Idris Elba In Love: How Watching ‘Luther’ Made Me Reconsider ‘The Wire’

Idris Elba as DCI John Luther.

Idris Elba’s performance as Stringer Bell in The Wire is what made him a sensation in America, but he hasn’t found the next iconic thing on this side of the pond yet. But back in the U.K., he’s absolutely burning up screens in Luther, a co-production with the BBC and BBC America, about a cop on the edge of psychosis. It’s an astonishing performance compressed in a much smaller space than his stint on The Wire (the first season is streaming on Netflix and the second begins airing on BBC America in October), raising important questions about everything from the allure of violent relationships to psychopaths’ capacity for empathy. And though it’s a very different show, watching Luther made me revisit both my understanding of Stringer Bell and the way I see The Wire as a whole.

Where Stringer’s a selectively brutal man who would like to see the overall violence of the drug trade diminish to make it easier to do business, John Luther’s a habitually violent man who’s built a magic circle around his wife, Zoe. There’s this scene in the first episode where Zoe invites John over for what he think is going to be a conversation about rekindling their marriage after a separation. Instead, she informs him that she’s seeing someone else. He responds by tearing down a door in her kitchen. It’s terrifying in precisely the same way Jeremy Sisto slapping Kerri Russell in Waitress was terrifying: that the character is doing something violent isn’t surprising, but where that violence is going to stop is entirely unpredictable. In the course of the series, we’ll see Luther struggle with a man who is playing a dual game of Russian roulette with him, we’ll see him casually and viciously punch a suspect in the face while he’s walking down the street in order to get enough blood to take the man’s DNA sample. But there’s an intimacy to Luther’s violence around Zoe: it’s a demonstration of the intensity of his feelings for her that he’ll destroy her door, that he’ll shatter one of the glass walls of his office, that she makes him totally out of control. That’s frightening, and it’s meant to be.

But it’s also powerfully alluring, the major metaphor for the attractions of darkness in a season that makes Law & Order: Criminal Intent look tame. In all the world, the show suggests (probably unrealistically), Zoe is the one person John wants to keep safe, even from himself. The intensity of his violence to the world around him is matched by his tenderness to Zoe when she seduces him, and the extent of his grief when she is murdered. Luther’s love for Zoe is so powerful that it becomes a kind of fetish object for Alice, a serial killer Luther began the season working to apprehend but who, by the end of it, becomes his only friend. Alice is invested enough in Luther and Zoe’s relationship that she will kill to protect it, and ultimately, to honor it. Even as the show infuses an obsessive relationship, one that’s violent even if Zoe’s never physically struck, with a kind of dark beauty, Luther suggests that the only person who could hold up Luther and Zoe’s relationship as an ideal — and the only person who can connect to Luther as he becomes the truest and most fractured version of himself — is someone who is fatally damaged herself.

If Luther’s Idris Elba playing pure id and showing off a greater acting range than he does in The Wire, Stringer Bell is him playing ego, a man for whom everything is instrumental, organized, who gets irritated when a copy shop isn’t run professionally or a bribe system doesn’t reap the rewards he believes it’s supposed to. That intense focus is what sticks with me — so much that I’d forgotten the season two and three subplot where Stringer takes up with Donette, D’Angelo Barksdale’s girlfriend and the mother of his child. That relationship has always struck me as instrumental rather than a genuine attachment, at least on Stringer’s part: she’s convenient, and gets him the information he needs to decide to have D’Angelo killed. In other words, we’ve never seen Stringer Bell in love.

Realizing that made me think about a disparity in The Wire I’d never considered before. While David Simon ostensibly balanced the series between the cops and the drug dealers, he pays much more attention to the emotional lives of his cops and neutral characters than he does to the key figures in the crews. Cedric Daniels’ growing relationship with Rhonda Pearlman gets a fair bit of attention, and results in the most sensual sequence in the entire series, juxtaposing their lovemaking with the first time Kima Greggs cheats on her partner, Cheryl. Kima and Cheryl’s relationship spans the entire series, with Kima’s reconciliation to married life and parenting—as well as a more straightforward approach to policing — representing both a grand compromise and an achievement of an ideal. Similarly, Jimmy McNulty’s relationship with Beadie Russell both symbolizes his struggles for sobriety and control, and is an incentive for getting his life together. Lester Freamon sets up housekeeping with Shardene Innes. Characters who aren’t affiliated with the crews like Omar Little, who has multiple long-term relationships throughout the series, or Cutty Wise, who eventually begins dating a nurse, are allowed significant romantic attachments.

But with the exception of D’Angelo Barksdale (who ends up as more of a neutral character), the main members of the drug crews either don’t have long-term relationships or those relationships aren’t a major way of exploring who they are as people (there are exceptions for minor characters, like Bernard, whose girlfriend Squeak leads him into trouble). Avon Barksdale has an ex-girlfriend who Wee-Bay kills, but we don’t see him in any sort of relationship with a woman — probably the most important woman in his life is his mother. Wee-Bay is explicitly non-monogamous, and what relationship he has with his son Namond’s mother mostly concerns Namond’s well-being. Chris Partlow and Michael Lee are both victims of sexual abuse, which motivates murders they commit, but isn’t something we see them work out in intimate relationships. There are interesting possibilities in Snoop’s gender expression, but the show only really explores her as a soldier. I don’t even want to think how Marlo Stanfield would treat a woman he actually dated, much less had sex with and then executed after she turned out to be a spy.

I’m not sure what this disparity means. Does running a drug crew mean folks have less time or inclination to pursue steady relationships? Is it commentary on the crews, suggesting that as they’re peddling one means of social dissolution, they’re engaging in others? Whatever Simon’s intentions, weighting relationship questions and subplots to the police means we get a smaller part of the human spectrum when we look at the crews. Idris Elba’s performance as Stringer Bell may be more controlled and therefore more masterful, but I’m profoundly glad that I got to see what a good actor he is when called upon to play a wider range of human emotions.