[WARNING – MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!!!]

Luther season 3 is sure to be debated like so many other series before it that have been accused (by some viewers) of deviating too far from center in later seasons. With just 4 episodes in which to close the saga of DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) there was much storytelling to be done, and showrunner Neil Cross split the season into two-episode halves, which both managed to sustain the style, tone, and twists that make Luther a police drama unlike almost any other (for better or worse). And yet, it often felt like somewhere lost in middle was the character that drove the series in the first place.

This show has always been distinguished by two things: its hero and its villains. The mad killers that Luther hunts have typically come in two varieties: nightmarish woman-killing stalkers and rampaging gunmen – and season 3 gave us both in the forms of serial killer protege Paul Ellis (Kevin Fuller), followed by psycho vigilante Tom Marwood (Elliot Cowan). While John Luther was (obviously) present in season 3, the thematic arc of the season had less to do with his inner workings and more to do with the question of where his character fits into the moral spectrum of today’s world, as measured by supporting characters like ‘Anti-Luther Squad’ members DSU George Stark (David O’Hara) and DCI Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird); DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown); or even new characters like Tom Marwood and Luther’s new “pixie” love interest, Mary Day (Sienna Guillory).

Sienna Guillory as Mary Day

While this larger perspective was an interesting way to bring final measure and closure to the exploration of who John Luther is, it also left us at a distance when trying to get back inside the head of the character himself. The season 3 opener spent a great deal of time indulging in either the sort of horror movie scares that has made Luther a no-go for plenty of female viewers (seriously, this show often depicts a woman’s worst nightmare of being attacked) – or setting up the ‘Anti-Luther Squad’ storyline, which ended suddenly and unceremoniously in the final episode when DSU Stark has his guts blown out by a marauding Tom Marwood. Very little actual Luther in there (the season, not the guts…).

Episodes two and three were more straightforward procedural stories – with episode 3 meant to be the big emotional stunner with the shocking death of Justin Ripley. However, again, with so little focus on the inner workings of our central character, the impact of Justin’s death (though utterly tense in the moment) arguably came off as unearned and unfelt, as the final episode quickly moved into a rapid “final showdown” scenario, with little (or at least, ineffective) time dedicated to examining how Luther deals with what his serial killer confidant Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) calls, “the loss of his puppy.”

In fact, the few Luther-centric moments we did get in the season were found in conversation scenes with the women in his life: Mary, Alice, and (to lesser extent) Erin Gray. In each of these instance we finally had those juicy character moments of Luther reflecting on and discussing his nature and contradictions of character – although bubbly Mary was a admittedly a lackluster substitute for more complex female characters from previous seasons, like Zoe (Indira Varma) or Jenny Jones (Aimee-Ffion Edwards). Still, the ladies helped sell what character drama was present in season 3, as Justin’s strangely marginalized and tangental presence in the seasonal story arch also robbed us of much of the Sensei/pupil dynamic that initially drove the series.

But there were themes to explore, of course, and so certain story/character elements had to be sacrificed to serve that larger thematic arc. Moral relativity has always been at the center of Luther, and this season took that notion to almost allegorical heights, creating a spectrum that had all of the dramatis personae laid out on either side – with Luther in the middle-gray area he’s always inhabited. Stark and Gray’s rigid moralism led them to make a tragic miscalculation; Justin’s naive moral idealism led him to his own demise; tragedy inspired both of the season’s “big bads” to become the twisted amoral souls they were – with Marwood’s skewed morality leading him to be the most “evil” character of all, killing Justin, the show’s embodiment of moral consciousness.

The conflicting moral philosophies built to a somewhat silly crescendo, so that the final minutes of Luther‘s run – a rooftop standoff between Luther, Tom Marwood, Mary and Alice – resulted in an obvious and melodramatic metaphor for our central character finally having to resolve his own moral conflict: to be a ‘good person’ like the appropriately-named Mary Day, or admit his dark nature, as has long been the wish of his kindred spirit, Alice Morgan.

Idris Elba and Warren Brown in ‘Luther’ Season 3

With Luther ultimately shedding his iconic trench coat and taking off with Alice for a life yet unknown (with his ties to his former life dead alongside his consciousness, Justin) we are ultimately left with a world view in which the righteous as often suffer worse than the wicked, and peace is found in accepting that moral gray at the center of things. Even good Mary ended up compromising herself, morally speaking – taking the fall so that Alice (the most morally compromising and therefore fulfilled character on this show) could make another sly escape from capture.

Sometimes a broader message comes at the cost of more intimate character development – and love it or hate it, that’s the route Cross chose in bringing his cult-hit series to a close. His views on morality and the need for it to be a malleable and adaptable idea isn’t a bad statement; however, it is also not one that I can say effectively cements the character of legacy of Luther in a distinctive and memorable way. Still, this is one of the best police procedurals to come along in years, and in the context of the entire series, Luther season 3 is a suitable (if not spectacular) finish to a good story.

Luther season 3 is currently available on VOD through BBC America; it will release on home video on September 10, 2013. Click the link to order it on Amazon.

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