Quick Take: Luther, "Episode 1"
"You do know the man is nitroglycerin?"
Review: Luther, "Episode 1"
(S0101) In many ways, the BBC miniseries (being broadcast on this side of the pond on BBC America) Luther reminds me of what works and what doesn't work for the most recent three seasons of Dexter. On the plus side of things, the main character is exceedingly interesting and his antagonist might even overtake him in that regard. But just like Dexter, the series focuses far too much on how interesting these characters are as characters and thus makes all of the ham-handed ancillary elements (plotting, supporting characters, backstory) that much more noticeable and distracting. That being said, Luther has a lot of promise if only for the cat and mouse game being played by John Luther and Alice Morgan.
The character Luther (Idris Elba) isn't breaking any new ground as a character trope: he's a genius detective with a big heart but wild methods that may always catch the criminal, but at the embarrassment of his department. And yet, Elba brings a charming, self-assurance to the role, many of those same elements that made his portrayal of Stringer Bell on The Wire so unforgettable. Elba deserves better roles than he has taken since The Wire ended and hopefully this is a sign of a future that doesn't include Obsessed 2 to pay the bills.
The series begins with Luther chasing a serial killer named Madsen through some sort of abandoned warehouse. The killer has a young girl hidden away somewhere with her oxygen quickly running out. Eventually the two meet on a high catwalk and Madsen ends up dangling from a hole in the middle (full confession: my DVR went haywire for a few seconds and I didn't really see how Madsen ended up hanging from the catwalk). Luther wont help pull Madsen up until the killer reveals where the girl is hidden, which he eventually does. Luther relays this information to his partners and the girl is saved in time. But then Luther makes no attempt to pull Madsen to safety and he falls several stories. Though he survives, he is put into a coma and Luther is given a seven month suspension.
His first case back is a doozy. An elderly couple and a dog are found dead in their home by their daughter, Alice (Ruth Wilson). The parents are shot once each in the back of the head; the dog is blasted away four times. There are no signs of robbery or sexual assault.
Alice is brought in for standard witness questioning and Luther realizes very quickly that she is the killer, even though he has no physical evidence to prove it. How does he know? He yawns in the interrogation room. She doesn't. Yawning is contagious apparently (I always thought this was just an urban legend, but I looked it up and apparently Mythbusters proved it to be true. They were unable to bust that myth) and clearly if she doesn't yawn, she's a psychopath.
There are several leaps like this made over the course of the episode and they are very, very frustrating. In another example, when the murder weapon can't be found, Luther realizes that the gun had been melted in the body of the dog where it had been hidden by Alice. It takes an oddly out-of-place scene where one of his colleagues explains that the new standard issue sidearm for the department is plastic. The conenction can be made between these two ideas, but it's hardly a logical one. I understand that the Luther character is almost always the smartest man in the room and his success at his job comes from his phenomenal instincts, but too many moments like this start to border on ridiculous.
Anyway, with nothing to hold Alice on, the department lets her go. Luther uses the pretext of delivering the dog's ashes to her to confront her about the crimes. He knows that part of her motive was to kill just to prove she could get away with it. She wants the attention and almost appears aroused by Luther's interest in the crime. He vows to take her down, but this isn't enough commitment to the game for Alice. After Luther meets with his soon-to-be ex-wife, Zoe, Alice follows him there. Once Zoe is alone, Alice grabs her from behind and pushes a needle against her neck. Alice doesn't have any intent to harm Zoe (at least not yet), but she does want to send a message to Lutherr: don't underestimate her.
This is the part of the review where I praise Ruth Wilson. I've never seen her in anything before this, but she's a major stand-out here and I'll be looking for more work from her in the future. In lesser hands, Alice could come across as a female Hannibal Lecter caricature, but Wilson gives her an added depth that's pretty unique to this type of roll. While Elba is taking a somewhat cliched character-type and making the best of it, Wilson is making a (mostly) new one all her own.
While the two main characters are great, just great, the supporting characters all seem pretty underwhelming so far. There's Luther's new partner, Justin Ripley; there's his old partner, Ian Reed; there's his boss, Rose Teller; and of course there's Zoe. I didn't provide much deeper description than that because there wasn't enough characterization to warrant it. Pilot episodes can sometimes put the minor characters on the backburner for the short-term, but with the series being only six episodes long, they need to make an impact soon to seem relevant.
Luckily, the give-and-take between Luther and Alice carries the hour and is engaging enough to get me to stick around for the rest of the series. Added to that, a brief preview of future episodes show that their already interesting relationship is about to get even more complicated.
More thoughts about "Chapter 1":
Video: Luther, "Episode 1"
Check out Idris Elba talking about his role on the show, from YouTube: