[This is a review of Luther season 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
Of all of television’s great anti-heroes, Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther stands a good chance at being considered the anti-hero-iest of them all. It’s not often a character on one side of the law crosses over into renegade territory with such unvarnished intensity, and yet never quite completely takes the plunge into the dark abyss he has challenged to an epic staring contest. In crime fiction such as this, the uncertain navigation of humanity’s shadowy recesses helps present Luther in a specific light, one where Elba’s indomitable presence creates all the tension the show could ever need, really; turning each hour into a waiting game, one where the inevitable changeover thankfully never comes.
It is interesting, then, those moments when Luther presents its protagonist in distinctly superhero-like fashion, standing on a rooftop overlooking the city – his city – in a golden-hued dream sequence with his old partner, the late DS Ripley. Or, more deliberately, when Luther dons his signature trench coat, or as he revs up his old Volvo, a.k.a. the Luthermobile, before heading into the city, his self-imposed exile and planned excursion to São Palo called off on account of Alice Morgan’s apparent death during a botched diamond exchange in Antwerp.
The liminal state of the title character is perhaps his most appealing attribute, narrowly edging out his unorthodox methods and his detached use of coolly threatening body language. There’s a little bit of the nastiness that he’s hunting in John Luther, and while that is mostly played out at this point, as far as television detectives go, the idea of being caught between states factors in nicely to this sort-of season 4/feature-length TV movie that at times acts more perfunctorily than usual, while at others seems to suggest there’s still some life left in Luther after all.
The nearly three-hour-long event is at times intensely focused on the state between being good and bad as it is the state between being alive or dead. And at other times, it doesn’t seem to have much more to say about either beyond merely observing that it’s something we all experience on a daily basis and cope with in a variety of different ways. In the case of Geek Squad cannibal Steven Rose (John Heffernan), his delusional state of mind, brought on by what Luther diagnoses as Cotard’s syndrome – a rare mental condition causing those stricken to believe they are dead – actually serves to underline the central idea, but again, doesn’t necessarily expand upon it beyond a surface-level observation of the universality of death.
But Luther doesn’t give the audience much time to contemplate or wallow in the existentialism of it all anyway, preferring instead to pack its runtime with more plot threads and complications than you can shake a half-eaten heart at. In addition to chasing down said dead-alive killer Steven Rose and investigating the apparent death of the series’ didn’t-know-how-essential-she-was-until-she’s-gone element Alice Morgan, Luther is beset by the explosive murder of his fellow detective Theo Bloom (courtesy of hungry hunter Steven Rose), and has a bounty placed on his head after questioning the ultra-reasonable gangster George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide) about his connection to Alice’s waterlogged end. But that’s not all! The multi-directional assault on DCI Luther also includes Bloom’s aggrieved and vengeance-minded partner Emma (Rose Leslie), and the resurrection of a decades-old murder investigation during Luther’s formative years that not only shaped who he is now, but also apparently birthed his newest nemesis, Megan Cantor, formerly Sarah Roberts (Laura Haddock).
It is a lot of plot to take in, and most of it results in outrageously one-dimensional characters orbiting Idris Elba’s planet-sized onscreen presence. It would all feel superficial were it not for the diligence with which Luther connects the dots on its liminal through line, so as to try and present some idea behind it all. Luther’s customary station as a man on the edge is intensified by his mourning of Alice – or, as Megan’s insight points out: the idea of Alice – and for much of the two hours and forty-five minutes, it seems as though the impatient detective will find himself definitively placed on the other side of the line he’s been straddling for years now. But Luther remains the constant, treading water in the choppy ocean of the human condition, while those around him wash up on one shore or another.
The story works in a procedural sense, though it would have been more compelling had the characters not named John Luther been more than plot devices meant to push the narrative to an open-ended conclusion. It’s easy to excuse how uninteresting Steven Rose is; his bloody actions are what is important and they help position Luther on the edge of horror (psychological and otherwise), a place that fits the series like a glove. The same can’t really be said for Emma or Megan, as the lack of character development turns both into little more than stand-ins for characters the show had written off, or was apparently unable to wrangle into an appearance (thanks a lot, Showtime).
While it affords this chapter a certain narrative thrust, mostly pointing toward a future imbroglio involving Megan’s dysfunctionally functional paranoid sociopath, the dearth of Ruth Wilson actually hobbles Luther in a surprising way – mostly because it is so clearly waiting to be unwritten, should future Luther installments happen and Wilson find herself able to pull away from Dominic West and Joshua Jackson. In that sense, Luther finds itself in an oddly meta, post-Ruth Wilson state, temporarily poised in-between the end of one thing and the start of something new-ish.
The exploration of the intermediate point between two extremes is where Luther seems to work best, and it’s to the detriment of this event that it can’t spend more time there. Luther is a television show that needs to be treated as such, to capitalize on the time the medium affords its storytellers. As a movie or whatever you want to call it (even a nearly three-hour one), Luther struggles to balance its consideration of the human condition with plot elements in need of dramatic resolution. That results in the last ten minutes being reduced to a rattling, exhilarating, and yet overwhelmingly tidy sequence of events.
In the end, as Luther walks toward the camera, his trademark trench coat, steely gaze, and a musical cue from The Cure the only accessories he needs, Luther is successful in that is leaves the audience hungry for more. Sadly, that want is not from a desire to once again experience the pleasure of its consumption, but rather because this installment never quite feels like a complete meal.
Screen Rant will keep you posted on the future of Luther, as information is made available.