BBC’s Luther appeared on American screens for the first time in two years last week, and the re-introduction delivered with the emergence of the crime drama’s most fetishistic serial killer yet. He slid out from under beds, hid in closets and wrapped himself in transparent tarps in his victims’ attics. He triggered our fears to such an extent that we soon forgot to track whether Luther was living up to its old standards; we were squarely back in the show’s shadowy alleys, forgetting our critical distance.
The killer was a solid match for the melancholy genius of Detective Chief Inspector Luther (Idris Elba), the hulking presence who both reflects and haunts the menacing streets of London. Elba’s brilliance in the title role is his ability to convey vulnerability and power at once, so that you sense his weakness in the face of life’s institutions while simultaneously feeling his strength in the pursuit of criminal psychosis. He is besieged on all sides, yet he stalks his prey with an unshakable ferocity. In the second episode of the third series, the writers play these two elements against each other in wonderful counter-melodies, allowing us to see how his perpetual nearness to breakdown lets him see inside the damaged heads of the men and women he chases.
Luther tends to flout the letter of the law in favor of its spirit, and because of this behavior he finds himself hounded by George Stark, a un-retired investigator, and Detective Sergeant Erin Gray, his season-two nemesis. They believe he’s dirty—that he finds ways to kill the criminals he finds morally reprehensible while turning a blind eye to the ones who are somehow justified—and they’ve enlisted his loyal partner, DS Justin Ripley, to prove it. They’re not above invading Luther’s apartment—filled with postcards, a few jackets and not much else. My single complaint last week was that Ripley turned too swiftly against the man he had nearly sacrificed his career to protect in season one, but events in this episode proved that I was the one who acted too swiftly; it was a feint on his part the entire time, or at least a less overt act of separation.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Luther’s primary task, with the specter of the investigation behind him, is to track down a serial killer who has already murdered three victims who had been spared a similar fate 30 years prior, when a serial killer called the Shoreditch Creeper was foiled during a home invasion. The new killer saw a photograph of the three who had been spared, and his ritualistic killings involved changing their appearance to resemble what they’d looked like in their youth. Luther’s job is to find the connection between the new killer and the old, but his task is made more difficult by the fact that the Shoreditch Creeper was never discovered.
The break in the case comes when they check the phone records of the primary investigator and discover that he’s been placing calls to an old man in a nursing home who had recently finished serving a 25-year sentence for choking a woman to death. They visit the man—William Carney—and surmise that he was the Shoreditch Creeper. Carney admits as much, saying that the investigator liked to call him when he was drunk. In the process of talking with Carney, Luther misses the new killer by mere moments, and Luther’s interrogation of Carney is cut short when a state representative decides he’s under a potentially fatal amount of stress. Before it ends, though, Luther learns that the new killer, Paul Ellis, watched from a closet as his prostitute mother was killed by Carney in his Creeper days. He returned to exact revenge, but Carney enticed him to a life of crime—”I explained how much fun it was killing his mother”—and his first victims were the ones Carney had missed all those years earlier. “The boy was a pilgrim,” says Carney, with horrific delight.
Carney frees himself from the investigation by sucking on his oxygen mask and invoking state protection before Luther can find out the identities of the next victims, but in a flash of insight he remembers the desk attendant at the nursing home. With a creepy smile, Carney confirms his suspicions (“well done!”) and gloats that he may be too late. But he’s not—the presence of the woman’s two roommates delays Ellis long enough for Luther to arrive and engage him in hand-to-hand combat, which results in Ellis hurling himself through a glass window three stories high just as the rest of the police arrive. Someone, presumably Luther, takes a photo of the three women giving the finger to the camera, and a techie named Benny Silver shows it to Carney at the police station with a succinct message: “Dickhead.”
This result is juxtaposed with Ripley, who is still investigating the murder of a cyber-troll by an aggrieved father named Ken Barnaby, who had watched the hacker mock the death of his daughter before murdering him in his home. Luther had been content to put the case on the backburner, tantamount to letting him walk free, a classic case of letting his own moral convictions trump the laws against murder. Ripley is less ethically flexible—or perhaps more exacting—and pursues the case to the very end, even having Barnaby’s hand reconstructed after he places it in a blender to escape fingerprint identification. He makes his arrest, but the triumph is ambiguous—all that happens now is a man who would never murder again goes to jail, while his wife, who has multiple sclerosis, will die alone.
I thought this would be the episode’s lingering image, validating Luther’s pursuit of a deeper, universal justice, but the final moments see him barge into the basement where Gray and Stark are holding their investigation and seize their evidence. He challenges them to stop him, but they know they can’t. Luther gives Ripley a cold glare on the way out, but when he listens to the tape recorder from his interview, he’s in for one last surprise: Ripley calls the whole investigation a “witch hunt,” avers that Luther has done nothing wrong, and says he’s proud to have him as a partner. It’s a stunning turn of loyalty, and it proves that despite his dogged pursuit of by-the-numbers justice, Ripley isn’t quite the black-and-white contrast we imagined; he’s got a sense of the universal ambiguities as well, and his integrity runs deeper than a rule book.
The episode, directed by Sam Miller, is a successful sophomore effort for a series that we can already safely say has improved on season two’s slight quality dip. The interrogation scenes between Elba and Ned Dennehy as the Shoreditch Creeper are particularly arresting, with the latter striking just the right note of amusement with his own sexualized brand of evil—I will almost certainly have nightmares about the relish Dennehy takes in relaying how the practice of foot-binding gave Chinese women “muscular vaginas”—while Elba manages to detach himself and approach the situation the way you or I might puzzle over a Sudoku. This chess match, a play of minds, quickly gives way to foreboding as Ellis attempts to murder the nursing home attendant and her three roommates, a lengthy affair with point-of-view shots and the kind of tension that starts at “unbearable” and only gets worse. Each scene is masterful in its own right, and only the latest display of Luther’s ability to succeed in both the visceral and intellectual realms.
So the latest serial killer is caught, and the investigation is foiled, and Ripley is back on board with his partner. But the gloomy streets of London will harbor more lunatics, and Erin Gray will never give up hunting her white whale, and Luther will spawn more enemies by his vigilante approach to fighting crime. Still, you get the sense that he alone, with all his mental frailties, can spot the larger picture. He’s smarter than the rest of the cops, and less deranged than the psychopaths he chases. This gives him an edge and lets him juggle the dueling stressors, but there’s something more. When Stark and Gray are rifling through his apartment, they turn over one postcard to find a quotation: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Whatever his faults, Luther is honest with himself simply because he refuses to make the usual compromises. It keeps him alive, and it keeps him sane. In the opaque London underworld he inhabits, where the search for right and wrong is so often inconclusive, this may be the only lasting form of integrity.