The A to Z Guide to BBC’s Luther
Mark Harrison | On 02, Aug 2014Reading time: 11 mins
With all four seasons of Luther now available on Netflix UK and BBC iPlayer, we provide an alphabetical guide to the mad, bad and dangerous world of John Luther. It’s a bit like a London A-Z, except you can’t really quantify spoilers for a city. In this case, we’ll be looking back at the first three seasons of the Golden Globe-winning show, so proceed with caution if you’re not fully up-to-date – or, if you’re getting ready for the upcoming Season 5, dive right in for an alphabetical catch-up.
We begin with Luther’s first adversary, a high-functioning sociopath who gets away with killing her own parents and becomes fascinated by Luther from then on. Ruth Wilson’s performance as a classic femme fatale has made her the show’s most popular character and the subject of persistent rumours of a spin-off series. She’s so indispensable that it’s tough to imagine a film spin-off could be a prequel, as speculated, without Luther’s own Irene Adler figure sharking her way around the proceedings.
Benny Silver, better known as Deadhead, is Luther’s go-to guy for tech support on investigations. First appearing in a few episodes of Season 1, he’s been hired as a full time member of the Serious and Serial Unit by the time Season 2 rolls around. We’re not sure that the Met has such job opportunities open to marijuana-smoking hackers with a penchant for World of Warcraft and King Crimson, but Michael Smiley’s likeable performance makes him an enjoyable presence throughout the series.
Need we say more? Luther isn’t Luther without that Paul Smith coat. Costume designer James Keast has described his look for John in the series as a mix of shades and textures and “no hope colours” to aptly sum up his tormented personality. There’s no more telling indicator of the importance of the coat than when Luther sends it fluttering into the Thames at the end of Season 3 – a firm turning point for his character, wherever he may go from there.
The technique by which David Bowie came up with the lyrics to his songs: “Take a bit of text, cut it up, randomise it, make new text, see new patterns.” Luther uses it to make sense of some of the downright mental and complex cases with which he’s presented. If nothing else, it’s worth mentioning for the revelation Luther still listens to tapes(!) of David Bowie and offers to make one for young Ripley.
DS Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is an interesting supporting character, who goes from being a dissenting voice against Luther’s methods to one of the architects of the investigation that almost brings him down. It really jumps up a notch when she teams up with DSU George Stark, (David O’Hara) the self-proclaimed “whirlwind” who is determined to bring Luther down for his misconduct. While we’re on the subject, E could just as well be for “Ethics”, for Erin’s faith in doing things by the book.
The first season of Luther is a run of six “case of the week” episodes that gets progressively better as we adapt to the more jarring clichés and a story arc starts to emerge. The subsequent seasons are both made up of a pair of two-parters, broadly connected by a smaller story arc. Perhaps only Sherlock is less forthcoming with its episode count, but the brevity of its run makes it ideal for a fast and involving binge watch.
The superior officer is an essential archetype in cop shows and Luther has two really good guvs: DSU Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves) has Luther’s back in Season 1, while DCI Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley) investigates him. After something of a baptism of fire in their working relationship, Schenk becomes the guv of the Serious and Serial Unit from Season 2 onwards. Both are strong characters, but Schenk is especially good thanks to his explosions of righteous anger, which Crowley plays so well.
Kidnapper and murderer Henry Madsen is integral to our morally shaky introduction to John Luther and his methods. Luther puts him in a coma after getting the information he needs from him in Season 1, Episode 1, and Madsen’s comatose state remains a constant source of tension. Madsen is also the lead antagonist in Neil Cross’ prequel novel, Luther: The Calling, which concludes with the opening scene of the TV series.
DCI Reed is Luther’s colleague and best mate when we first meet him, which makes his sudden yet inevitable betrayal all the more explosive. He’s not, strictly speaking, a bent copper, but things spiral out of control when he colludes in a diamond robbery that goes wrong – he winds up killing Luther’s wife, Zoe, framing his former friend for the crime and getting killed by Alice. Jeez, when things go wrong on this show…
Season 2’s mini-arc centres on Jenny (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), a teenage girl Luther rescues from the murky world of “death porn” into which she is being coerced. Our hero has a knack for making things personal in his police work and his rapport with Jenny rises to the foreground as the season progresses. It’s a shame that she’s completely disappeared in Season 3, apart from a postcard pinned up in Luther’s flat. She’s probably safer elsewhere, mind.
A highpoint of Season 3 happens midway through Episode 1, where the murder of an internet RIP troll is just one of the cases that troubles John. In an inversion of the usual formula, it becomes obvious that the father of a dead girl targeted by the troll (“Help me daddy, it’s hot in hell”) is the culprit. But Kev engenders huge sympathy and Luther’s cavalier attitude to justice permits him to hint that he could be arrested on the basis of the fingerprint evidence. This prompts a killer example of the kind of barmy lateral thinking that the show pulls off without skipping a beat, in which Kev destroys the evidence by sticking his hands in a blender. Ouch.
Who else could it be? Played so brilliantly by Idris Elba, John Luther is British TV’s answer to the anti-heroes of shows like The Shield. Prone to some dodgy but justifiable personal ethics (see also: M) and outbursts of rage, (see also: O) he’s a richly drawn and unpredictable character who has a knack for getting himself into the worst situations a copper can be in. There’s a telling moment in Season 1, Episode 2 where his estranged wife Zoe muses that he might have been happier as a priest than what he is, but the series wrings far more drama out of tormenting its lead to the brink of suicide, on the more gruesome path he has chosen.
Boy, there’s a lot of misconduct. Season 1 begins with a quite serious example (see also: H) and it carries on from there. Our favourite bits include playing Russian roulette with a cop killer and facing down a murderer with a can of gasoline. And then there’s the moment when he dangles a loan shark off a balcony, not two minutes after being placed under investigation for exactly this kind of thing by DSU Stark. As TV cops go, there’s bending the rules, deliberately not going by the book… and then there’s John Luther.
The baddies in Season 2’s two-parter conclusion represent the kind of shonky storytelling tropes that Luther pulls off admirably. Luther and co. pull in a Mr. Milberry for questioning after a series of violent killings which appear to be random. Steven Robertson plays both Milberyy and his twin brother with an eerie, unsettling calm, delivering one of the series’ best perps, twice over.
Our absolute favourite moments of the show might be the ones in which Luther’s temper gets the better of him. At least once a season, he loses it and overturns his desk or does some damage to the nearest fixtures his fists can reach – you could play a drinking game with it. Finish your drink if he also shouts at somebody else about the mess that he’s made afterwards.
Luther’s theme tune comes from Massive Attack’s fifth album Heligoland and it sets the tone nicely alongside the ink-blotted, moody opening title sequence. Paradise Circus is like the moodiest Bond theme song we never had. While we’re on the subject of music, P is also for Paul Englishby, who provides the show’s cracking score and incidental music.
As part of the aforementioned cop show clichés, not every line of dialogue that Cross puts to paper is a gem. But the clunkers are far rarer in the latter episodes and while it’s never really a show about CSI-style one-liners, there are some nice ripostes amidst the verbal showdowns.
One highlight is Schenk’s thunderous interrogation technique in Season 2: “I know men like you the way you know men like me, and I know you wouldn’t have done this if you believed there was the least chance of it coming back on you. Well, guess what. It’s come back on you like the Hand of God, and the next words from your mouth will determine the weight and velocity of the staggering tonnage of shit that’s about to plummet onto your head.”
Warren Brown plays newbie DS Justin Ripley, who sets about becoming Luther’s best bro over the course of the series. In the eyes of his superiors, he’s loyal to a fault, a fact that Luther exploits from time to time.
It’s probably just a matter of timing, but the first half of Season 2 is somewhat reminiscent of ITV’s Whitechapel, with Lee Ingleby as Cameron Pell, a copycat killer who reaches back to the Victorian urban legend of Spring-Heeled Jack as he embarks on a killing spree. It’s a solid guest turn from Ingleby, even if the character is very much a villain of the week.
Tom Marwood could well be the Big Bad of the entire show. A vigilante who appears to have the same loose ethics about justice as Luther himself, he offers the climactic contrast to our hero’s violent methods. He engenders some public sympathy as a kind of middle-class Punisher, avenging the rape and murder of his wife, but goes off the rails and secures his place as one of Luther’s most memorable enemies.
Foot chases are a fixture of the genre and Luther’s are particularly entertaining to watch because they imply a preternatural ability to carry on even after the suspect seems to have gotten away. The pursuit of Spring-heeled Jack in Season 2, Episode 1 is a prime example: he eludes Luther in a market, but our detective almost seems to pick him up again on scent alone. They could only be less credible if parkour was involved.
For a prime-time BBC One show, Luther is exceptionally violent. There’s gore aplenty and the squirm-worthy MO’s of its villains are almost a selling point. V is also for Vigilante (see also: T) and Luther’s relationship with violence (and its consequences for the people around him) are a big thematic reason why Season 3 feels so final.
The Cockney greeting is hardly a catchphrase – Luther isn’t really that kind of show. This London-ism is uttered quite a few times, as part and parcel of the setting, but seldom has it ever been more intense than when cop-turned-mob-enforcer Frank Hodge almost catches our hero disposing of a dead body in the finale of Season 2. “Wotcher.”
An “X” is a cross as well as an “X” and, luckily, we’ve got ample justification for that leap in logic. Neil Cross is the award-winning writer and creator of Luther. He penned every episode – contrary to the usual practice of a head writer commissioning others, which is becoming increasingly prolific in British TV. Luther is authored television and, in short, it doesn’t happen without Cross.
As The Lonely Island pointed out, YOLO also stands for this and nobody ever seems far from everyday danger in the London that’s portrayed here. Don’t let strangers into your house, because they might draw on the walls with your blood. Don’t trust taxi drivers, because they might be luring you to your doom. You can’t even stay in bed, in case there’s a murderer under there. You only live once, so for God’s sake, be careful.
We end, as we began, with the other woman in John’s life. Zoe looms large over the detective all the way through Season 1, with the occasional spark coming from the embers of their destroyed marriage. In later seasons, her memory only torments John further, leaving a lasting impression.
Luther Seasons 1 to 4 are on Netflix UK as part of a monthly subscription of £7.49. They are also available on BBC iPlayer until 18th April 2019.