Lesson One: If you play God, you play Him with ego
Episode 3.3 of BBC America’s Luther is the most philosophical installment yet in a show that’s become a true rival to Sherlock for the title of TV’s best crime drama. Together, the shows make an unlikely pair; Sherlock the bright, intelligent striver, and Luther the dark, brooding anarchist. Even their outlooks on London could not be more wildly disparate. But they share one important element in common: The leading men operate outside any boundary they encounter. In this way, Detective Chief Inspector Luther is like a modernized version of Conan Doyle’s creation, but weighed down with the sullen anxieties of a blighted modern landscape.
As a rule, Luther (Idris Elba) has always been guilty of letting his own moral compass trump the English justice system when it comes to the fate of London’s worst criminals. It’s essentially his calling card, and it’s defined him from the start. Back in 2010, the show’s pilot opened on Luther chasing the first of what would become an endless supply of psychopaths, finally cornering him in an empty warehouse. As the man—a convicted pedophile—hung from a ledge, Luther extracted a confession in exchange for salvation, and then let him fall to his death anyway.
He passed the fatal judgment, protocol be damned. But he can also be merciful—an episode ago, he was content to let a murderer go free because his victim was a cyber bully who had taunted the man about his young daughter’s death. In Luther’s code, the killing was justified and should be left alone, and only the dogged efforts of DS Justin Ripley, his assistant, brought the man to justice. All his efforts wrought, though, was the imprisonment of a man who would never kill again and a sad fate for a sick wife now deprived of her only caretaker. In this case, an act of foreshadowing, the gods of the writer’s room gave Luther their nod; his mercy was the right idea.
Now, in the series’ third episode, Luther has found his criminal alter-ego. Tom Marwood’s wife was raped and killed by a criminal who had been released after serving just half of a prison term for armed robbery. Unlike some of the other villains Luther stalks, Marwood’s motivations aren’t kept secret for very long. He shoots and kills a pair of hoodlums with a shotgun (saving a young couple from rape and death in the process), and hangs a burglar from a tree in a city park. The burglar had been released from jail on time served after letting his housemates starve and kill their four-year-old daughter, and the thugs had a similar story—”people the justice system spat out,” as Luther says. Marwood tapes a piece of black paper across the mouths of his victims, with yellow letters listing a website and a time. When the promised hour arrives, the killer releases a video—with no attempt at disguising himself—and vows to succeed where the justice system has failed. “It’s time for that failure to end,” he intones.
There’s righteous fury, and the motive is easy to understand. His cause is moral, too. But there’s something else—a self-satisfaction, bordering on smugness. He’s got every right to be upset, but then, there are a lot of innocent victims in this world. Not all of them spawn vigilante action from friends or loved ones. That takes ego, and beneath the sadness and rage, we see the ego in Marwood. Just like we see it in John Luther. These men think themselves above the system, and they don’t allow a moment’s doubt to cloud their decisive action. In order to play God, you must see yourself as godly.
Lesson Two: Rigid morality makes you vulnerable, not strong
Luther and Ripley devise a simple strategy for tracking Marwood down. He’s off the grid, but they think if they can supply protection to high-profile criminals who have received significant press coverage and were later released, they may be able to anticipate his next move and catch him in the act. But the net is too wide—over 200 targets, at first—and Marwood is too fast. He stalks and kidnaps his next victim, another pedophile, and uses his keys to take him to the clubhouse where he and his fellow sex offenders practice their dark arts.
In the process, though, Marwood intercepts a phone call from Luther to his brother-in-law (he cloned his cell) and lies in wait when the detective comes to question. A chase ensues, and after nearly escaping on a cement path that runs alongside a canal, Luther heeds a shouted threat and stops. The small waterway separates Marwood and Luther, and they proceed to have a fascinating discussion. “You’ve never been tempted,” asks Marwood, “to administer a bit of personal justice?” He can’t know it, but that’s exactly what Luther has done on repeated occasions.
“I don’t have the right to do that,” the detective replies, but his heart’s not in it. And it can’t be—he’s lying through his teeth. He realizes, at the same time as we do, that he and Marwood are essentially on the same mission. The difference is that Luther is operating on the right side of the law, and has benefited from its protection. Otherwise, they are moral equivalents—little gods operating in their chosen realms. The synchronicity is so complete that they even share a crime: The illegal killing of a pedophile.
Marwood asks for two days. Luther warns him that he’ll die, because all men of Marwood’s ilk eventually die, and Marwood leaves with a final warning—”don’t make me your enemy, John. We’re on the same side.” Luther protests, but he lets him go.
And this passivity is the crux of the episode, because though he can’t realize it, he is making a choice between life and death, both for himself and his partner. A true cop, by which I mean one who operates within the strict bounds of duty, would never have let Marwood walk away. Deep down, though, Luther believes in what Marwood is doing, and recognizes their similarity. To prosecute him by the book would be to repudiate everything he himself has done in a long and spotted career. His moral flexibility saves his life.
Lesson Three: Only the good die
Marwood posts on his website that he has the pedophile, and will murder him at midnight at an address he’ll tweet out. Luther and his boss, superintendent Martin Schenk, concoct a desperate plan. They find the pedophile’s victim, and she reluctantly agrees to a televised press conference asking Marwood to spare the man’s life. It’s painful for Luther to ask her, but she gets the last laugh, changing the script at the last moment and urging Marwood to kill the man.
Knowing that Marwood took the victim’s keys, Luther tries one of his former friends, another sex offender, and learns the location of their clubhouse. There, in one of the show’s typical grimy sets, scored by brooding music, Marwood has the man strung up, wearing a hood and a noose. He’s released the address, and is surrounded by his fans—a raving, angry mob, thirsty for death. Luther and Ripley arrive on the scene just as Marwood kicks the chair away. He flees, pursued by Ripley, while Luther holds the man by the legs to prevent his suffocation, taking body blows from the angry crowd. He can only spin around, supporting the man’s weight and blindly flailing out with his arm. Here the show’s creators finally diverge from tacit support of Luther’s point of view—the mob is ugly, and they don’t care to distinguish between a detective and a criminal. As we’ll find with Marwood himself, real-life vigilantes aren’t like comic book superheroes; they inevitably lose their foundation somewhere in the gray areas and become criminals themselves. This is why we have a justice system in the first place.
Reinforcements arrive in time to save both Luther and the pedophile, but Ripley finds himself alone with Marwood on a dark cobblestone path. Fences bind them on three sides, and graffiti splatters the walls in the distance. Just like his partner, Ripley finds himself facing the wrong end of the vigilante’s shotgun. But unlike Luther, he won’t back down. Marwood begs him to go, but Ripley is a stone—loyal, committed and duty-bound. He is rigid where Luther is flexible, and he won’t stop. “We’re on the same side,” he tells Marwood, reflecting the words we heard by the canal. “I don’t think you’re going to shoot me.”
This time, though, it’s not true. Unlike Marwood and Luther, Ripley is not interested in playing God. He lacks the ego. “Say I did that,” he says. “And someone innocent gets hurt. How am I supposed to live with that? It’ll happen.” The question is also the answer—he’s not on their side at all. His definition of “right” is too well-defined, and not even a little self-serving. Marwood pleas one more time for him to back off. “No,” says Ripley. This is his last word. Marwood sobs, and fires the gun.
Once more, Luther’s life is thrown into chaos. In a rage, Marwood storms off to attack Mary, his new girlfriend, while George Stark, an investigator out of retirement, is still convinced he’s a dirty cop, and is more intent than ever on ending his career. As we approach the final episode, the stresses mount, and one word stands out above them all: Revenge.
But the lasting theme here is simple grief and everlasting guilt. Ripley couldn’t live with the possibility of an innocent death, and when Luther finally collapses at his side, weeping in agony, the question lingers: How can he live with the reality?