A British SWAT team rushes to the front of a burning building, shields raised, as rain pours down in the dark streets. The police look on with guns drawn, flanked by the detectives in their flat caps, including one owlish man in spectacles who seems to be in charge. Their eyes all gaze in the same direction—toward the flames. They are waiting. This is is something more than an accident. At the doorway, a hulking figure emerges, framed by fire. He’s dragging another man by the collar—a criminal, we can see by the body language—and despite his heroics, he looks weary and a little sad as explosions destroy the building he’s just left. This is Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, one of the most morally ambiguous and psychologically volatile police figures in an overflowing genre. He deposits his prey with minimal satisfaction, and the owlish man, DCI Martin Schenk, tells him with an impossibly dry delivery that tomorrow’s inquiry will be a rather long one.
Luther walks back to his car alone, and somewhere across the city, a lone woman is doing the same. The men and women she passes in the street-front pubs are celebrating, but she steps around them. She gazes behind her when she unlocks her apartment door. Nobody there. Inside, she sits on her bed and removes her heel. We see her hand reach down for a pump from a point-of-view shot beneath the mattress. After one shoe comes off, there’s another speculative pause. We can feel her ears prickling—is something there? But no. She curls up and sleeps.
Later in the night, we’re watching her like voyeurs from across the room. The music has been ominous, brooding. Like the SWAT team earlier, we are waiting. And it finally comes, with an onslaught of strings—a man in a black tuque slides out from beneath the bed.
Cue theme music.
The third series of Luther—the darkest, sexiest and most poetic detective show on television—debuted last night on BBC America, and it was clear from this opening scene that all the elements that made it one of the most worthwhile British imports had survived the two-year hiatus between seasons intact.
Most of America’s TV criticism apparatus has been focused on Breaking Bad lately, and it’s interesting that as that show approaches its finale, we’re treated to one of the few dramas in the world that can match it for pure visual suspense. The lingering hand-on-heel shot in the opening scene was the best example from last night’s episode, but it was one of many tension-builders that left me breathless and ragged when the hour had ended. The music, too, doubles as an inciting character, building and building and toying with your emotions as you prepare to be shattered and horrified.
Lucky us, there’s still plenty of horror to go around. Luther has a habit of finding himself in the orbit of grotesque serial killers, and the latest psychopath doesn’t disappoint. After sneaking out of the woman’s bed, he murders her and dresses her in what looks like fetishistic post-punk clothing—black dress, torn stockings, black wig and, most disturbingly, an entirely new face. The details echo back to a serial killer from 30 years earlier called the “Shoreditch Creeper,” but knowing that these types of murderers tend to escalate rather than pause, Luther can’t make sense of it.
And his superior officer isn’t helping his concentration—for reasons that are vague at best, Schenk adds another case to his workload—a cyber-bully murdered in his home. We quickly learn the reasoning—Luther’s loyal sidekick (heretofore, anyway) is brought by Luther’s frustrated enemy, DSI Erin Gray, into a decrepit store basement to meet a superintendent named George Stark who has recently come out of retirement to try to out Luther as a dirty copper. Stark, whose accent sounds Irish, is a tough cookie who makes threatening pronouncements about Luther like, “he doesn’t know it yet, but his good fortune ran out the day I heard his name.”
Stark and Gray are convinced that Luther plays outside the bounds of the law—true—and that he’s murdered criminals with whom his morals don’t align—not exactly true, strictly speaking, though death does follow him a pace or two behind. Ripley, who took an enormous personal and professional risk to protect Luther at the end of series one, agrees to wear a wire—to me, the only sketchy plot point of the episode—and Stark and Gray listen in as the partners investigate the cyber-murder.
Immediately, the case is quintessential Luther. In an attempt to recover a stolen laptop, he holds a friend of the victim over a condominium railing in order to extort information. It works, and because Gray can’t get a visual and Ripley won’t say what’s happening, he escapes. Ripley hacks into the laptop, where they find a picture of a young girl photoshopped with sexual obscenities. They locate the girl’s parents, who are still mourning her loss. After she died, the father, Ken Barnaby, began to receive harassing emails from the troll that popped up along with taunting websites—messages saying the girl was in hell, pornographic photoshops, taunts on Father’s Day and images of her graveyard. In the midst of the interview, the father breaks down in the kitchen.
When Luther and Ripley leave the apartment, it’s clear that Barnaby killed the troll, leaving him tied up and graffiti’ed in ritualistic style. But it’s also clear that Luther doesn’t intend to pursue the lead—he demurs when Ripley insists on Barnaby’s guilt, and promises to “take care of it” after the more important serial killer case has been solved. And here we have Luther at his most divisive, because veterans of the show realize that he’s content to let the man walk free—his own version of justice, laws be damned. Murder is only murder if the dead man didn’t deserve it.
Ripley can’t stomach the vigilantism—either Barnaby’s or Luther’s—and pursues the lead on his own. When he recovers a print from the victim’s cell phone, he knows he’s close. They only need Barnaby’s print (he’s not in the system yet) in order to bag him. He begs Luther to come with him to pick Barnaby up immediately, but Luther again plays for time. He calls Barnaby and casually asks him to report to the station the next day to submit his prints. Barnaby agrees, hangs up and places both hands in a blender to destroy his fingers. He ends up losing a hand, but saving himself from prison.
The ambulances are already there when Ripley arrives, and he rushes back to the station in a rage to confront Luther. He doesn’t believe the innocent act Luther gives him—both men know why the phone call was made—and he punches him in the face. In the meantime, Luther had made a breakthrough on the serial killer case, realizing the killer was returning to the scene of a failed break-in during the Shoreditch Creeper murders and using the same calling card to kill them while transforming them to look as they had appeared 30 years earlier on the fateful night. He’s about to call another woman to warn her when Ripley bursts in, and as the two fight and are sent home, the phone hangs off its cradle. That night, in another part of London, she’s murdered along with her husband.
The plot is fascinating, as you might expect, and the incidental details have a pitch-perfect quality that makes the hour go by in what feels like 20 minutes. I’m particularly fond of the terse, biting dialogue, as in the opening scene when Luther asks Ripley how he held up in the burning building:
“Are you all right?”
“I think he pushed some bone into me brain.”
Or again, when Ripley finds Luther investigating the graffiti on the cyber troll’s body:
“You’ll read anything.”
Or when Luther confronts the friend at the condo, telling him the troll is dead:
“Still? Lazy sod, isn’t he?”
Or, if you’ll indulge me in one more, when Luther crashes into a woman’s car (Mary Day, a future love interest) and tells her his name:
“Luther…that’s a good name.”
“I can’t really take credit for it, can I?”
The show also manages to walk a tricky line in its portrayal of the (anti-?) hero himself. You can’t help but root for Luther, though his unconventional methods are not always deeply sympathetic. It’s impossible not to compare him to The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty, whose charisma often blurred the fact that some of his methods were almost sociopathic. Both men respect justice, but only in the universal sense, and on their own terms. The terrestrial justice system, with its procedures and protocols, become nothing more than an annoying obstacle to work around. But the writers in Luther are careful to present the consequences; the rules aren’t there just to be meddlesome, and by stepping afoul of the bylaws, Luther occasionally leads the people close to him into dangerous territory. Other times, he alienates them—Ripley ends this episode by agreeing with Gray and Stark that he must be stopped, and Luther has lost another friend.
Still, it wouldn’t be a cop show if the hero’s extra-legal tactics didn’t yield positive results that the system could never have achieved without a rogue. It’s no coincidence that Mary, the car-crash love interest, calls to tell him that his name comes from a German word meaning “People’s Army.” And the closing scenes are a judgment of their own—if Luther had been left to operate without Ripley’s interference, a husband and wife might have lived. The implied sympathy may be unavoidable. Luther has the vision to see patterns where none appear, and to use his own fragile mental state to read the intentions of criminals whose corrupted brains are impermeable to more stable, law-abiding minds. The Shoreditch Creeper escaped this time by Ripley’s intervention, but he’s gone from roaming the London streets as an anonymous monster to being chased by the city’s most relentless, reckless predator.