As a general rule of thumb Luther really only works when either Luther or Alice are onscreen. Both of the characters are so fascinating, and so well realized, that they often distract from how inconsistent the rest of the show is. This latest episode of Luther completely turned that rule on its head by both having its best moments barely feature our titular protagonist and by having Luther have a minimized presence in the episode. Whilst Luther is still the core character (and his associates barely more than ciphers) he felt oddly peripheral this episode. Part of that was due to the fact that Luther seemed genuinely flummoxed by his opponents, unable to stand toe to toe with odious pornographer Toby and unable to get into the head of the psychopathic, silent, dice killer.
Both Toby and the unnamed Dice killer had the standout sequences in the show, leaving Luther to sort of play catch-up in their aftermath. On the boards one of the Chewers mentioned how both the villains in this were “barely one bad day away from being straight outta Arkham” and I think it’s an interesting point to make. Toby, The Dice Man and even Cameron Pell feel like far broader villains than Luther has dealt with before. With motivations and backgrounds that feel more like something out of a comic book than something nurtured in Luther’s grounded universe. In the first season the villains often felt like a secondary consideration, an external force which was filtered largely through Luther’s perceptions. The snipers, serial killers and robbers of the previous season felt peripheral with the focus always on John Luther and his increasingly complicated relationships with his estranged wife and Alice. This season the killers have been front and centre and Luther’s own personal subplot has largely been side-lined. Luther’s own little plot is still there, but it feels largely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
This episode made that side-lining feel particularly apparent with its pre-titles sequence not featuring our hero whatsoever. That opening sequence, set on the forecourt of a petrol station, was a great indication of the tonal difference between this episode and the episodes that preceded it. Luther is an intense sort of show and the thing that always differentiated its villains from other works was how intense and nasty the show was willing to let them be. Luther was the kind of show where if a sniper declared war on the London Police Department he was going to take out at least two dozen people before he got stopped. As such the tone of the villains was usually ‘faster, more intense’, this episode however established its main villain as a force of creeping dread, giving time and space to his actions. The villain, who I’m referring to as Dice Man in homage to ‘The Dice Man’, going about his business as onlookers tried to work out what was going on was made truly tense and truly horrifying by a combination of excellent direction, which used largely subjective shots to put us in the victims shoes, and a slow build towards the violence. Rather than the usual quick and frenetic ultra-violence of Luther’s usual villains we got an almost languid build-up with the victims at first assuming that the Dice Man was a vandal or petty thief. This build up made the sudden, brutal, violence at the end of the scene payoff even more. With the blinding of one man and the savage beating of another as the other two victims looked on in horror. It is an evocative way to start an episode and its extended run time really help to ratchet up the sense of unpredictability. Television is often a medium which maximizes efficiency and often has little time to allow an episode to breathe so it was a nice change to see the show taking its time.
The episodes second set-piece also benefited from this unusual pacing, the camera following The Dice Man as he killed a courier, stole his outfit and bike, rode to a bank and unleashed a savage hammer frenzy of the kind that had not been since Oldboy. This sequence, aside from a few initial cutaways to Luther and co., was almost completed focused on Dice Man. The pseudo-long take which followed the Dice Man into, and throughout, the bank was a fantastic use of technique to create suspense and the way it switched, organically, into a more cinéma vérité style once the attack started really helped to sell the fury of the sequence. The calm build up and sudden wildness of the attack really conveying the sense of confusion and horror. Director Sam Miller really deserves a lot of credit for delivering a television episode which at times felt utterly cinematic, also deserving of credit is Steven Robertson who was amazingly creepy and impressively nuanced as the silent, reflexive, Dice Man. Managing to sell intent with just his eyes Robertson managed to breathe life into a character who ultimately was just a violence distribution mechanism.
David Dawson as Toby (Violent Pornographer Jr.) had a lot more to work with, but I’m still not sure how I felt about the character. Ultimately Toby is a catalyst to the overarching plot. As the episode opened Luther and Jenny were at a state of equilibrium, as such something had to disturb this equilibrium and Toby popped up almost immediately as a potential disruption. As soon as Toby issued an ultimatum it became obvious that either he was going to kill Jenny or that he was going to get killed by Jenny or Luther. You introduce a mad dog in act 1 and it stands to reason it’ll bite someone in act 2. As such Toby menacing the now emancipated Jenny was something of a foregone conclusion and the revelations of his predication for sexual violence and psychopathic tendencies as such came across as being laid on a little thick. Dawson was impressive in his brief screen time, but it was the kind of showy role that is easy to impress in. In fact in his climatic scene I found him consistently outmatched by Aimee-Ffion Edwards as Jenny. Jenny has grown on me as the season has gone on and whilst she is no replacement for Alice I appreciate the relationship she and Luther share. They’re oddly co-dependent with Jenny needing Luther as a protector and Luther needing Jenny as something to focus on. Luther feels like a character on the edge of oblivion and it’s only his obligations keeping him in place.
The series seems to be building to some sort of conclusion, with increasingly heavy hints that our protagonist isn’t going to make it out unscathed. But with only an hour to go and all the elements in place it doesn’t feel like there is much more movement in the overarching plot. Don’t get me wrong, I concede that stuff has happened and stuff is shaping up in the overarching plot. But none of it feels of any particular consequence. The problem is that these episodes were originally devised as two two-hour episodes and as such taking each part on its own terms is akin to reviewing the first act. The two Cameron Pell episodes were indicative of this, with the whole plot only taking shape across both episodes. The problem is that I think the central plot of this episode is strong enough to justify its own episode and it feels a shame that it’s going to have to take a backseat next week to deal with the fallout from Toby’s murder. Luther’s interactions with the pornographers over these episodes have felt more like obstructions than a main plot and as such it feels frustrating to me every time the episode distracts from the case of the week to update the meta-plot. It is also frustrating as the meta-plot is a really inorganic way for Luther to once again become isolated from his colleagues.
The idea of Luther in charge of his own unit is fascinating, because he’s a cop who is separated from his colleagues by his intellect and by his own ethics. Having his compatriots clash with him ideologically would have been an organic conflict, having Luther skulk around at the behest of shadowy villains feels like an inorganic conflict. Once again it goes back to the feeling of the show trying to quickly establish a status-quo and the pornographer plot allows Luther to be dislocated from his team with minimal effort.