"How ‘Luther’ Lost Me"
This post discusses plot points from the entire third series of Luther.
It’s become, if not precisely common, not entirely unusual for television shows, particularly those affiliated with auteur-like creative figures, to take some time off in between seasons: The Sopranos had two two-year gaps in between seasons, Mad Men took 2011 off, and Louie is presently on hiatus, returning in the spring of 2014. These breaks can be creatively revitalizing, and in an era of binge-watching can provide viewers-come-lately an opportunity to come up to catch up with viewers who have been watching episode-by-episode from the beginning. But as the years pass, a show can also sour in memory, and when it returns, the familiar ingredients that once combined for an appealing cocktail may be altered in proportion to produce a distinctly unpleasant taste.
Such is the case for me with BBC America’s Luther, which returned last night for a third and final series, which runs on the network throughout this week. While I initially fell in love with Idris Elba’s performance as a troubled police detective, and Ruth Wilson’s turn as the sociopath Alice Morgan, first Luther’s target, and later the only person who understands him, I’ve mainlined an awful lot of anti-hero dramas and serial killer shows in the years since the last episode of Luther aired. And this recent bout of episodes left me with a feeling more akin to food poisoning than pleasure.
It wouldn’t bother me so much that this season of Luther has so little to say, if it wasn’t reaching so aggressively for relevance at every turn. One case, supposedly about the toxic consequences of online trolling, draws directly from the suicide of Mitchell Henderson, whose parents were harassed by trolls who made up rationales for his death that they found amusing. But instead of meditating on internet culture, or thinking about generation gaps surrounding the use and abuse of social media, or even drawing together a particularly plausible narrative of how the murder that results was committed, Luther mostly uses the case as an opportunity to show us some exceptionally grotesque self-mutilation, and to frame that act of violence, as the show so often does, as evidence of an admirably steely self-resolve.
A second case, involving a vigilante who commits a series of murders intended to spotlight what he believes to be the leniency of British sentencing, the failures of the police to adequately monitor released offenders, and to push for a referendum to reinstitute the death penalty, also has roots in relatively recent British crime news: in 2008, a British sex offender was hacked to death after rumors he was about to molest another child. But once again, there isn’t actually a debate about sentencing or parole, or even police conduct, subjects that a show about a semi-rogue police officer might consider worth engaging. The crowd that supports the vigilante is, with one brief exception, a faceless mass. There’s no real sense that Britain is a seething mass of resentment against criminals and the police alike, though judging from the volume and grotesque nature of the cases handed by the Serious and Serial division in Luther, they might have the right to be.
And even an investigation of Luther by DCI Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who carries a vendetta against Luther after Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) protected Luther and sold her out, has essentially nothing to say about what ought to be the show’s central question: is Luther the kind of detective London ought to tolerate in its police ranks? Gray’s involvement meant the deck would always be stacked, even if they hadn’t partnered her with a superior officer with an outrageous sense of self-importance and a mysterious sense of grievance. As a result, the ethics investigators look like the bad guys, and we’re free to shrug off the question of whether we can tolerate a cop holding a suspect off a balcony or being friends with a charming sociopath, much less whether we’re charmed by behavior we ought to be appalled by.
I’m fine with art not being directly socially relevant if that’s not a creator’s bag. Ray from Girls may insist that creative people should only take on subjects like “years of neglect and abuse? How about acid rain? How about the plight of the giant panda bear? How about racial profiling? How about urban sprawl? How about divorce? How about death? How about death? Death is the most fucking real issue,” but I’m perfectly fine with a wider roster that includes topics that people like Ray, or more somber critics than myself, might deem hopelessly trivial. Not being explicitly political or socially engaged doesn’t mean I can’t find things to enjoy and engage with.
But I’m getting awfully sick of shows and movies that invoke social issues and politics as some sort of pass for extreme violence or sexuality that’s divorced from the point. Nipples don’t make you serious or prestigious, if you don’t have anything else to say about them than nipples! And slapping a fresh coat of paint on an old real-world case doesn’t actually disguise your intentions if what you really seem to be excited about is seeing how far you can push your audience before they’re revolted at the level of violence you’re making them witness. Everyone’s line on this is going to be different–I’m more tolerant of how, say, Game of Thrones–particularly in its third season–handles sex and violence because I believe in the people involved’s level of overall commitment to developing themes about the impact of rape, and the impunity granted to certain people to commit savage violence, have on society. But Luther stepped firmly over mine this season.
And while I’m absolutely pleased that social relevance (along with strong female characters and many other things that are high on my priorities list) seems to be desirable these days, it’s not actually a magic word to be invoked that renders all criticism null and void. Ripping your story from the headlines (or from Nexis, as the case may be) doesn’t actually inoculate you against telling it in a trashy and exploitative way. Calling your female character strong doesn’t actually make them nuanced, or make them feel like actual humans. Making your story dark doesn’t actually mean that it offers up penetrating insight into real life–sometimes that just means it’s murky to the point of blindness.
Some of the problem, I suspect, is the absence of Alice until the fourth installment of the series, when she arrives in impeccable form in a beautifully fitted coat, knee-high boots, and gas mask. Her acid assessment of the vigilante killer, “Goodness gracious me. What a needy little fishy,” has more life and insight in it than the rest of the series combined. And her tart analysis of Luther’s new girlfriend, “she’s a pixie. A sprite. A daydream of the life you think you want to live,” might have saved us an entire generation of Zach Braff movies, had she gotten to him in the real world. A sociopath with genuine self-awareness, not just about herself, but about the kind of story she’s living in? Alice is the one element of Luther that still feels bright as a sheet of flame-colored hair, as sharp as that knife of a smile. I couldn’t care less about an impending Luther movie that’s rumored to be in the works, but I’d follow Alice pretty much anywhere.