It’s that most wonderful time of the year… where the BBC brings out its post-festive big hitters. And there are none as big as one of its biggest international success story Luther, returning tonight for its fifth (and final?) season. After a decidedly bum note of a truncated fourth run, the broadcaster has gone to great lengths across a long promotional campaign to indicate this new series is a return to form, dropping spoilers galore about the return of certain characters (more of that later) and how Luther will face his greatest test to date (doesn’t he always?).
I should probably state for the record I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with the show. Like many, I was blown away when it first stepped on the scene at the turn of the decade (yes, it’s been that long), and it’s overwrought comic-book styling and pantomime villains were like nothing else in the genre at the time. It had a certain sense of creative freedom to it, a penchant for breaking the narrative rules that made other shows look stale in comparison. But upon re-watching all the seasons back to back in preparation for its return, there definitely felt like a law of diminishing returns was present as it progressed – and it certainly hasn’t aged well in some other regards. However, the more outlandish it got the more popular it became – but by the end of the fourth season it seemed that writer Neil Cross was running out of steam – and ideas (his attention focused elsewhere at the time on the woeful Hard Sun). So truth be told, I was done with the show – did it really need another series?
But Luther as a show really lives or dies by the juggernaut charm of it’s lead Idris Elba. Now a bonafide Hollywood star in his own right, his muscular acting style was the driving force behind what made the show so entertaining in the first place. Without him you might argue the show would have died off years ago, but the combination of his rising stock abroad as a film star and the show’s broad brushstrokes vision of Britain as a grimdark neo-Victorian slum chock full of demented serial killers seems to have struck a note globally, where the show has been sold to over 230 territories, bagged multiple awards for it’s leading man and even inspired remakes in South Korea and Russia.
So we return to the world of Luther and everything is as you would expect. We open on him doing what he does best – relentlessly tearing after some unfortunate criminal through an unmarked industrial wasteland. Of course, he’s as delightfully surly and terminally exasperated as usual – just how we like him. Unfortunately, the reward for him nabbing another toerag is a light tasering to the neck and a quick kidnapping when old-school gangster George Cornelius (the wonderful Patrick Malahide) demands an audience. George’s son has gone missing – presumed being held to ransom by persons unknown – and the crime boss suspects Luther knows his whereabouts. Even with a quick game of Russian roulette out the way, Luther can’t say what he doesn’t know and subsequently MacGyvers his way out of the situation thanks to a loose chair screw and some fisticuffs. George releases Luther and warns against him getting involved – but we all know how that will go.
Elsewhere London is portrayed as the usual nocturnal playground of sleazy deviants we’ve come to expect from the show, when an unfortunate hoodlum witnesses somebody being murdered through a basement flat window and is subsequently hunted down by the killer sporting a rather festive light-up LED mask. His body is discovered the next morning with its eyes and tongue cut out in a frank display of what happens to nosy neighbours. Luther surveys the scene with new recruit DS Halliday (Wunmi Mosaku), who is a fast track addition from the public sector much to DSU Schenk’s consternation. Her mixture of procedural greenery and studious understanding of psychotic behaviours already has me worried for her fate from the first scene – this is Luther after all. Speaking up for any latecomers to the show, Halliday asks “Is this normal?” to a bemused looking Luther.
Their investigations lead them back to the scene of the original murder – where a poor soul called Paul Redford whose use of dating apps (apparently the default gateway to getting yourself killed) has led him to being nailed to death in what looks like an over-eager crucifixion or an explosion in a B&Q carpentry section. Back at the station, Luther suggests the killer is clearly getting more brazen and that this behaviour doesn’t exist in a vacuum – so whilst the gang try and dig up old files that point towards this type of activity, he enlists Benny Silver (Michael Smiley) to keep tabs on George’s activities off the books, whilst Schenk looks on disapprovingly from afar.
We’re then treated to a quarter of an hour of what feels like absolute filler, as Benny and Luther enlist the talents of petty criminal Errol to eavesdrop on George’s ransom call. Being the wily old gangster he is, George immediately suspects an increasingly panicked Errol is up to no good and sends the detectives on a wild goose chase through London to find the informant’s whereabouts, as he lays stranded in an abandoned warehouse with a bomb collar around his neck. It’s all a bit frantically silly and frankly unnecessary, given that it cuts attention away from the active investigation – thereby dissipating any tension – although it’s good fun to see George go the full Old Testament with a pump-action shotgun when he tries to kill the assailant that supposedly kidnapped his son. Does this relate in some way to the main case? Only time will tell…
With the case flagging somewhat, Doctor Vivien Lake (Hermione Norris) steps forward with a suspect. Norris excels in playing cold, aloof characters so from the offset there were alarm bells ringing that there was something odd about her behaviour. She explains she was visited by her patient James Hauser the night of the murders, when he broke into her house buck naked having a bout of the chuckles as he wore an LED mask – and yet we see her methodically clean down her apartment for traces of blood and wait until a specific time before contacting the police, two activities that don’t exactly exude innocence.
After a long explanation of psychobabble from the good doctor it’s made clear that James really, really likes stabbing people in the backside. With knives. Lake kindly supplies the detectives his photo, address and a selection of rather funky drawings of his various stabby fantasies. It all feels too good to be true, and despite everybody’s Spidey senses tingling that Lake is a total oddball, they storm Hauser’s address and discover the stereotypical serial killer lair with pornographic photos nailed into the wall and a dismembered head in a jar. Not exactly Habitat catalogue material. Unfortunately, Hauser is nowhere to be found.
With the word out that Hauser is the killer, he escalates his activities. There’s a genuinely creepy scene where he stalks a woman on a bus by crawling along the floor that’s pure horror movie material, especially grim as a passing buses inhabitants witnesses the murder. The detectives start to suspect there is some psycho-sexual relationship between the good Doctor Lake and her patient, and an exasperated Halliday threatens to charge the psychiatrist with obstruction of justice in a bid to get more information out of her. Lake doesn’t budge but she is clearly in contact with James as he gets more desperate – and the police are listening in.
A bit of a confusingly shot set piece then occurs as they follow her to Hampstead Woods, where she confronts the killer and tells him she would be turned on if he stabs her rather than anybody else, which he duly obliges. Hauser spooks when he sees Luther lurking in the bushes, who gives chase when the killer takes to his toes. A quick runaround ensues, resulting in Hauser cutting his own throat to avoid arrest. Lake berates Luther for his behaviour and blames him for killing a “sweet man” (er…). It’s all very conveniently squared off and for a second I thought we were back to the old one-shot case episodes of the first season (remember how good they were?).
So case closed! Or is it? Halliday certainly isn’t convinced, and there’s something about the case that’s really bugging her. She sets off to find Luther with DSU Schenk in tow (who’s seemingly getting his booze on in secret). Meanwhile, Lake drives home and opens the boot of her car to let out the REAL killer, scolding him for stabbing her too deeply. What the what now? It seems the story is far from over, but Luther has his own problems, as unknown to him an enraged (and misguided) George and crew are descending on his flat for more information – but the knock on his door opens up a whole other world of complication when he finds one Alice Morgan on his front step instead…