Luther was originally envisaged as a standalone series, its surprise success allowing the creators another swing at the bat. Initially the plan was to conclude the series with two feature length episodes, but that was altered into the micro-season of four episodes we have now. Watching tonight’s episode it was easy to see that the episode originally had been one continuous, two hour, piece of content. As such reviewing both parts separately almost seems cruel, especially as Episode 2 dealt with a lot of the issues I had with the first episode.
Most notably the episode managed to humanize Cameron Pell, not in the ‘oh, he’s a nice guy underneath it all’ sense but in the ‘he’s actually kind of pathetic’ sense. Watching John Luther work out the exact needs and temperament of Pell and then seeing him use that information to completely strip Pell of power was genuinely great. The thing that is great about John Luther, as a character, is how literate and well-read he is. As such seeing Luther using Pell’s artwork to really get into the mind of Pell was a fantastic touch. The last episode was essentially about Luther trying to create a connection with Pell, this episode was largely about Luther realising that a connection was exactly what Pell needed. Idris Elba is phenomenal in the role and as such praising his work often feels pat, but his weary performance tonight was possibly one of his best. Elba brings a phenomenal physicality to the role, which is evident even in Luther’s accentuated walk, and that physical performance gives even mundane scenes a certain level of tension.
Perhaps the standout moment of the episode was a tense sequence towards the start where Cameron Pell attempted to contact Luther, and his team, to negotiate the release of the police officer he’d kidnapped. The idea of Serial Killers taunting the police is a media trope that is almost as old as Jack The Ripper, but the episode did a great job of subverting the moment by having Pell quickly lose his cool façade. Luther, knowing that attention is what Pell wanted the most, essentially forced his team to not take Pell’s calls and then had to listen to vague, toothless, threats over an answer machine the killer had managed to connect to. What made the sequence work was how Pell’s façade so quickly broke, his ultimatum turning into a desperate, childlike, plea for attention when he realised his threats weren’t gaining purchase. It was a great way of showing shifting power dynamics whilst demonstrating how assured and confident Luther had become between seasons.
Further cementing this shifting power dynamic was the resurgence of the Violent Pornographers, an apparently all powerful cartel of smut-peddlers with links to sex traffic and a fondness for inventive carpentry. It is quite clear now that the show intends for the Violent Pornographers to be the overarching threat of this micro-season, but their arrival in this episode and Luther’s subsequent attempts to deal with them meant that Pell was side-lined for a good twenty minutes of the episode. Structurally it made sense, once Pell broke over the phone he had essentially been defeated for the time being, but my nagging issues with the concept of the Violent Pornographers kind of had me wishing the show would regain focus a little.
The problem is that the show was kind of ambiguous in its initial presentation of Jenny’s bosses. When Luther found Jenny last episode she was in a dressing room, and the implication was that it was simply a porn shoot. Albeit a weird, vaguely rapey, porn shoot. Now Jenny is in a form of indentured servitude to her pornographer masters, who are essentially a bunch of all powerful gangsters. Whilst it is fun to see Luther butt heads with a powerful antagonist, it just feels odd that pornographers would a) have this much weight to throw around b) would act like actual gangsters. Despite these quibbles I did like their brief interlude in the episode; partially because it gave the show the chance to have Luther de-stigmata himself and then run around like it ain’t no thing. I’ve got a weakness for moments like that. My biggest concern was that it felt like the creators returning to a place of safety. Last season had Luther working with antagonistic police officers, essentially being something of a lone wolf. This season seemed to set up Luther as more of a team player, but now has him working in secret against the police force.
In fact the biggest gamble this episode took was towards the end. With the Pornographers appeased and Pell in custody Luther returned home to find bubbly psychopath Alice waiting for him. Throughout the first season Alice changed into a devil on Luther’s shoulder, advocating violence, advocating revenge, generally pushing Luther towards a darker, more self-focused, path. What is fascinating about the second season is that Alice is still that devil on Luther’s shoulder, but what she advocated now seemed to be the best option. Alice was self-interest, self-preservation. A chance for a better life and as such she’s competing with that friendly bullet in Luther’s gun. Alice and Mark represented Luther’s two main characteristics. Alice was a mirror of Luther’s ruthless, intellectual, side. Pragmatic and uncompromising. Mark reflected Luther’s softer more loyal side. As such when Alice announced that she was leaving, jetting off to Mexico and other countries that start with M, Luther lost part of his support structure and the show, potentially, lost one of its most important assets. Normally I would assume that Alice would return to Luther, have a last minute change of heart, but the way pieces have been manoeuvred and the fleeting way in which Alice were used suggests that the series wanted to create closure for the character.
If Alice is gone for good it’s a real blow for the series, because Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson’s onscreen chemistry was absolutely amazing. Wilson, despite reverting to shtick every now and then, was perhaps one of the greatest assets to the show. In a show where everything was very much serious business it was quite nice to have her as a snarky comic relief. Jenny, who is now operating as some weird pseudo-daughter to Luther, seems to have largely taken over from Alice and I suspect that she’s going to push Luther in the same way Alice did. The problem is that without Alice Luther doesn’t really have any to talk to, to communicate with. Alice is perhaps the only character on the show who was at Luther’s level and could have a discussion with him. There is a hilarious scene in this episode where Luther starts talking about Black Holes, evoking his first conversation with Alice in the first season, and his colleagues just look at him dumbfounded. More than anything else Luther is a character dislocated from other people by his intellect and worldview, two traits shared with Alice.
Luther’s colleagues have never been particularly well characterised. They’re given moments to shine, but they’re not on the level of Luther and the show generally views them as hindrances rather than actual people. Even Justin, ostensibly Luther’s strongest ally, is more like a particularly loyal Labrador rather than a fully-fledged person. Having said that the extended team did get a chance to show off this episode. Whilst Luther was off intimidating witnesses Justin got the most face time with Cameron Pell and managed to prove himself as quietly competent. Martin Schenk meanwhile came down from his perch and actual did some police work, adopting a hilariously effective interrogation technique. Faced with guttural growls and an unflinching stare I was wondering whether Schenk’s prey would call for a lawyer or an exorcist first. The problem is that Luther is a show that rests on the shoulders of its main character. Idris Elba is able to take the silliness and wackiness of the world presented and make it work, but other actors, good actors, falter in making that tone work.
It is looking quite likely that John Luther isn’t going to be around after this micro-season ends, but I’m wondering if this extended scope is trying to establish a way for the series to continue on without its central character.