Review: ‘Luther,’ Back From the Dead
“Luther,” the loony British cop show in which Idris Elba has been starring over the last decade, is very hard to kill. It rises from the dead again Sunday on BBC America after four years. This season, the fifth, is a typically tidy four episodes — short arcs being advisable when you routinely suspend all the laws of logic, psychology and police procedure.
Neil Cross, who created the show and still writes it, has a gift for packaging the lurid and the preposterous into hypnotizing psychodrama that moves fast enough to keep you from thinking too hard. Detective Chief Inspector John Luther should have been fired or dead from the first episode back in 2010, but as Season 5 opens he’s still on the job, chasing a serial killer with a taste for mutilation while simultaneously avoiding a vendetta being carried out by an angry gangster.
The show lives off the tension between Cross’s grand-guignol theatrics — the latest killer wears not only a creepy Guy Fawkes mask but a halo of halogen lights, like a self-contained circus sideshow — and Elba’s immensely world-weary, endearing performance as Luther.
While the body count multiplies and the ethical violations compound themselves, Luther scurries around London like a harried parent, pulled this way by his boss, that way by the criminal who’s holding a colleague hostage and another way by the beautiful, jealous psychopath he just can’t quit. A paladin in a drab overcoat, he always answers the call and does what can, by the application of highly tortured reasoning, be called the right thing. “I’m not a cynic,” he says, during a rare moment of self-reflection. “That’s basically the problem.”
He’s a romantic who never quite gets to the romance, though he’s still dancing around it with the murderous, superheroically capable nutcase Alice Morgan, played by Ruth Wilson. This would be a spoiler if BBC America hadn’t put Wilson in the trailers. Supposedly drowned in a previous season, Alice is reborn, like the show itself, and Wilson once again uses Alice’s jealousy and general impatience to inject some deadpan humor into the otherwise deadly serious proceedings.
Other old favorites return, including Paul McGann as Mark, the bereaved boyfriend of Luther’s dead ex-wife, not seen since Season 2. (He’s surprisingly O.K. with the return of Alice, considering she had him beat up by a gang of teenage girls in Season 1.) Chief among the new cast is Wunmi Mosaku (“The End of the ____ing World”) as Luther’s latest sergeant. She’s excellent in the essential role of the lonely voice of reason, projecting common sense and bemused distaste while reacting to lines like, “I found 39 needles embedded in the lower abdomen, the perineum and the testicles.”
The fifth season would probably be a difficult watch if you haven’t seen at least some of the previous four, available on Amazon Prime Video or, if it’s available to you, the BBC Player. The co-dependent relationship of Luther and Alice, with its improbable emotions and unanswerable questions — such as why he’s never just had her arrested — will be particularly mystifying. (The new season does some minor retconning to try to shore up this aspect of the story.)
And if you haven’t watched the show’s first episode, you won’t get the reference in the season’s big climax, a nakedly arbitrary and melodramatic touch that brings the series full circle and would seem to be Cross’s way of saying that’s all, folks. But there’s been talk of a movie, and with “Luther,” we know better than to ever say never. The dead will most likely rise again.