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Luther: Series 2 (Review)

I loved the first series of Luther. I genuinely adored it. It was a wonderful six-episode arc following the perils of DCI John Luther as he walked a thin line between, as Ripley remarks here, “being dirty and being willing to get your hands dirty”, all of which culminated in a rather fantastic final two episodes that explored the implications of that sort moral corruption in law enforcement. So the follow-up season had a lot to live up to, and – while it’s still well-written, well-acted and solidly entertaining – it can’t help but feel a little disappointing. While there are other considerations, the most damning one is this: two two-part episodes don’t given enough room for a season-long arc.

Putting it all together...

I understand that Idris Elba’s time is increasingly in demand, and it is honestly fantastic that he finds the time to come back and work on something like this, but British television shows are already relatively short. They tend to feel a lot more condensed than their American counterparts, with even classics like Fawlty Towers struggling to reach the double-digits. Six episodes was the perfect length for the central arc of DCI John Luther last season, with two episodes to establish the characters, two episodes to develop them and demonstrate how compromised they truly were, and a massive two episode finale in which everything collides in a truly massive explosion.

Here, we have four episodes, but they are written as two feature-length adventures. This would, in theory, be grand, but the show insists on doing two very awkward things as part of these feature-length adventures. First, rather than treating the season as a completely blank slate, it insists on bringing back most of the supporting cast from last time, obviously barring the dead cast members (and Saskia Reeves). In particular, Ruth Wilson as the psychotic Alice and Paul McGann as the lover of Luther’s ex-wife. I love both actors, and those two characters are among the most fascinating in the show, but it’s wrong to devote two episodes to wrapping up their plotlines when you’ve got much less space than before to tell your own story this time around.

Luther goes down a dark alley...

It feels like a waste of Alice just to have her escape, say some sweet things to John and fly away – only referenced in passing in the final episode. I would have liked to have her stick around, particularly if the series was going to push the whole “surrogate family” thing on John. And I liked the dynamic between Luther and Mark North. The show never gave the impression that Luther had any friends outside of work, with Ian Reid coming closest last year, and there’s something wonderfully tragic about the two men who loved a woman coming together after her death. There’s something interesting about the idea of both men supporting each other, and I’m sad we didn’t get to see that angle developed beyond a quick scene in the opening episode.

However, the biggest problem with the second season is the character arc it sets John Luther on. We already know the limits that the man will go to in order to stop killers prowling the street, so it’s interesting to see how far he would go to protect an innocent life. However, there’s no real room to breath. The first season set up its premise in its first story, and developed it through to the final moments of the last episode. Here, there are two stories, and Luther’s character arc and motivation gets highly compressed, competing with space against both the “serial killer of the fortnight”plot and the attempt to wrap up last season’s loose ends.

He's a sharp one, that fellow...

There’s also the simple fact that Luther’s attempts to act as a surrogate father to a very damaged young girl aren’t nearly as fascinating as his flirtations with a calculating sociopath. It is surreal to see Luther in that sort of role after losing his wife, and the dynamic is certainly interesting, but it isn’t nearly as exciting or unpredictable as the relationship he shared with Alice Morgan. That’s not a knock on any of the actors involved, just an observation. And there’s not enough space in the series to develop how far Luther will go to protect her, and how far he will compromise himself. It might have been nice, for example, to develop the character of Frank – the corrupt cop involved in the criminal operation – as a contrast to Luther, but instead the suggestion he was a corrupt cop seems thrown in as an afterthought.

Another side effect of the compressed season schedule is that events themselves seem to be more radical and extreme than they were in the previous season, because they are pushed so close together, and plots are forced to accelerate. So the series seems a lot less plausible, for lack of a better word, with escalation after escalation. A regular cast member is kidnapped and tortured, a bus full of children are held hostage, a web camera feed broadcasts footage of a brutal beating live. Each of these elements would arguably work on their own as a premise for an episode, but stringing them all together strains the suspension of disbelief.

Laying it all out...

Although, to be honest, it does also give things a sense of scale. The second series does feel considerably “larger” in scale and scope than the first six episodes. Part of it is the decision to structure the season as two feature-length adventures, but another aspect is the type of serial killers that the show uses, running as plots through those episodes. The first season featured pretty much your “garden variety” psychopaths – international kidnappers, satanists, sexually frustrated cuckolded husbands – but the second season isn’t content to do the same sort of thing.

Instead, we get two serial killers who honestly could probably fit quite will among Batman’s selection of comic book foes, built around a central chaotic gimmick. The first killer is based around the idea of murder as “concept art”, which also serves as a nice little allusion to David Bowie’s 1.outside– I doubt it’s an unconscious reference given Luther’s fondness for the musician. The killer even wears a Mr. Punch mask while conducting his business, and it is genuinely unnerving, especially the way the scenes are shot.

Ice cream of the crop...

The second two episodes take things up a level again, with the ultimate LARP (“live-action role-playing”) competition between two twins, who decide to act out their own murder simulators in real life. The Batman comparison above isn’t just a creative flourish, as the twins decide their acts of violence, weapons, and even level of aggression, based solely on the random role of a dice. Two-Face would be proud. Things, again, escalate to the point where one badguy is wandering around an evacuated London with an explosive vest on him.

On one level, it’s certainly thrilling. It’s remarkable well-handled. In fact, the sequences with the twins do capture the horror of random violence perfectly – the attacks are unpredictable and genuinely terrifying. Notice for example, the tension during a small scene in a local cornershop, where it seems literally anything could happen. The sense of scale to the stories is also impressive, and there’s a genuinely creepy unease about both the stories here that the cast and crew should be commended for.

Luther in profile...

On the other hand, the shift in tone is so radical that it takes some getting used to. The first series was remarkably buttoned-down, so it seems strange to suddenly go so all out. There was a sense that any of the events portrayed in the first season could actually happen, while the two serial killers portrayed in the second season seem like creatures taken from a bad Hollywood thriller (albeit executed with far more skill than the observation suggests). In fact, there’s a risk that some of that intimate intensity might be lost in the sheer scale of these adventures. I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste. I didn’t mind, because I thought it was well-handled – but I probably preferred the original approach.

That said, there are some wonderful touches to the story. I do like the observations made in the first episode about how history tends to glorify serial killers, and it’s certainly a valid perspective, given the grim fascination with the murders of Jack the Ripper all these years later. It is sort of terrifying that these individuals end up playing such a large part in shaping and defining our shared cultural history, and that they continue to “haunt”us to this very day. It’s a nice little point for the series to hit on, and it illustrates why Neil Cross’ series works so much better than a lot of the other shows out there.

A killer friend...

Idris Elba continues to hit it out of the park in the title role, and I’m honestly glad to see him returning to British television. I miss a lot of the cast from the previous season, and those who were included were wasted. None of the replacements are nearly as compelling as Ruth Wilson, or even Paul McGann or Indira Varma. On the other hand, I think that Dermot Crowley is a wonderful asset to the cast. There’s a wonderful little interrogation scene in which the actor does a fantastic job, and might be one of the better police interrogations I’ve seen in quite a while.

Truth is, the season isn’t bad. It’s quite good. It’s just too short, and it doesn’t necessarily allocated the limited time that it has in the most logical fashion. Still, though the shift in scale of the stories might be a bit jarring, it’s generally well acted and cleverly written, and it remains one of the better “police procedurals” out there. But do yourself a favour and rent the first season for a glimpse of something really special.

2 Responses

  1. What a great commentary!! Is the show gone forever?

    • I don’t know. I thought they said they were looking for a way to get around Idris Elba’s Hollywood schedule? Much like they had to do with the second season.

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