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John Luther and the New Face of Evil

John Luther and the New Face of Evil

with only a passing interest in the BBC detective drama Luther, or
who’ve watched the program only half-heartedly, will wrongly say that this is a
show about a dirty cop. In fact, what it is is a program about a man trying to
be heroic in all the wrong ways. The show’s title character, John Luther (Idris
Elba), is a Detective Chief Inspector working for London’s Serious Crime Unit;
while Luther has a set of skills that come in handy in homicide investigations,
this by no means confirms his career choice as a wise one. The show seems to
intimate that this is often the way with heroes: They misidentify the optimal
utilities of their skill-sets, blinded by the clarity of their ambitions. As a
former cop turned murderous flunky says of Luther at one point, “He’s not
a dirty cop. He’s a man over a barrel. There’s a difference.” 

I’ve never myself been a police officer, I have been a public defender, and
public defenders are known for having an even more complex and self-destructive
Jesus Complex than do patrolmen and detectives. For the seven years I defended
children and adults in criminal cases ranging from marijuana possession to
first-degree murder, I had nightmares almost every night. But they weren’t
nightmares about my clients, or about the things my clients may or may not have
done—as 99.8% of alleged crimes are of the most banal sort—they were nightmares
about failure. About letting down those I’d sworn to protect. And those
nightmares made me work even harder during my waking hours, or, when too
exhausted to work harder, caused me the worst sort of guilt about not being at
my best. That sort of internal struggle is slowly but surely destructive, which
is why I ultimately left the law, and why it’s particularly wrenching for me to
see John Luther so tied to a job that’s slowly killing him. Indeed, it’s not too
much to say that Luther is a documentary of suicide-by-profession.
The lead is always intimating he’s about to leave the force—a strange conceit,
for a detective drama—but the viewer never quite believes it. Luther without a
badge is merely a broken man without a purpose, not because his skills aren’t
transferable but because he lacks the imagination to conceive of such a

the second season of Luther, a teenage porn actress who claims to
enjoy her job—a job that entails being gang-raped while unconscious—is
admonished by Luther to call her mother. Her response: “It’s not my voice
she wants to hear. She’s no different from the freaks who get off on these
films. It’s not who I actually am that matters, it’s who they wish I was.”
Throughout the three seasons of Luther that have aired on the BBC
so far, the show’s lead is constantly being given hints like these—by porn
stars, actresses, even sociopaths he’d once hoped to arrest and prosecute—that
he himself is the one most in need of self-knowledge and salvation. Indeed, even
those who’ve never worked in the public service sector can see in Luther a
series of traits readily recognizable to anyone who’s ever wanted to be a hero,
or who’s ever relied overmuch on someone else who wanted to be a hero, or who’s
ever had the misfortune of being the spouse or child of someone who wants to be
a hero. In short, Luther sacrifices his mental health to be very, very good at
what he does, and he does so because he places a higher premium on the well-being
of others than on his own. The readily predictable result: Those he loves get
hurt, and he himself begins a slow descent into despair.

all its quirks, Luther does have many of the usual trappings of a
detective show: a smart and strangely charismatic leading man whose weaknesses
undermine his professional life and ensure persistent chaos in his personal
life; a cast of loyal compatriots, sprinkled with the occasional two-faced
villain in policeman’s gear; a series of brutal crimes that can only be solved
by a man nearly as troubled as the perpetrators themselves. What’s unusual
about Luther, apart from the stunning brutality of some of the
crimes it depicts—viewer discretion ought be repeatedly and urgently advised—is
the sense it provokes that it’s always mere seconds from going off the rails
completely. It’s not that John Luther is unpredictable, though he is; or that
he’s perpetually surrounded by intrigues of the most scandalous and destructive
sort, though that’s also true; it’s that Luther is a psychological drama
disguised as a detective show, not, like Monk
or another recent BBC hit, Sherlock
, a detective show masquerading as a character portrait. So the
inherent instability of Luther’s circumstances indeed cuts at the very structure
of the series itself.

have I been so repeatedly surprised by a television program. Issues which seem
likely to linger for several episodes are neatly resolved in minutes, only to
reappear much later as significantly more complicated destructive mechanisms.
Wise decisions made by characters are shortly reversed, with disastrous
consequences. Natural allies, including most of Luther’s administrative
superiors, become enemies under circumstances in which neither party is truly
to blame. Minor characters who’ve been minor for some time suddenly receive
promotions to “major” status. Killers are not always caught; in fact,
they don’t always remain villains, as one of the show’s primary characters, Alice
Morgan, is a known killer Luther now uses as a clandestine advisor on other
investigations. The genre of the show oscillates between police procedural and
horror flick, as undoubtedly the crimes portrayed on Luther are
some of the most heinous ever to appear on television. The show’s habitually
tight shots, particularly of victims at crime scenes, create a sense of
claustrophobia mediated only by an occasional wide shot of sterling beauty.
Ultimately the very structure of the show, as to both its plot and its
cinematography, is every bit as chaotic as the life and times of Luther
himself. As Luther unravels, so do (and so must) our expectations for what his
world should and will look like.

superlative about Luther is that it draws no attention whatsoever
to its oddities. The show’s lead plays Russian roulette with himself while
sitting alone in a room, but it’s merely one scene among many with more bells
and whistles; he assaults a suspect while in disguise to capture a DNA sample,
and it seems strangely apropos rather than creepy and illicit; Alice Morgan turns from a villain into Luther’s ally by a process of osmosis so slow it’s
almost imperceptible; the basis for a shifting allegiance five
episodes down the line is put repeatedly under your nose, only you don’t
realize it until you’re trying to put together the pieces later on. One can
only conclude, from all this, that Luther is seeking to normalize
that which cannot be normalized, in much the same way that Luther himself—who
wants very much to be a hero, however understated his body language is—must
normalize his psychic degeneration in order to keep doing the job he loves so

poses for the attentive viewer an important question about the daily
manifestations of evil, and our own complicity in their devastations. How many
of us make erroneous assessments of what we do or don’t need in our lives? Or
of what we are or are not called upon to do, or who we are or are not capable
of being good to, or of what we can or cannot withstand? Luther is
a show about the crime of having both too much and too little self-knowledge,
not the harrowing and intricate gorefests staged by the show’s murderous
rogues’ gallery. It’s a show worth watching because it’s a cautionary tale, not
because we feel the vindication of justice served or heroic instincts validated
by merely watching it. Such instincts aren’t validated; in fact, they’re
revealed as poisonous, and in time we see them cause as much injustice to the
innocent as to the guilty. 

man as much as the show—is an emotional train-wreck it’s impossible to look
away from. The series is so cunningly disguised as entertainment that we can almost
(but not quite) forget how many of our own errors in judgment it reflects back
at us. Evil at its most pure, as Luther says in Season 2, quoting verbatim
(ironically) an unrepentant murderer, is a “black hole”—anything that
“drags you in and crushes you to nothing.” Earlier, another
unrepentant murderer is heard distinguishing between the banality of evil,
which he considers rightly taken for granted, and the much less feared but
considerably more insidious “evil of banality.” Detective work is a
civic function—a workaday banality—John Luther feels compelled to
execute, but which he cannot participate in without self-harm;
it’s just the sort of black hole that slowly and almost invisibly crushes
a man into nothingness. Like many detective shows, Luther is
finally about the insidious mechanisms of evil: it’s just not the sort of evil
you’d ever expect, nor the sort of self-destruction you’d ever see coming.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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