For nearly a decade, Idris Elba has portrayed John Luther, the gruff and dysfunctional homicide detective on the BBC’s Luther, now in its fifth season. At this point in the series, Luther may as well be James Bond, the stoic film hero who Elba, despite his protestations, was long rumored to play once Daniel Craig retires. As a dreary British institution that sensationalizes violent crime, Luther persists.
In each season, John Luther confronts serial killers, deranged snipers, deadly fetishists, and quasi-Batman villains—no mere hooligans wielding knives, to be sure. Strangely, there’s little impressive detective work required to defeat these extremely convoluted killers. Luther doesn’t “solve” crimes with incomparable wit or peculiar insight; this isn’t Sherlock. Luther’s pursuit of suspects ends with him arresting them or, as is often the case, killing them. He outmaneuvers his opponents by his superior athleticism and sheer ubiquity. Luther’s tactics are aided by the security cameras that blanket London on the show, which calls into question how much of the criminals’ apprehension is the result of good detective work or the benefit of massive surveillance in a major metropolitan area.
John Luther tears across crime scenes with totalitarian determination, though he rarely manages to save anyone the viewer cares about. In the show’s first couple of seasons, Luther agonized about his relationship with his estranged wife, Zoe, and her new boyfriend, Mark; his bushy-tailed partner, Justin Ripley; his weary colleagues; his treacherous partner, Ian Reed; and his trickiest rival, Alice Morgan, the one character on the show who endures despite all attempts by the series writers to kill her off. Outside of Morgan, the rest of these characters are all dead or gone, and their fates were decided largely as a result of Luther’s renegade police work. In the show’s fifth season, which premiered this month on BBC America, Luther’s passion has disintegrated, his workplace is depressurized, his home life is annihilated, and his prime suspects are a boring married couple with dark kinks. So Luther reduces its main character to his TV archetype: a vaguely traumatized detective whose job has violently displaced his life, and thus, has become his life entirely.
Luther is at its worst, and at its best, when it is overbearing in its pessimism. The series puts its characters through the meat grinder. There is no other police procedural where a key character is more likely to get killed in the most senseless, gruesome fashion. A stabbing on Luther is more vivid and painful than a stabbing on any other cop show. By design, Luther bums the viewer out. According to Elba, Luther shoots exclusively in autumn and winter so as not to let London’s sunshine brighten the show’s mood. “It’s a tough show to make,” Elba says, citing the morbid plot lines and the grim resources required to render them realistically. “It’s depressing.” For five seasons now, Elba’s character has been fueled, ironically, by his own exhaustion. Luther sloshes through his investigations with great physical resilience despite the heavy fatigue brought on by the malaise of traumas from seasons past, which have sapped him of almost all romantic traces. He’s overextended. Luther will lose track of time by slipping away from a crime scene to survey an unrelated fiasco, thus tempting fate in time-sensitive confrontations. “Where have you been?” his supervisor will demand to know. By 5 p.m., Luther has been all over London—his long, wool coat is a signature feature of his wardrobe, but his five o’clock shadow is a character unto itself.
Luther remains popular in the U.K., though far less acclaimed in its most recent seasons. In the abysmal fourth season, Luther’s police work became tedious. He ran errands. He made stupid, counterproductive mistakes at an excruciating crawl. For the past few years, Elba’s fans have gently regarded Luther as the stale commitment from which he needs to escape. That’s the dream. Sherlock—another BBC detective drama with impressive stateside reach—has gone on long breaks between seasons as its costars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, have become Hollywood stars. Elba has joined Cumberbatch and Freeman in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though Elba has described his marginal role in the MCU as somehow more dreary than Luther.
Elba has struggled to exceed his character in Luther in his other big, leading Hollywood roles, such as Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom and the Commandant in Beasts of No Nation. For Elba, John Luther, a weather-beaten detective with his ratty gray coat, has become the counterexample to James Bond, a spy wearing a $5,000 tuxedo jacket, whom bureaucrats repeatedly brief about his own obsolescence. Craig has earned a dream salary by playing Bond in four films, with another on the way in 2020, even if the Bond role is no longer Craig’s dream job. Elba still has a career peak ahead of him. But the actors and their respective franchises aren’t so far apart in acclaim these days. The most recent Bond movie, Spectre, resembles a BBC series far more than the movie resembles its predecessor, Skyfall. Spectre reimagines a previously egocentric series as a feel-good teamwork drama starring an ensemble cast. Meanwhile, Luther has gotten half of his original ensemble killed. By the season’s end, he’s the last rat standing.
In the fifth season, Luther pursues the serial killer Jeremy Lake by day, while hounding the high-class gangster George Cornelius, whom Luther enraged in the previous season, in overtime. Alice Morgan, played by Ruth Wilson, returns as Luther’s whimsical stalker and swiftly reestablishes herself as the prevailing complication in Luther’s life. Luther’s boss, the old-school detective superintendent Martin Schenk, returns in league with the new detective sergeant, Catherine Halliday, a young, naive bureaucrat. Schenk instructs Luther to behave, for once, to impress Halliday before she’s inevitably promoted above them both. “Don’t show her how it’s done,” Schenk advises Luther. “Show her how it should be done.” In his classic fashion, Luther must deceive his superiors to resolve criminal entanglements which he’s cultivated, largely thanks to Morgan, in his off hours. Having learned nothing from the death of several friends and colleagues in previous seasons, Luther breaks the rules and sneaks around only to reveal himself once again to be the most reckless detective in London.
Familiarly, Luther dispenses with rules and transparency once there’s a screeching kidnapped woman who won’t survive the time required to honor due process. Initially, Halliday will balk at Luther’s methods—but of course, she will come to understand that it’s all for the best. This is how Luther works, and it’s also how the Bond movies work. Elba does want to star in a film. He wants to make a Luther movie. It’s already in the works, he says. Meanwhile, Craig doesn’t really want to be making another Bond movie. Elba and Craig may as well trade roles. In either character’s shoes, they might maintain their distinct significance in representing the U.K., in all its modern anxiety, before a global audience. For England, James.