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The fourth season of Luther stays close to the edge

DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) (BBC)
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The return of Luther opens with a flashback of DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) brooding on a precipice, surveying London like Batman looking over Gotham. His signature tweed coat, collar turned up against the wind, might as well be a cape. “Do you ever do this?,” he asks his then-partner. “Do you ever come up to a really high place and wonder what it would be like to fall?”

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In the present day, looking for information about impish sociopath and multiple murderer Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), DCIs Theo Bloom (Darren Boyd) and Emma Jones (Rose Leslie) visit Luther at the seaside cottage where he’s spending his long voluntary leave of absence. Bloom remarks that his new home is near the edge of the bluff. “Closer and closer every day,” Luther agrees.

Close to the edge is where Luther lives, too. It’s a comic-book sensibility disguising itself as a gritty procedural, buoyed along on the gravitas of its lead and the audacity of its flourishes. But it’s also howlingly fun to watch, full of lurid jolts, and routinely punctuated with spectacular action that another show would save for the climax of a finale.

Luther’s credit sequence demonstrates its protagonist’s place in the world. His stylized silhouette, shoulders hunched and head tucked down, suggests an outsized figure even against the towering buildings and power lines of London. Even the title is kerned to crowd its letters together, the uneasy, cramped epitaph of a man too big to be contained. John Luther is larger than life, and the absurdities of the show are oversized, too.

The end of season three saw the brilliant, dedicated, self-destructively violent detective leaving behind a faltering internal investigation into his procedural improprieties (on Luther, “improprieties” can mean anything from letting a suspect fall to his likely death to helping a murderer escape from captivity). He walks toward a perverse happy ending with Alice, who asks the recurring question of the series: “So, now what?”

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This question suggests changes afoot, but Luther goes on much as it always has. If the matter of Alice’s whereabouts isn’t enough to draw John Luther out of seclusion, or to draw viewers back into the world of Luther, Bloom and Jones’ new case takes an explosive turn, leaving Luther in pursuit of a cannibalistic serial killer who insinuates himself into people’s lives, cuts out choice bits of his victims to eat, and leaves a trail of clues to the next corpse. “We do this the right way, straight down the line,” Luther warns his new partner, commanding her to “never, ever” cut corners. Then he cuts every corner, breaks every protocol, and strides through London manhandling informants, bashing assailants, and smashing his way into crime scenes with unhesitating fervor.

Everyone and everything is characterized in broad strokes—DCI Emma Jones might as well wear a placard reading “plucky sidekick”—but broad strokes are what Luther does best. To say Luther has a comic-book sensibility isn’t a slam; it’s a nod to Luther’s outrageous over-the-top plot, but also to the vivid vignettes that characterize its storytelling and mood-setting. The central mystery of this miniseries is set in motion with a nearly wordless sequence full of striking images: a woman looking down a stairwell, the bright ceiling above her framed by the dark behind; a man headed home to her with wine and a takeaway dinner; a sense of cozy familiarity disrupted in one simple, chilling twist. The pools and smears of a bloody murder scene contrast with the cold, clinical light illuminating it, and just as jarring is the tidy stack of clothes, removed from the naked victim and folded with unnerving precision. As striking, if less obvious, is the image of John Luther in the streets of London, his approach to an off-limits source hedged off by the forbidding spikes of a wrought-iron fence.

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In this outing, Luther is even more aggressively, deliciously English than before, jamming in Britishisms like “tickety-boo.” John Luther extricates himself from his first tentative phone call reaching out to a former colleague by saying he’ll let him “crack on”—and it’s also how he describes his own return to duty. More than anything, that’s what this installment of Luther does: It cracks on. As usual, there’s some rumination on DCI Luther’s explosive admixture of intelligence, devotion, and criminal flouting of procedure, and a glimpse of his past and yearning for a different future. But mostly the story of a great if volatile detective coaxed into the search for a ghastly killer makes for a cracking yarn.

There’s some anti-climax in all this. Luther built its reputation on outrageousness, on pulpy thrills and giddy excursions into the preposterous. The season-four miniseries never exceeds the brazen hilarity of previous seasons, but it continues apace, and for a show so full of intense action, keen performances, and self-aware humor, that’s plenty. John Luther’s compulsion to chase rough justice, no matter how high the cost or how low he falls, makes for compelling viewing. If Luther is falling anywhere, it’s right back into place.

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