“Luther” is a series about righteous indignation.
Yes, it’s a police drama, a dark (sometimes ludicrously so) crime saga set in a moody version of London with a greater and grimmer murder rate to equal that of other bleak procedurals. But the satisfaction of seeing those cases solved, those murderers and kidnappers caught, is muted, secondary to the suffering and sacrifice and validation of protagonist John Luther, the detective played by Idris Elba with a staggering display of movie star charisma that seems like it ought to produce static shocks with everything with which he comes into contact. Luther’s devoted to his job with an obsessiveness that’s destroying him, that, as the series began in 2010, had ended his marriage and eaten him up inside, changing him. He’s good at what he does, if prone to extremes, and yet he seems to be perpetually doubted, maligned and hurt because of it.
In season one, Luther was framed for the murder of his beloved wife and forced to run from his fellow officers, and it’s not the only time in the series he’s a suspect. In season two he’s treated like a certain career contaminant by a new, ambitious, by-the-books officer assigned to report to him. And in the four-episode third season airing on BBC America from September 3 through 6, that former colleague, DS Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird), is targeting him as part of an investigation of police corruption with DSU George Stark (David O’Hara), who may be a little obsessive himself. Aside from his sidekick DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown), few seem to appreciate Luther and his incredible abilities — instead, he’s infamous, the rest of the police force apparently all too able of believing he’s capable of dark things.
We, as viewers, don’t, because of Idris Elba. John Luther is Elba’s best role since that of the fascinatingly savvy Stringer Bell in “The Wire,” because it showcases the actor’s utterly assured presence, his air of rakishly rumpled confidence in his tweed coat. Luther does not have swagger, he has conviction, conviction that informs his every — frequently correct — move. It’s why it’s so easy to trust him in a way that the characters working with him don’t, and not without reason. When the series began in 2010, it was with Luther letting a pedophile fall to what could have been his death after extracting from him information about the location of the girl he’d kidnapped. It didn’t doom his career — he got lucky — but he hasn’t really changed. He even threatens a suspect with a similar fate toward the start of the new season — but the move doesn’t come across as harsh. We’re more worried, when it happens, that it’ll get him in trouble again.
“Luther” is mesmerizing because of Elba, and because the show is so consumed by his performance that it becomes not one about a maverick cop but instead one of a man outpacing the justice system he’s allegedly a part of, one that hampers him with its pesky rules, its politics and its skeptics. It encourages us to buy into his worldview, in which he should just be allowed to do his job and get justice done, though that may mean covering up crimes or allowing culprits he’s judged deserving to go free — like Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), his psychopathic superhero of a friend, and a wonderful, preposterous character who’s essentially too enjoyable to be locked up. Luther’s tactics make him so dangerous to the people around him that the case Stark tries to build against him is based on the peripheral body count rather than evidence, and when, in the new season, he starts a tentative romance with Mary Day (Sienna Guillory), a woman another character dismissively sums up as a “pixie,” it’s accompanied by a sense of dread.
The series comes close to confronting the nature of its protagonist in the new season, introducing a grieving man who turns to vigilanteism and gathers public support for his actions as he starts targeting rapists and killers who’ve gotten off lightly. Confronting Luther on opposite sides of a canal, the man says “One out of five murders are committed by men on bail,” and demands to know why nothing is being done about it. “It’s complicated,” Luther replies. “No, it’s not,” says the man. “No… it’s not. You’ve got me there,” Luther admits. The difference is that, while Luther may bend the rules to fit his ideas about crime and punishment, he doesn’t do so looking for outside approval the way the antagonist he’s facing down does — the opposite, really. Instead, it’s the viewers who seethe on his behalf and yearn for his efforts to continue, and it’s that conflicting emotion far more than the procedural aspects that lifts “Luther” above the plethora of similarly lurid recent dark crime dramas it resembles.