Luther

First season on DVD and streaming on Netflix.

As procedural premises go, Luther’s is ridiculous but memorable. In the first episode, unstable police detective John Luther (Idris Elba) is interviewing Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a young woman whose parents have just been murdered, when he suddenly intuits that she is the killer. He’s not sure how she pulled it off, though, and by the time he figures it out, the evidence has been destroyed and he can’t prove it. But he knows, and he makes sure she knows he knows, which delights her because she enjoys having an audience to her evil genius. And from there, over the course of the short six-episode season, they develop a deeply weird relationship, like Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter but with significantly more sexual tension. Alice wants to make sure Luther remains a part of her life, so she begins offering unsolicited advice on cases, interfering in his relationship with his estranged wife, and complicating his already rocky career.

This is all pretty silly, and it only becomes sillier as it goes on. It’s difficult to believe that Luther would simply give up investigating Alice when a single piece of evidence—however key—is destroyed. It’s even more difficult to believe that their relationship could possibly be sustained as long as it is. Furthermore, Alice’s sociopathy tends to mutate according to the needs of individual episodes. It’s probably appropriate for her to be something of a cipher, but without some consistency, the character threatens to become merely a particularly entertaining plot device.

And yet, for all that, I rather like the BBC’s twisted little drama. The knotty storylines, with their hairpin turns, are darkly intriguing (if often rather gruesome), and the series convincingly cultivates a sense of true danger, offering absolutely no guarantees that everything will work out by episode’s end. Luther is brutally effective but effective nonetheless, and with its manic-depressive detective and friendly neighborhood sociopath at the center, it has a strange, loopy charm.

That charm is almost entirely thanks to the actors in those two central roles. Elba, charismatic as always, has a real gift for conveying his characters’ intelligence, which is especially important here: Luther might be brilliant and perceptive, but he’s also rash, tempestuous, and prone to punching walls and overturning tables when angry. That kind of rage could overwhelm the performance completely were it not for the way Elba brings out the man’s keen mind and shrewd eye to balance it.

Wilson has an even trickier role to play, and her performance is bizarre but mesmerizing. Striking but not quite conventionally pretty, with crazily expressive eyebrows and a deceptively soft face, Wilson adjusts her features as though she’s removing a mask when Alice drops her “normal girl” persona in favor of her true cold-blooded self. Those sudden shifts can be absolutely chilling, and Alice’s razor-edged sensuality gives everything an extra crackle. What cohesion the character has is owed to Wilson. 

The best scenes in the show feature only John Luther and Alice Morgan, the pair of them crazy-smart and crazy-volatile and perhaps just plain crazy, jockeying against each other in their explosive chess match of a relationship, the rules of which are never quite clear. Their bond might not be appropriate or professional or, you know, the slightest bit realistic, but damn, if it isn’t entertaining!