSU Martin Schenk, Steven Mackintosh as DCI Ian Reed, Indira Varma as Zoe Luther, Paul McGann as Mark North, Saskia Reeves as DSU Rose Teller, Nikki Amuka-Bird as DS/DCI Erin Gray, David O’Hara as DSU George Stark.