The BBC’s compelling crime drama Luther returns to American shores by pulling a half-Netflix, if you will. You can binge, but only after four days: BBC America will air the four-part miniseries (also know as Season Three) on consecutive nights. It’s a nice schedule for rabid viewers, particularly as the show’s stakes have never been higher.
On the flip side, Luther is not without its flaws. There are those who have said the show can be unnecessarily and cartoonishly violent (criticism I’ve lobbed at shows like Sons of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire) while wanting to remain serious. But while the third season certainly doesn’t shy away from these moments, it also retains, as it always has, a good sense of what fans want to see when all is said and done. Hit the jump for more on the show’s potentially polarizing final season.
Luther is not high art, but it tricks us into thinking it is because of Idris Elba. He has made John Luther a heroic character — his despair, his swagger, his unflinching desire to do the right thing by any means, not to mention that gray coat that matches both the color and texture of his perma-stubble. But does the show live up to the bar he’s set?
NPR’s Terry Gross once said on her show Fresh Air that she found Luther a terrifying watch. She’s not wrong. The show has always traded in villains who are ruled by chaos and evil. It gives the impression that on any day, any person could be brained via hammer by a maniac. While that might on some theoretical level be true, Luther brings the idea home in a very personal and immediate way.
Sometimes the carnage on the show goes beyond the pale though, especially given that everyone Luther knows and has ever known ends up dead regarding some connection to him. In the third season, the show deals with that fact in a very meta, self-reflexive way. A special investigator (David O’Hara) is brought on to look into Luther being crooked, because surely (at least to an outsider), with all of these people dying around him, he’s doing something wrong. If he’s not killing them himself, what is he doing to help hasten their demise?
This subplot begins as a frustrating one, because Luther has always unequivocally been a hero. Viewers’ irritation at those trying to bring Luther down though just goes to show how connected we are to the character, which is one of the show’s great legacies. But in the final two episodes things are resolved in a way that — typical to Luther himself — are good surrounded by bad. The villains this season aren’t particularly scary or emotional, they’re just strange (or boring, when prone to soliloquies), but the hunt for Luther by the investigator (a plot similar to ones explored in Dexter and even House) is what really gives emotional drive to the season.
The show makes some choices in its third season that are likely to polarize viewers, but in the end it does what it has always done: provide incredible entertainment with shocks and surprises and shootouts. In hindsight, Luther‘s plot devices are fairly crazed. But the ride along the way never fails to be anything but great. (And of course, the other aspect of the series that makes it so interesting and different from other rogue-cop dramas is fan-favorite Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) — her return to assist her old friend in this season is both emotional and noble).
Ultimately though, the one thing that truly saves the show from being too derivative or too out of control though is simply Elba. His Luther is a savior of the common man (or woman) who always wears the white hat, even though it’s been beaten and dusted. The show concludes in a way fans should mostly appreciate, and there’s also the promise of a prequel movie that will complete the story of John Luther. And his story, thanks to Elba, will always be an iconic, despite the series’ other flaws.
Luther Series 3 Premieres Tuesday, September 3 at 10/9c on BBC America