‘Luther’ Season 5 Review: Idris Elba’s Detective Series Returns With Feature Film Ambitions

The highlight of the season is the return of the maniacal Alice Morgan — Moriarty to Luther's Holmes — who is back, and with a vengeance.
Luther Alice BBC America
Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) returns for the final season of "Luther"
BBC Ameirca

[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for all five seasons of “Luther.“]

For fans of BBC America’s “Luther,” after waiting five long years for the fifth (and likely final) season, it might be somewhat anticlimactic that the entire experience ends in just four roughly hour-long episodes, although it’s a season that comes packed with a wallop. Star Idris Elba has called this season “‘classic’ Luther,” and it very much is. It’s a celebration of what’s come before with deliberate connections to the very first season – although each is more of an emotional one than directly narrative – as the title character is forced to reconcile with the psychology and relationships that defined the series’ inaugural, definitive season.

Season 5 picks up where the last episode of season 4 left off, with the aftermath of Benny Silver’s (Michael Smiley) devastating death. Serial killer Jeremy Lake (Enzo Cilenti) is on the loose, on a murderous spree after his and Dr. Vivien Lake’s (Hermione Norris) lair is discovered. At the same time, the son of gang boss George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide) has been abducted, and the cranky geezer finds himself both hunter and hunted.

The emotionally tortured, hulking hero, who at times borders on superhero and played with such commitment by Elba, returns still donning his grey tweed overcoat, aggressively swaggering down London’s mean streets when not chasing down baddies in the same old rickety Volvo. It’s those familiar fixings that audiences will latch onto and relish.

The same can be said about Luther’s relationships, including the return of a fan favorite character. Given how much is revealed in the season’s trailers, it’s certainly not a spoiler to say that the psychopathic Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), Moriarty to Luther’s Holmes, is back, and with a vengeance.

Still as intuitive and instinctive – though not always with the support of logical reasoning – Luther’s most powerful attribute remains his tenacity and almost obsessive commitment to his job. Nothing can usurp his love of crime solving, not even the possibility of a romantic tryst. But it’s that singular drive that makes the character compelling, if only because it can make him seem invincible, which is why creator Neil Cross puts him through hell. That kind of commitment will typically come at devastating costs. And for Luther, this sometimes means the lives of others he loves.

Everyone who gets close to John Luther eventually dies – his wife Zoe (Indira Varma), loyal sidekick DS Ripley (Warren Brown), once-confidant DCI Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh), and others. It’s a theme that continues in season 5, which should not disappoint hardcore fans. Its formula is still rigidly intact, and Elba remains effortlessly charismatic in the role. But audiences should stay alert, because there’s plenty going on despite the familiarity.

All four episodes are directed by veteran TV director Jamie Payne – his first time helming the series – who imports a similar atmosphere from his “Alienist” days, depicting a London of sinister terrain.

At the beginning of this series, Luther is abducted by ruthless gang boss Cornelius and his goons, tortured for information about the kidnapping of George’s son, before a James Bond-like shift puts Luther back in control. It sets up what will be a season-long subplot involving Cornelius, whose adversarial history with Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan is now made clear and explored. Until now, Alice was presumed dead, and Luther fans hadn’t known of any connection between the two characters.

Within the first act of episode one, a young woman sits alone at night on a deserted bus, as a killer crawls along the floor towards her. The inevitable happens as tension is built in rapid cuts between her unwitting looks through the window, the close-ups of the killer’s approach, and shots of the point of view of a passenger on another bus moving in the opposite direction, who looks on horrified as she sees the masked figure slit the throat of the victim before killing the driver, while the two buses breeze past each other.

DCI John Luther (IDRIS ELBA), DS Halliday (WUNMI MOSAKU). (Photo: BBC TV Still)
DCI John Luther (Idris Elba), DS Halliday (Wunmi Mosaku)BBC

The narrative explodes in quite unexpected directions, with action that also includes gangsters playing Russian roulette, bombs attached to living bodies with mere minutes until explosion, and much more vying for attention. The frenetic pace doesn’t so much tighten as the four-episode season unfolds, but the narrative foci lessen, and the main plot is eventually clearly defined: a serial killer with a paraphilic disorder, who kills his victims seemingly at random after pursuing them under the cover of a distorted mask of LED lights to confuse CCTV street cameras.

He is James Houser (Jami Reid-Quarrell) who, as audiences immediately learn, is a one-time patient of psychiatrist Dr. Vivien Lake, a psychiatrist with devastating secrets. Writer/creator Cross and director Payne demonstrate a devilish adroitness at detective procedural set pieces, giving audiences some of the most innovative of the year thus far and that appear to come straight out of the “Hannibal” playbook – right down to Norris’ Dr. Lake, who is not exactly Lecter but is definitely cut from the same cloth.

A new face along for the ride this season is Luther’s new rookie partner, DS Catherine Halliday, played by BAFTA award-winning actress Wunmi Mosaku. Audiences meet Halliday on her first day on the job, green and in shock at her first crime scene. It’s gruesome, but Luther has seen worse. However, for Halliday, it means that she has to find her feet quickly if she’s to fit in. Halliday simultaneously admires and is encumbered with Luther’s unorthodox methods. She is a stickler for the rules, Luther breaks them. This makes for an interesting dynamic between the two characters.

For Season 5, she is one of a handful of complex women characters with agency, although they almost seem to exist in order to counter the number of women casualties. In addition to Halliday and Dr. Lake, Alice Morgan returns seemingly from the dead, eating up scenery in every scene she’s in. Effectively the moral compass for Luther, their relationship is progressive at its best, and toxic at its worst, and the series just wouldn’t be what it is without the tension between them.

Ruth Wilson as Alice Morgan - Luther _ Season 5, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Des Willie/BBCAmerica
Ruth Wilson as Alice Morgan in “Luther”Des Willie/BBCAmerica

Now with doubts about the wisdom of cozying up to an active psychopath, Luther knows that Alice is one woman it would foolish to snub, although it’s thankfully not Luther who bears the brunt of Alice’s eventual remorselessness. With a doozy of a conclusion, it’s not high art, but the series remains enjoyably idiosyncratic and compelling enough for a binge.

Tautly paced, intriguing, and full of even more personal stakes, the season ends tragically and beautifully in its own way. Although it’s rather abrupt, so much so that audiences will be left wondering whether this will indeed be the end of the series.

Ahead of season 5, speaking to RadioTimes.com, Elba once again reiterated his desire to star in a “Luther” feature film, adding that the new season very much has that eventual end in its sights. “We’ve got a skeleton of an idea for a film,” the actor said. “If there is a film, then it will be somehow connected to this season.”

Until then, for fans of the series, it’s a much anticipated welcome back, Alice!

Grade: B

“Luther” season 5 premieres on BBC America June 2.

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