Over the past few years, Neil Cross has continued to cultivate a particular brand of gritty, bleak storytelling that has more or less become his signature style. While he’s written for Doctor Who and even NBC’s ill-fated Crossbones, he’s likely best known for his collaboration with Idris Elba as the titular hardbitten detective in Luther. Since Elba’s star has been on a precipitous rise, the series has only intermittently appeared on television since 2010, with the last outing airing in 2015. And during that time, Cross has written increasingly dark stories, like the 2013 horror film Mama, and 2018’s dreary, semi-sci-fi drama Hard Sun, which was so persistently gloomy and brutal it made Luther look like Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
In other words, Cross has staked a claim in a particularly barren and desolate area of television storytelling: the ultra-bleak crime show. And as he’s evolved as a writer and graduated to stories involving increasingly brutal and often convoluted depictions of criminal activities — mostly murder — he’s taken Luther along with him. This was particularly evident during Luther season 4, which had to make do without Ruth Wilson’s brilliant but psychotic Alice Morgan, and the peculiar relationship she enjoys with DCI John Luther. The result was a heavy installment, in which the detective, on a leave of absence, must contend with a cannibalistic serial killer, as well as his myriad personal demons that make him one of the last standing “difficult men” on television.
At the start of season 5, Cross seems interested in pushing the envelope further with regard to tone and just how gritty and violent things can get before the audience turns away. Given the fan base that both Elba and show have curried favor with over the past nine years, it’s safe to say that few will turn away from Cross’s latest sadistic killer, who shares some similarities with Thomas Harris’s Francis Dollarhyde as well as any number of bloodletting psychopaths who’ve either appeared on Luther or not.
The first hour introduces the killer, who stalks the streets of London wearing a semi-translucent clown mask and a ring of LED lights around his hood to confuse the many CCTV cameras around the city. It’s a startling look, one that lends an eerie, almost supernatural air to the killer, as the series picks up moments after his latest kill — the victim was found with dozens of nails driven into his body — and just before he kills again — this time, the young hoodlum had his eyes and tongue ripped out and absconded with.
It’s not long before Luther is on the case with his new partner, Detective Sgt. Catherine Halliday (Wunmi Mosaku, The End of the F*cking World), a civilian who’s part of a new pilot program to increase the ranks of the police force and fill it with some new blood (in a bit of meta-commentary, it’s tacitly implied that guys like Luther are on the way out). But before Luther can start chasing down the latest high-concept killer, he has to contend with cranky gangster George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide, Game of Thrones), who is convinced Luther knows the whereabouts of his kidnapped son. Though Luther doesn’t know where the kid is, he will soon come to find out he knows the person responsible, and that individual was recently thought dead.
It doesn’t take much sleuthing figure out who the mystery person is, and the first hour doesn’t exactly play coy that Ruth Wilson’s Alice is (in fact she’s appeared in marketing materials from the series prior to the premiere), though she has a limited role to play at first. As such, the first hour is mostly business as usual, a Luther and Halliday catch a break in their investigation of the new killer when his therapist, Vivien Lake (Hermione Norris), pays them a visit and points them in his general direction. Both detectives think there’s more to what Lake is telling them, and use her as a way of getting to the killer, after he strikes again, brutally murdering a woman on a bus before doing the same to the driver. When the detectives catch up with the masked man, it all wraps up a little too conveniently, leaving them to question what they missed. It’s not long before they figure out something’s not right with Lake or the man she accused of being the killer.
It’s a busy first hour that puts Luther back on a familiar path — one where he’s the top dog leading up the investigation, and where his cynicism and weariness cause him to toe the line when it comes to ethics of the way he approaches his handling of the legal system. It also reunites Elba with Wilson, affording the title character a key relationship that, oddly, works as a necessary leavening agent to a show that can sometimes feel dismally bleak. With that, Luther season 5 feels free to tackle its twin storylines — the hooded murderer and the pending violence from George Cornelius — with the sort of energy that hasn’t been seen since season 3 aired in 2013. Though its brutality can take a toll, BBC America is wisely parsing the season out one week at a time, making it a bit easier to tune in for.
Luther season 5 continues next Sunday @8pm on BBC America.