UK TV review: Luther Season 5
James R | On 06, Jan 2019
“Is this normal?” DS Halliday (Wunmi Mosaku) asks Luther (Idris Elba), as they look at the victim of a sadistic killer. Eyes removed? Tongue gone? Luther staring coldly into the distance like he’s the Ghost of Christmas Past who just spotted Scrooge in the Co-Op over the road? Yep, this is normal. Welcome back to Luther for the fifth – and possibly final – time.
Neil Cross’ gruesome cop drama has always enjoyed living on the edge of plausibility – how else could a show get away with such gory extremes for the sake of it? Or bring people back to life for convenient dramatic effect? Or have a man who wears the same coat for eight years without it getting so much as a frayed lapel? Season 5, which doubles its episode count from Season 4’s two-parter, naturally has twice as much codswallop in it, as we yet again find ourselves face to face with a brutal murderer – and Luther once again finds himself caught between a convoluted string of double-crosses and personal vendettas.
The killer in question is swiftly presented to us as James Houser, a patient of Vivien (the icily brilliant Hermione Norris), a psychiatrist who approaches the police to reveal concerns about him. But, of course, things aren’t quite as they appear, and the relationship between her and Houser is overshadowed by the twisted bond between her and her husband, Jeremy (Enzo Cilenti), a surgeon with his own disturbing predilections.
As the season continues, we’re shown a string of deaths at this killer’s hands, with one night bus sequence made even more chilling by the perpetrator wearing a mask with LED lights sewn into it to block his face from CCTV cameras. That grisly parade, coupled with Norris’ superb performance – was she actually aware of what’s going on or not? – makes for a familiar but effective whodunnit, the increasingly well-worn formula livened up somewhat by the introduction of the excellent Wunmi Mosaku as new recruit Halliday.
But it soon becomes clear that Luther Season 5 wants to tell another story, as it kicks off with Elba’s detective dragged away to be handcuffed to a chair and interrogated. Asking the questions? None other than George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide), everyone’s favourite East End kingpin. His return inevitably leaves you waiting for the fellow return of Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), the third part of their seemingly never-ending triangle of payback. Given her presence everywhere in the posters and trailers for the season, it’s no spoiler to say that she does, indeed, appear, and the more screentime that this half of the story gets, the better – and worse – Luther becomes.
Some other old faces also make an appearance, including Luther’s boss, Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley), and Michael Smiley’s Benny, although you may not end up very pleased with the latter’s return. But there’s no point in pretending that this isn’t the Luther and Alice show, and Elba and Wilson’s chemistry is as sparky as ever, as Luther tries to keep her in check and out of police hands, and she tries to wreak as much havoc as possible.
By balancing her storyline with the serial killer of the week case, though, the problem is that both strands of the narrative end up feeling shortchanged; by the final two episodes, Vivien’s intriguing situation sometimes almost seems forgotten about, while Alice and George’s back-and-forth escalates so much that it becomes more than a little convoluted.
It’s when we stand still to catch breath – and Luther gets the chance to plea with George for the eye-for-an-eye exchange to end – that Season 5 really comes to life, as Elba’s gruff, weary performance carries the weight of all four previous seasons with him. By the time we reach the finale, he’s basically just a bag of gravel with legs.
That kind of hard-edged persona, though, requires some serious blows, and this potentially final outing for Cross’ copper doesn’t skimp on that front. Sadly, the need to squeeze all that into an already stuffed four hours means that some characters get either unfairly sidelined, or – in the case of Alice – turned more into plot devices than rounded people. It’s Wilson’s performance that keeps Alice excitingly unpredictable to watch, even when her behaviour borders on the illogical – and Crowley’s Schenk who holds the threads together with a convincing mix of sympathy and stern discipline. The result doesn’t necessarily wrap things up in the tidiest way, but ends with a surprising flourish that takes Luther the character to an interesting place – and nonetheless leaves you wanting more.
Luther Season 5 is available on BBC iPlayer until January 2020.
Additional case notes (contains spoilers)
– First thing’s first: a minute’s silence for Halliday, who was frankly wasted by being bumped up in a way that felt a little too predictable. A promising young recruit who was both a fan of Luther and still held him to account? Of course she was destined for the fridge. RIP.
– Who should bump her off than Alice? Her bullet-to-the-head dispatch felt a little too rapid and cold-hearted, as Luther’s lover/confidante/nemesis cracked when she discovered that he had lied to her: he told her he had bumped off Cornelius, when, actually, he and the crime boss had reached a truce. Angry and paranoid after a long time running from him and trying to get even, she first tried to take out Cornelius with a machine gun from a neighbouring rooftop (Schenk and troops arrived to arrest him and escort him out) then rallied on Luther, shooting him in the chest.
– Their resulting on-foot chase was gripping stuff, but then ended disappointingly in her hanging from some scaffolding (Luther trying to pull her back up) and her voluntarily letting go. It’s a shame, because Halliday deserved better than a half-baked rampage just to put Luther and Alice on firmly different pages. It’s a double shame, because we definitely see Alice’s demise this time, which means she isn’t coming back – and that drastically reduces the odds of Luther as a programme returning. Doesn’t it?
– Maybe not, as the final twist saw Luther arrested by Schenk for the death of Alice, and the death of Halliday – and also that of Benny.
– Yes, Benny got it too, and it was a real shame to see Michael Smiley’s always likeable twinkle expunged. That death came courtesy of assassin Palmer (Anthony Howell), who was hired by Cornelius to wipe them all out, including Luther. But Luther’s pleas for a truce were heeded, for once, and so the duo conspired to take out Palmer (who wouldn’t listen to his orders to stand down), rescuing Alice and Mark from a hostage trap, but not managing to stop Palmer from killing Benny. With Luther taking out Palmer, though, Cornelius managed to catch him doing so on camera – implicating him not only in that killing, but the connected death of his colleague. Keeping the gun and photo as evidence, it’s leverage that George will store for future use, and to ensure that their truce stays, well, truceful.
– If all that sounds a little over-complicated, you’re not wrong, and Luther’s fifth season struggles to fit all that into two episodes, as it tries to satisfy every fan’s desire to see come-uppances for all the main characters and be surprised in the process.
– All this means there’s no real time to tidy up the Jeremy storyline, but the surgeon turns out to be killer, helped and enabled by his wife, Vivien. She’s just as bad as he is, trying to kill a woman he locks in their basement out of jealousy – but getting caught in the act by Luther and Halliday. As for Jeremy, he’s picked up at the house of the victim from Episode 1, where he’s ordering in a plumber and other unwitting people to come to the property, so he can play “Happy Families” (read: kill them all in a weird way). Luckily, it all gets nipped in the bud (but not before London loses a much-need plumber), but it feels like an afterthought compared to Luther’s personal drama – especially when it comes to Jeremy leaving a secret message to the cops in his crazed psychopath drawings that exposes Vivien’s guilt.
– The result is a little uneven, but just about worth it for the unexpected ending of seeing Luther in cuffs – a final price to pay for all the loss and pain he’s caused to those orbiting around him? Season 6, if it does happen, may one day give us the answer.