The second season of Luther is currently showing on BBC1 and will be shown later in the year on BBC America. These reviews will follow the British air-date.
There’s something a little dicey about catching up with a show in its second season, especially a show which was as serialised as Luther. But this BBC drama seems to be trying to construct a new status quo in its second season. Part of this is due to necessity, the end of the last season serving as an ambiguous climax rather than a natural lead-in for continued adventures. But this new status quo means that with the help of the liberal exposition dotted throughout the episode it is actually fairly easy for a newbie to jump on-board.
The original season of Luther, which ran for six episodes, was very much an enclosed show. Charting the last chance of John Luther, a maverick homicide detective, as his life exploded around him. Despite working with a whole host of clichés common to the police procedural the original run of Luther was something of a surprise hit due to the fantastic powerhouse performance by Idris Elba in the lead performance and a style and tone which separated it from usual police shows.
British television has something of a soft spot for vaguely Gothic detective shows, with shows like Wire In The Blood, Messiah, and Cracker creating an almost sub-genre that focuses on brutal, ritualised, murderers and the shell-shocked anti-heroes trying to thwart their baroque plans. Luther took these elements and wrapped them up in style almost unique to it, the agitated figure of John Luther its focal point. Luther also took no punches, with a sometimes staggering body-count and a moral code bent to almost breaking. John Luther approached problems with his own methodology and own style, and Idris Elba painted what should have been a cliché maverick cop with a brutish sort of intensity. Elba played Luther as part scholar and part warrior, his physicality backed by a keen, studied, intellect. Luther, and his relationship with the charmingly psychopathic Alice Morgan, were often the element which helped an episode together. The fantastic performances from Elba and Ruth Wilson (as Miss Morgan) helping to detract from episodes that sometimes revolved a little too much around happenstance and resolutions based on vague coincidence.
The second season seems to have smoothed out some of the wilder edges of the first season, largely by reintegrating Luther into the police force after a year of, off-screen, penance in the cold case department. The first fifteen minutes of the show have all the hallmarks of a creator trying to work out exactly how to create a sequel to an unexpectedly popular work. Characters are swiftly reintroduced and moved into new places. Mark North, former romantic adversary, is now one of Luther’s only confidants. Justin Ripley, last seen putting his career on the line to aid Luther, is plucked from uniformed duty to become part of Luther’s new team. Detective Chief Inspector Schenk, the well-meaning antagonist of the first season’s finale, is now Luther’s belligerent commanding officer. It is a really odd way to open the series, as it undermines a lot of the tension that made the first season work so well. Luther just feels a little odd wielding this much power and it means that the episode doesn’t really settle down until it is about halfway done.
Even our introduction to Luther in this episode felt like something of a soft reset, John getting dressed for work before sitting down and playing a brief game of Russian roulette. For new viewers it’s a quick and efficient way to clarify John Luther as a cop on the edge, for returning viewers it represents just how far over the edge Luther is tottering. It’s a neat trick which escalates the character for existing viewers whilst painting the character in the broadest possible strokes for newbies. It’d be easy to pick apart the moment for how much it cribs from other ‘maverick cop on the edge’ characterisations, but in a show as broad as Luther it almost feels perfectly natural.
Luther is an oddity in that it contrasts a grim and gritty visual aesthetic with storylines and characterisation that are almost comic book-like in their absurdity. The central performances and style ground the show, but the writing is often far more grandiose (and silly) than the subdued tone lets on. At times Luther feels like its DNA contains more Giallo than British crime drama, a point reinforced by Luther’s emotional reaction to the crimes committed by this week’s serial killer.
Cameron Pell, played by general psycho for Lee Ingleby, is an odd fit for the show, largely because he feels like an exile from other detective shows. In its first season Luther made a point of presenting its killer as rather pathetic, pitiable specimens, who were either rendered impotent by their own fixations or approached murder with a kind of dull enthusiasm. Cameron, with his Mr. Punch mask, delusions of grandeur and fascination with Springheel Jack, felt like a rehash of the charismatic serial killer which have dogged crime fiction for the past two decades. In fact it was kind of hard not to be a little bored by the character as he rattled off clichés seemingly amassed from every other screen psycho of the last decade.
The problem with Pell is that whilst his actions are sinister, his affections are kind of laughable. The staging of his big set-piece kill is fantastic, a single web-cam shot building tension in a way that a myriad of quick cuts can’t, but it’s contrasted with his am-dram ‘I am the rising sun’ proclomations and the same old, same old, serial killer spiel. As audiences we’ve been dealing with self-obsessed serial killers for decades, Buffalo Bill made them into a veritable industry, and as such it is kind of hard to take those sort of proclomations seriously.
What made the character interesting was the sheer intensity of his actions and his interactions with Luther. As I said before Luther is a show that never shied away from wanton violence and Cameron quickly amassed a considerable body count, before climaxing with a grandiose ‘street performance’ and attack on the police themselves. Luther is at its best, paradoxically, in its quieter and louder moments. It does moody introspection very well and it knows how to craft pure spectacle, but it often falters when it’s trying to deliver the nuts and bolts of an actual TV episode. This episode was a testament to that with its obvious highlights being an extended chat between Luther and, the now committed, Alice and the bravura antics of Cameron Pell. Moments that required a little defter touch, which required the show to come out of Alice and Luther’s head, suffered a lot more and an extended subplot involving Luther rescuing the daughter of a man he put away from villainous pornographers was almost hilarious in its complete lack of subtlety. Luther was at its best last season when Alice and Luther had lengthy discussions where they worked out their competing worldviews, and episode 1 seemed to try and recapture that dynamic by having Jenny, the daughter being menaced by said devious pornographers, stand her ground and make a case for her vocation.
Essentially the argument came down to “I’m a grown woman and I can be raped by whoever I want” which flummoxed Luther. Luther often dabbles in moral ambiguities, the finale of the first season revolving around Luther having to choose between compassion and bloody minded revenge, but the show didn’t really seem to know what to do with this plotline. Jenny’s line of reasoning was perfectly valid and as such the resolution to the plotline largely hinged on Luther’s own disdain for pornography. The show hastily supported his decision to cart Jenny off by making the pornographers ruthless organised mobsters. When Jenny insisted that they’d break her ankles for leaving the set I had to wonder why the show was being so contradictory. A woman being forced into the sex-industry is a very real, and pressing, problem. But Jenny bore none of the hallmarks of someone forced into the industry; indeed the entire setup seemed to be more akin to the thousands of, very legal, porn shoots that occur in the country every year. Having Jenny explain that she’s doing what she does because it pays the bills in one breath and then having her fearful of her life five minutes later is just bizarrely contradictory. I should probably congratulate the show for at least trying to have an adult discussion about an adult topic, but then it had Luther punch his way back onto the porn set and sling Jenny over his shoulder all cave-woman like. Whilst the image of Luther marching around London with a hollering, PVC clad sex-worker slumped over his shoulder is absolutely hilarious, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to be.
Of course this is the first part of a two part story and this subplot might resolve itself in an adult fashion next week, but I get the feeling that the resolution is going to involve punching and tears. That’s not to say the episode was bad, as it had a wealth of great moments, it just felt oddly neutered and conventional. Moments like Luther and Alice talking in the Asylum had flashes of the original season’s danger, with it becoming increasingly difficult to read John Luther and assess his loyalties and motivations. But even that conversation felt a little on the nose, with Luther and Alice’s conversation about seeing sharks in their natural environment being a rather painful evocation of Alice’s current predicament.
The episode gained a lot of strength in its last half hour and so I’m hoping that any initial issues I had might be down to teething problems in establishing this new paradigm, but we’ll have to wait until next week to see.