Comic Book Crime: The Delicious Devilry of Luther

Years ago my Mum and I watched Series 1 of the BBC’s wildly popular crime cop show Luther. I think I made it to Nicola Walker throwing up graphically everywhere and hitting someone with a hammer before I called it quits. It was just so intensely violent and right up in your face about it. I couldn’t handle it. Now, with constant COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns, I’m binge watching the shows I’ve always intended to watch but never got around to, and thanks to thoroughly enjoying Ruth Wilson’s villainous turn as Mrs Coulter in the BBC/HBO co-production of His Dark Materials, plus having a penchant for cop shows in general, I decided to revisit Luther. There are spoilers below for all five series.

DCI John Luther played by Idris Elba

Well. What a time I had watching you, Luther. It took me most of Series 1 to lose my constant frustration with the plot. WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU GUESSED RUTH WILSON’S ALICE MORGAN IS A PSYCHOPATH BECAUSE SHE DIDN’T YAWN? I screamed at my telly in the pilot. HOW CAN ALICE GO AROUND LONDON THREATENING PEOPLE WITH HAIRPINS GIVEN LONDON’S OBSESSION WITH CCTV? I shouted a few episodes later. WHY DOES EVERYONE THINK LUTHER IS SO GREAT WHEN HE’S A VIOLENT ABUSER OF HIS EX-WIFE, DROPPED A SUSPECT TO HIS ALMOST DEATH AND LARKS AROUND LIKE HE’S KING OF THE JUNGLE INSTEAD OF DOING HIS ACTUAL JOB? I screamed again and again. I couldn’t figure out if Idris Elba’s Luther was a hero or an anti-hero and the only scenes I cared about were the ones where Wilson’s Alice turned up to cause mayhem and try and seduce Luther to her psychotic way of thinking. Plus the soundtrack is pretty good in an edgy alternative way.

Then something magical happened. I watched the Series 1 finale. It was completely mad, so outrageous any hope of realism was shredded and involved Luther’s ex wife’s new boyfriend, Luther and the psychopath, Alice, standing over a dead body. It shouldn’t have worked, yet as Alice killed Luther’s wife’s murderer in front of him and his colleagues (convinced it was Luther who’d killed his wife because reasons) closed in for an arrest, I grinned like a loon. Nina Simone’s Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood played and I finally understood. Neil Cross was writing heightened fan fic and I was okay with this. Also, ohhhhhh Luther *was* meant to be ambiguous the whole time with Alice his mirror image potential for darkness. Suddenly, I was IN with no turning back.

I defy you to look away from Alice Morgan’s frightening psychopathy

And then I started on Series 2 and the ‘Luther accused of murder’ subplot was dealt with off screen and Alice hastily written out of the show as Ruth Wilson sought fame, fortune (and later found sexism, alas) in The Affair. I was very upset. The fan fic heightened madness of the last two episodes of Series 1 was abandoned for a gritty dark London with evil serial killers in every corner (which wasn’t bad per se, but also wasn’t really what I’d been watching the show for). There was also something about a surrogate daughter, Jenny, and some mobsters, which I actually quite enjoyed and was sad when Jenny never turned up again post the Series 2 finale. There was also a great twin serial killer plot that used roll of the dice luck games to horrific effect and is enough to make one afraid of petrol stations at night for life. Still, I was pretty annoyed by the lack of Alice and the sudden dropping of the ambiguous ‘Luther has a dark side that he barely controls’ narrative in favour of Luther as the hero in a killer filled London hellscape thing they went for instead.

And then there was Series 3. The art direction was prettier. The horror was more horrific. My stomach lurched through the first two parter as a guy hid under a woman’s bed to off her in the worst way imaginable, then continued his spree by hiding in someone’s apartment, luring the husband into the attic and smashing hubbie’s dead head through the ceiling just to make sure the wife’s last moments weren’t remotely pleasant before he offed her too. The violence against women and the horror stereotypes were enough to make people protest. The ludicrous of Luther getting the two women who did escape one killer’s clutches to send a picture of them giving the finger to the captured killer was enough to make you wonder just how this got commissioned by the BBC. But then maybe that’s part of the fun. The BBC made this derivative, insane, unsubtle cop show? How unexpectedly delightful and ironic.

That’s when I got to the Series 3 finale (basically the Series 1 finale but even wilder and sillier). One of my friend’s claimed that 99% of the show’s suspense came from the audience asking themselves ‘where’s Alice?’ I admit this was me, and that I squealed with delight when she improbably showed up to tailspin, then gas, a cop car containing a yet again unjustly accused Luther (did I mention subtlety isn’t this show’s strong point?) Oh, and she did this in a gas mask. I didn’t care that Wilson scenery chewed her way through the episode, hat pin in hand, or that Luther’s choice between loving the psychopath or his current girlfriend was got at through a contrived sequence of events. I cared that the bad Alice Morgan was back, saving Luther’s ass with an insane plan that somehow worked. And the best part? When Luther’s girlfriend is finally rescued from the serial killer of the week and tells Luther to go after Alice, he does, bad limp from a gunshot and all, to join Alice on a Thames bridge. I don’t care how improbable that plot was, or how much they made Ruth Wilson look like she was in a shampoo ad as her hair wind machined its way to freedom on that bridge, I care about how happy she and Luther were together, two very black individuals carved from the same cloth, as Never Gonna Give You Up played over the end credits and the psychopath and the cop danced off into the sunset.

I ship these two awful, awful people so very hard

Perhaps Luther should have ended there. Series 4 was only two episodes long, and airing years later sans Ruth Wilson (girl, stop being so talented and therefore popular, coz Luther kind of derailed when you weren’t around). Rose Leslie turned up as Luther’s new partner and might have gone somewhere interesting, but the plot didn’t have enough time to talk about her, Alice’s off screen death and Luther’s return to the force, a serial killer of the week story and a secondary story about an underground criminal kingpin. It sucked hard. Even hardcore Luther fans don’t like to speak of it. Moving on …

Luckily, Series 5 got kind of back on track (though it never hit the halcyon days of Alice and Luther traipsing off that London bridge into the sunset again) with a delicious Doctor Death and his wife story that stretched over the whole season and made everyone afraid of nighttime bus trips, people in masks and having surgery under sedation (This story was so scary I legitimately had nightmares and had to finish the show in the middle of the day in broad daylight). They also brought Alice back with a deliciously Master style hand wave non-explanation, the criminal kingpin and a new uncharacteristically chirpy (for this show) and competent cop partner for Luther in Wunmi Mosaku (I laughed so hard when Luther’s boss said they had to be careful because Halliday was getting fast-tracked by bureaucracy for promotion and she then proceeded to spend the whole series as the only copper doing any actual police work. Yeah, Luther, how very dare she get promoted for doing her job instead of faffing around with a psychopath).

The story was weirdly grim and dark, and the art direction lost the blues and greens and reds of Series 3 (which I was sad about because I liked that cinematography muchly), but I quite enjoyed getting some backstory on Alice and Luther, their similarities and differences and why Alice faked her own death, even if the pacing was often all over the place. Halliday’s death was extremely shocking even by Luther standards and Alice’s motivations for killing her were fascinating. I also did like that the show ended the way it began, with a suspect taking a long drop and Luther arrested for the umpteenth time as Nina Simone’s Please Don’t Be Misunderstood roared back into life for a finale reprise.

Is Luther really just misunderstood or is he a dangerous guy who gets people killed as they stay too close to his orbit? Is he as bad as Alice, or perhaps even worse? Is Alice really dead this time? How will Luther get out of this mess in time for the film we know is coming? I don’t know, but I actually do want to find out. Yes, this show is often colossally stupid with mere occasional flashes of brilliance, yes, Luther is a grade a douche bag who probably deserves Madsen’s long drop, and yes, things only really get exciting when Alice turns up with another improbable plan to get Luther out of strife, but that’s the charm of this comic book heightened looney tunes confection of a show. Please come back, show. I miss you already.