Luther: Series One
Originally broadcast May 4, 2010 to June 8, 2010
Starring Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Steven Mackintosh, Saskia Reeves, Indira Varma and Paul McGann.
All episodes written by Neil Cross.
Luther is a near-genius murder detective whose brilliant mind can’t always save him from the dangerous violence of his passions.
Dark and gritty inverted crime stories. Some plots appealed to me more than others but this series boasts some excellent performances from both the regulars and guest cast
When I first became interested in inverted crime stories I did a little research. There were two television shows that were recommended to me as the best examples of the subgenre on the screen. The first was Columbo which I have been working my way through quite steadily over the past few months and will return to again soon. The other was Luther, a much darker and grittier show that I had been aware of but avoided watching out of concern that it might be a little too grim for my tastes.
Have I suddenly become less squeamish? Absolutely not. In fact, I will freely admit that the two serial killer episodes definitely were a bit much for me. Still, I wanted to watch them because it is one of the most prominent examples of the subgenre and I do want to cover as wide a variety of examples of this subgenre as possible.
The premise of the show is pretty simple – John Luther is a Detective Chief Inspector working for the Serious Crime Unit. When we meet him he is chasing down Henry Madsen, a kidnapper and serial killer who has hidden a victim away somewhere. This is the result of months of hard work and Luther’s obsession with catching Madsen has led to his separation from his wife. Luther confronts him and Madsen ends up hanging from a ledge. Desperate Madsen gives up the location of the victim but Luther chooses not to help him up, allowing him to fall several stories. The impact is sufficiently strong to put him in a coma and Luther, suffering a breakdown, ends up on suspension.
After this prologue we jump forward to the point where Luther is told he can resume duties. We follow him as he attempts to catch criminals whose identitites will be known to the viewer from near the beginning of most episodes and typically Luther is hot on their trail. Most of the episodes can be categorized as howcatchem stories with Luther using psychology and manipulation to try and expose a criminal’s guilt.
Luther is portrayed by Idris Elba who really delves into the character’s complexities and contradictions, making him someone who cares a lot about justice but perhaps not about following the letter of the rules. He is brilliant but emotionally unstable, reflecting both his sense of guilt about Madsen and also his frustrations about the state of his marriage. He reads people really well, noticing inconsistencies and behaviors that do not quite match the situation.
I know that the emotional detective is a trope that some have tired of but where I think Luther sets himself apart from some other misanthropic sleuths is that he seems to have hope, even if it is lodged in an idea that seems impossible. He also manages to maintain some pretty positive work relationships and I think it is telling that several other characters seem to go out of their way to support him and help him work his way back and cover for him when he does cross the line.
The show has a good recurring cast with Elba receiving excellent support from Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Steven Mackintosh, Indira Varma, Paul McGann and Saskia Reeves. It is a great ensemble and even though some characters get more to do than others, I felt that each have moments in which they shine – particularly Wilson.
Overall I have to say that I enjoyed the series, even if there were a few moments that were a little intense for my own taste. Some cases interested me more than others though even the lesser cases benefit from being cast well.
While each episode does present its own case or scenario (with the exception of the finale which picks up on events from the preceding story), the series as a whole does have a strong character arc that means you really should watch them in order. For that reason I decided I would not write individual episode reviews but rather make specific comments about each story below.
Please note that while the episode-specific comments below do not spoil subsequent episodes, they will contain spoilers for some of the preceding stories!
Ruth Wilson plays Alice Morgan, a brilliant astrophyicist who calls the police to report that she found her parents and their dog murdered in their home. Alice appears to have an alibi as she was seen buying groceries only minutes before placing the call and no gun is found anywhere on the property. Luther quickly comes to suspect that Alice is responsible, he just needs to work out how it was done and how she was able to dispose of the murder weapon.
As the first episode of the series, this has a lot of ground to cover in just an hour. It establishes Luther’s character, his situation with his suspension following his breakdown during another case, his estrangement from his wife and the feelings about members of his department towards him. With so much ground to cover, the case he looks into is relatively contained with a single suspect and not much physical evidence to consider.
Instead much of the episode is made up of psychological games between Luther and Alice. Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson are both quite compelling in these scenes and I was fascinated to see the power in their relationship shift thoroughout the episode. There are a few really memorable confrontations, particularly the one on the bridge, and I thought that the episode ending was surprising and sent an interesting message about what to expect from the series.
A man calls the police to report a body in an underpass. When two officers arrive on the scene he jumps up, shooting them both. This is the first in a series of a number of police killings across the city, each with increasingly high body-counts. While Luther is able to identify a likely suspect, the police struggle with how to catch him when he always seems to be one step ahead of them.
After giving us a relatively contained first episode, this second story significantly widens the scope to present us with a criminal who will keep killing until they achieve their goal. This creates quite a bit of tension which is only elevated by the secondary plot involving threats to Luther’s wife. This storyline feels equally important as the case itself and I felt added depth to her relationship with Luther and gave us a greater understanding of exactly how that marriage came to fall apart.
The episode touches on some interesting discussions about the challenges many servicemen face returning to civilian life though the person responsible is ultimately not very sympathetic, although played very well by one of my favorite actors. The action sequences are shot very well, particularly a fight near the end. I would however have liked a moment with the villain following that fight to provide a fuller sense of closure to that story.
Lucien Burgess (Paul Rhys) kidnaps a young mother, leaving messages daubed on the walls of her house in the blood of a woman he had murdered a decade earlier. He had been suspected of that crime but successfully sued the police for damages after an undercover officer used brutality against him, using the funds to set himself up with an occult bookshop. The police do not doubt he is responsible but, keen to avoid another press fiasco, have to make certain they can prove it before they approach him.
I have mentioned before that I find serial killer stories hard so the opening of this episode was quite uncomfortable for me. Suffice it to say Rhys’ portrayal of Burgess is suitably repulsive and what he does to his victim here left me squirming. Adding to the complications Luther faces is that he is under investigation by internal affairs after he is accused of hiring a group of girls to beat up Mark outside his home.
While I may have struggled a little with the start to the episode, I felt that this story was the most compelling so far. There was a clear element of a race against time which causes Luther to go over the line on several occasions. While the previous stories do establish that idea, here we follow Luther through that entire process. This generates some interesting conflict between the characters – particularly with DS Ripley (Warren Brown) who gets more to do in this episode than in either of the two previous ones.
The most successful part of the episode though are those scenes shared with Elba and Rhys. When I first read about the series I had seen some people compare it to Columbo and while there were moments in the first episode particularly that reminded me of that, I think that comparison is much clearer here. This is a genuine cat and mouse game complete with elements of mental trickery that parallel moments in that series. Certainly the subject matter and tone is much, much darker (famously Columbo never shows blood which is definitely not the case here) but I think what appeals most about that series – the idea of pitting two really compelling actors opposite each other for these two-hander scenes – is also present here.
A serial killer has been targeting young women walking home alone at night and the attacks seem to be escalating. At the most recent killing the killer removes a necklace from the body which he presents to his wife as a birthday present. Luther soon identifies a suspect but realizes he will need the wife’s cooperation to catch the husband. Meanwhile news that Henry Madsen, the serial killer who Luther allowed to fall, wakes up from his coma…
Much like the last episode this one had me squirming although those moments all occur in one incredibly tense sequence towards the end. The characters here all feel credible with Rob Jarvis giving a really intense performance towards the end while Nicola Walker is really emotive, connecting powerfully to this character and making you feel their discomfort and pain.
Interestingly there really are no moments shared between Elba and Jarvis which gives this episode a rather different feel than each of the ones that precede it. Instead Luther focuses on connecting with and manipulating his wife, a different sort of tactic than we have seen him use so far. This certainly leads to a powerful conclusion but I do wonder if the script really has an opinion on whether he did the right thing or not by doing that. I personally feel Luther is rather responsible for much of the damage done in the last third of the episode and yet there is no picking apart of what happens after the fact.
The secondary plot with Mark and Zoe is well acted as always – both Indira Varma and Paul McGann are superb performers and play their scenes with sincerity – but I do feel that they are being quite passive in their reactions to Alice’s manipulations. Given how freely Mark has reported incidents to the police so far and her threats in the previous episodes, it seems strange we haven’t had a moment where the characters really address the question of how to protect themselves from her.
Though it generates quite a bit of suspense, particularly in the end, I did find this episode to be the least enjoyable up until this point. That may just be my inherent squeamishness and it may just reflect how much I was creeped out by Jarvis’ performance.
An art dealer is about to leave the country with his wife but before they can leave they are attacked by a group of gangsters who demand a set of valuable diamonds. They cut his wife’s tongue out and tell him that they will kill her if he cannot produce them by a deadline. He heads to the police looking for help saying that he cannot produce them, leading Luther to devise a plan that he hopes can save her life or at least keep her alive long enough for them to track down her location.
With both this and the final episode it is really difficult to discuss much of the episode without spoiling them. Suffice it to say that this story takes a turn, pushing Luther into some new territory. There are two really significant developments in this episode. What I will say is that the first reveal confirmed suspicions I had from the beginning of the show and felt properly set up as a moment. The second much less so, feeling rather sudden and designed to spin a finale rather than because it offered a satisfying end to that particular storyline.
The case itself though makes for a needed change of pace from the serial killer stories that feel like they have dominated this first series. This storyline once again taps into the question about whether it is acceptable for police to operate outside rules and regulations to save someone’s life and incorporates some surveillance work – an aspect of policing we haven’t really seen depicted up until this point.
Ultimately though it is those longer term developments that will have the most impact on the viewer and the episode has to be judged by those. Whatever my misgivings about the way the episode ends, I do appreciate that it does set up a really powerful premise for a season finale.
Just another reminder that I will spoil the ending of episode five. If you haven’t already watched this show I would strongly suggest skipping this until you do so.
The final episode of the season picks up right after the end of the previous one with Luther on the run accused of murder with the real killer orchestrating the police campaign to capture him. It is a compelling situation in which everything seems to be stacked against him but he uses his wits to not only stay one step ahead of them but to attempt to bring that person to justice. The reality of the chase lives up to its promise and builds to a powerful conclusion, even if I could predict how the episode was likely to end.
The performances in this last episode are uniformly excellent. The pace steps up to match the tension of the situation with everyone acting with a sense of urgency. I particularly liked that this episode really forces everyone to make a decision about whether or not they trust Luther which feels like it is paying off episodes of steady build-up.
I don’t have much else to say about this except that I think it delivered a really solid conclusion to the themes of the season and left Luther in another really interesting situation. I am really interested to see where the character is headed in the second season (which I have not watched yet at the time of writing).