Posted by Liam Dodds on December 04, 2010 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , ,

Luther. BBC, 2010.

Reviewed by Liam Dodds, University of Stirling.

Nothing gets me quite as excited as a serial killer. My ideal dinner party is probably Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, Patrick Bateman, Dexter Morgan, and a nice Chianti. Perhaps, the only comparison I can hope to make is my fascination with the “maverick detective”, see: Philip Marlowe, Inspector Rebus, Gene Hunt, Dexter Morgan. This, perhaps, places me in the rather awkward position of hoping the serial killer continues in their joyous serial killing ways, whilst hoping the “maverick detective” spirals further into hopeless despair, thereby fulfilling their role as “maverick detective”. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series fulfilled both functions in the figure of Dexter Morgan. As the conscientious serial-killer/maverick blood-splatter analyst, Dexter Morgan kills his criminal victims in accordance with the “Code of Harry”, instructions laid down by his “maverick detective” father in order to fulfil the insatiable murderous lust of Dexter’s internal “Dark Passenger” whilst contributing to society. Then, Dexter, *shiver*, settled down, started a family, and I lost interest.

Neil Cross’ BBC drama, Luther filled the subsequent serial killer/maverick detective shaped hole in my life.

Idris Elba as Luther

As a Detective Chief Inspector in the Serious Crimes Unit, John Luther (Idris Elba, The Wire) “serves his own idea of moral order as much as the rules and codes of criminal law”. DCI John Luther is “a troubled man”, a “philosophical cop possessed by the insoluble problem of evil and justice in a Godless world”. Maverick Detective? Check. The roads of history are littered with the corpses of iconic maverick detectives. However, Luther is different. The detective defines the crime fiction novel. The first school of crime fiction is the mystery genre, exemplified by Sherlock Holmes, whereby the genius, lone-maverick or eccentric detective, solves the puzzle by the accumulation of clues only the detective can see. The second school of crime fiction is exemplified by the battered and bruised anti-hero maverick detective of Philip Marlowe, or Inspector Rebus: the morally corrupt, dangerous detective driven by their desire, their drive, to “get their man”. Luther is both. Imbued with passion, humanity, Luther is a compelling cerebral detective, yet retains an alpha-male, menacing edge. Regardless of consequences, regardless of procedure, Luther is driven by his desire to do “what is right”, albeit with a partiality for planting evidence, bribery, blackmail, and extortion.

Henry Madsen, the child serial killer, is the catalyst for the drama. As investigating officer, Luther purses Madsen to a precipitous walkway suspended high above a turbine in a disused industrial estate, where, inevitably, Madsen slips. Luther extracts a confession from the prone Madsen to the location of his final victim. Luther, however, fails to prevent Madsen’s fall, into the turbine, and into a ticking time-bomb coma for the remainder of the season: Madsen perpetually threatens to derail Luther’s career through his disclosure of Luther’s role in “the incident”.

Saskia Reeves as DSU Rose Teller

Subsequent to an external investigation into his role in “the incident”, Luther is allowed to return from the frozen wilderness of “gardening leave” to resume his role as Detective Chief Inspector of the Serious Crimes Unit. Cue pressure on the Detective Superintendent Rose Teller from commanding officers, who inform Teller her position is determined by the success, or failure, of the “nitro-glycerine” DCI John Luther. Cue drama.

Now, the serial killers. Owen Lynch, the former soldier turned serial-cop-killer, guns down police officers in an attempt to resolve residual family tensions with his incarcerated father, an ex-soldier imprisoned for the murder of a police officer whilst on leave from Iraq.

Paul Rhys as Lucien Burgess

The delicious Lucien Burgess, an highly functioning, occult book store owning, celebrity serial-killer in the mould of Patrick Bateman, has a penchant for face-licking and exsanguination. The rapidly-escalating killing spree of sexually frustrated taxi-driver Graham begins with a predilection for sniffing women’s handbags and ends with Jack Torrance door destruction (incidentally, taxi-driver Graham is the family-man, “taxi-driver”, of Cathedral City cheese commercial fame, greeted by his wife after an evening of, presumably, taxi-driving-serial-killing, with a cuppa and a cheese toastie).

The compelling, brilliant, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson, Jane Eyre) is that most unique of beings, the female serial killer.  A child protégé, Alice Morgan attended Oxford at thirteen, achieved her PhD in Dark Matter Distribution at the age of eighteen, and currently acts as a university research fellow, yet her greatest achievement is the efficiently brutal murder of her parents, and their dog.

Ruth Wilson as Alice Morgan

A “malignant narcissist”, Alice murders her parents, and refuses to hide, or deny her guilt, in what Luther describes as her quest for “prestige, power, [and] self-affirmation”. The interview Luther conducts in his investigation into the death of Alice’s parents introduces the affinity between Luther and Alice. Alice is Luther’s enemy, but quickly becomes Luther’s confidante, and muse: Alice is Luther’s Moriarty, and yet, may not even exist. Alice, like Dark Matter, which constitutes the universe, but which does not interact with things we can observe in the ways that we expect, does not interact with the things we can observe in ways that we could expect. Alice’s presence, like the presence of Dark Matter, can only be inferred from her perceived influence on visible matter. Alice may not exist outside the mind of Luther, her presence can only be inferred from her influence on Luther’s actions, his brutal, ruthless, merciless, pursuit of the criminal.

The world of Luther is heightened, theatrical, depicting characters pushed to the edge, to their extreme. Presented in subtle, neutral tones, contrasted with sharp highlights of dramatic colour, Luther juxtaposes architecture of the 1950s and 1970s with the postmodern skyline of contemporary London. Framed such that the characters exist in the borders, in the extremes of the image, Luther framing is skewed to reflect Luther’s worldview, reflecting the methodology of Luther’s pursuit of the criminal. Reflections, compositions, shapes and lines reflect the moral codes of Luther who views his world strictly in terms of right and wrong, or, more accurately, views the pursuit in terms of what is right.

Indira Varma as Zoe Luther and Paul McGann as Mark North

Perceptions and perspectives shift and alter as the image is created through windows, through reflections, in mirrors, or obscured through opaque surfaces. The absence constructed in the centre of the Luther frame becomes the space for thought, the space of contemplation, where Luther and Alice collide. The space appears as a shared unconscious, a space where contemporary London interjects, which, in accordance with the juxtaposition of architectural styles, implies a timelessness from which the viewer can infer that the events could happen at any time, that the events could happen to anyone, and, rather disturbingly, that anyone could be the serial killer. The shared unconscious may affect any character in the drama. In the conclusion of the series, where the heightened unreality of Luther’s world spirals into chaos, the shared unconsciousness infects the actions of all the players as questionable motives and questionable actions beget further questionable actions, as thoughts are shared, infect and spread through the absence in the centre of the frame. Furthermore, the extreme composition of the frame forces the viewers to place themselves in the centre of the worldview of Luther. The audience, therefore, become complicit in the skewed, or heightened, worldview of the maverick detective: the game is afoot for the audience, as much as the detective. The audience wills every failure to adhere to procedure, every rule that is broken, every piece of evidence planted, in order to achieve the shared capture of the serial killer.

Set in postmodern London, against the backdrop of the hyper-visible London Eye, permeated with reflections, windows, and mirrors which serve to highlight that the viewer is “viewing” an image, Luther represents the detective of an hyper-visible “city of glass”. The absence at the centre of the frame, the constructed space where thoughts, motives, and influences collide, is representative of the postmodern conception of hyper-visibility. The shared unconscious renders notions of individuality, or interiority, impossible. Luther, therefore, is representative of the postmodern detective, which is reflected in the structure of the episodes. The opening scenes identify the serial killer, portray his actions, depict their emotions. The crime, the criminal, is rendered hyper-visible, overly-present for the viewer. The episode becomes a pursuit, rather than an investigation, the tension resides in whether, or to what extent, Luther will manipulate the law to his own advantages, to his own ends. The hyper-visibility of the crime, and of the criminal, is evident in Luther’s intellectual leaps. Luther is not rational, Luther does not logically deduce the motives of the criminal,  nor Luther does meticulously reconstruct the crime scene, rather Luther is impulsive, his judgements are made with a seeming predestination that demonstrates that knowledge is always available to him, always present at hand. However, if motives are readily visible, always available, if notions of interiority are rendered impossible, then the killer does not need a reason: motives are rendered irrelevant.  There is nowhere to hide, so why hide? The hyper-visionary postmodern detective does not pursue psychopathic serial killers, the postmodern detective creates them.

If you are in a room with someone, face them, directly, and yawn. Did they yawn? “Yawning is contagious”, Luther states, stems from parts of the brain which deal with empathy, understanding. If the individual opposing you did not yawn, then you are sharing a room with a violent sociopath, you should probably get out, preferably without making any sudden movements. You could be sharing a room with the next Alice Morgan. In which case, I am jealous. They could come to my dinner party, ask them to bring the fava beans.

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