There’s a single moment of moral absolutes in the first episode of Luther season three. The series opens on a TSG unit, guns drawn, fingers trembling, focused on a closed warehouse door. DSU Martin Schenk stands in the middle of them, looking pale and drawn and then…the door opens and DCI John Luther, with faithful sidekick DS Justin Ripley strides out, each dragging a criminal, the interior of the warehouse burning behind them. Then Luther, ‘a big man in a big coat’ to quote creator Neil Cross, gets himself cleared from the crime scene and goes home, alone, in the rain, at night.
It’s not subtle, but it’s hugely effective and very deliberate. This is Luther as superhero, a grumpy, cockney Batman who dumps his targets with the lesser cops to book and goes home to brood. It’s also deliberate, opening with Luther the rock star, Luther the hero and closing with Luther the man in very serious trouble.
Neil Cross’ series is two seasons and a prequel novel old and it’s my favourite UK crime drama. One of the big reasons why is that Luther nails its bloody colours to the mast from the outset and dares you to keep up. It’s unrelentingly dark and bleak, Luther himself constantly on the verge of a breakdown and far over the line of acceptable behaviour whilst his targets are monsters given human form. Some of the cases have been so extreme that you half expect to see him check into a support group with Will Graham, Detective William Somerset and the few surviving members of the Saw franchise. Knowing their combined luck, the person leading the group would turn out to be Hannibal Lecter.
This season looks to be no exception, with Luther catching two cases straight out of the gate. The first is the fetish driven murder of Lucy Hammond, a case which echoes one from the late ‘70s, and the murder of Jared Cass, a professional internet troll. The first is exactly Luther’s cup of ghastly, blood-drenched tea. The second is a distraction that he takes firstly on the urging of Schenk and secondly because he’s John Luther, and he can work two cases at once.
Right there, the show changes tack drastically from the previous two seasons. Luther has always been portrayed as a brilliant, vastly unstable man who has no problem going outside the lines to close a case, or a life. Here, we’re seeing him from a very different perspective. After two full seasons of being on the defensive he’s comfortable, arrogant and he’s found the confidence that comes with that at absolutely the worst time possible. The Jared Cass murder is being fed to him by George Stark, a retired CID officer brought in to try and confirm what anyone who isn’t a character in the series has long suspected; John Luther is a murderous psychopath. By throwing him a simple case, Stark hopes to trip him up and end his career. He also hopes to get Ripley to help him out.
That’s where the perspective change is cemented. Warren Brown has done the near impossible; maintaining a strong screen presence whilst standing next to the relentlessly charismatic Elba, for two full seasons. Here he’s rewarded with what looks like Ripley’s meatiest, and possibly final, plot. Initially supportive of his boss, Ripley acts like a frantic Northern Jiminy Cricket, frantically talking Luther down more than once. His boss needs it too, offhandedly dangling a loan shark off a skyscraper at one point, completely unaware he’s under surveillance. Yet again, Ripley stands by him and yet again, barely, Luther pulls back in time. Luther’s a hero. Luther’s a man in very serious trouble. Only Ripley seems to know just how much.
Any other show would play this tension out across multiple episodes but it comes to a head almost straight away. It begins when they find the man who murdered Cass and in doing so reveal another of the show’s strengths. Luther, both show and character, have made their name on the big cases, the monsters. Ken Barnaby is anything but, a polite, respectable, normal man whose daughter was killed. Cass systematically defaced her memorial website and tormented her parents, until Barnaby finally snapped and killed him. He’s a good, completely normal man who was provoked endlessly, finally snapped and is tormented by what he did. He’s the other sort of character Luther excels at; the collateral damage. Good, normal people caught up in horror. These are the people that define both the show, and the man. The monsters are easy to catch but the Ken Barnabys are impossible to protect.
But they can be warned.
When they get a rock solid lead on Barnaby, but have no fingerprints for him, Luther does the one thing he has to, and shouldn’t; he lets Barnaby know. It’s a terribly British moment, the two men having two conversations at once. One is innocuous, one is honest, compassionate, and silent. It’s almost the positive twin of the chilling moment in the opening episode of Hannibal, where Lecter places a chilling, minimalist call to Garrett Jacob Hobbs. In both cases, the main characters are warning people who they recognize as kindred spirits. More importantly, in both cases, the line is crossed. But where Lecter places his call to try and prevent damage, Luther places his knowing that damage is the one thing that has to happen.
The steps Barnaby takes to ensure he can’t be fingerprinted are horrifying not just because of what we see and hear, but what we don’t. The careful, methodical way Barnaby, played with incredible grace by Lucian Msamati, plugs in the blender, removes the top, turns it on, steels himself and plunges his hand in is far more nauseating than seeing a prosthetic turned into sausage meat. However, what really rams the scene home is Ripley’s reaction when he and Luther arrive. Framed in front of the kitchen door, flashes of every surface painted with blood, Ripley breaks and does so with wounded, desperate calm. Warren Brown’s delivery on ‘There was blood on the ceiling’ is heartbreaking and the horror and rage he feels drives Ripley to lash out at his boss and, ultimately, to cross a line of his own. Stark is at least as monstrous as Luther, if not mores o, but Stark doesn’t have new blood on his hands and for Ripley, that’s enough, for now.
Over on the other cases, things are a little more harmonious which, in a sense, drives home just how broken John Luther is. The investigation leads back to the Shoreditch Creeper case from the ‘70s and in turn the discovery of a raft of potential new victims. Intercut with scenes of the murderer patiently, almost numbly, going about his life, this is where the meat of a normal detective show would lie. With Luther, this case is very definitely put to the background for an episode, meaning it’s all but certain to bubble up shortly. The second murder, featuring both a Blade Runner reference and a horrific, one-sided beating is vintage Luther; operatically horrific, utterly brutal and clearly raising the stakes for the next episode.
The whole thing is pulpy, and unabashedly so, but that’s not a bad thing, especially with a cast this strong. Elba and Brown are excellent as ever whilst Dermot Crowley is so good at this by now that you can tell something is badly wrong without him ever having to say a word. Nikki Amuka-Bird, badly served last season, is also excellent as DCI Erin Gray, Luther’s former sidekick turned adversary. Again, a lesser show would have her as a single note villain but she’s as uncomfortable with Stark’s tactics as Ripley is. It’ll be interesting to see if now Ripley’s on board, she begins to drift back towards Luther.
There’s a strong sense of history to this opening episode. As well as the historical ties both the Shoreditch Creeper and Ken Barnaby have to their victims, Luther’s own history is being used as a weapon against him. He’s certainly a man with blood on his hands, one who exists far outside the realms of acceptable behavior. But, like Ken Barnaby, he’s a man who’s done awful things for good reasons. Whether that’s acceptable, in either case, is something the series looks dead set on addressing. Regardless, the most troubled detective on TV could never be accused of being subtle, but it’s impossible to take your eyes off him, even when you want to. Luther can’t help but look and that’s why he’s a hero. But he’s also in serious trouble and that’s what keeps you watching. The big man in a big coat is heading down ever meaner streets and, once again, it’s a pleasure to follow him, especially at a distance.