By Seth Abramson | Press Play August 22, 2013 at 8:35AM
Those with only a passing interest in the BBC detective drama Luther, or who've watched the program only half-heartedly, will wrongly say that this is a show about a dirty cop. In fact, what it is is a program about a man trying to be heroic in all the wrong ways. The show’s title character, John Luther (Idris Elba), is a Detective Chief Inspector working for London’s Serious Crime Unit; while Luther has a set of skills that come in handy in homicide investigations, this by no means confirms his career choice as a wise one. The show seems to intimate that this is often the way with heroes: They misidentify the optimal utilities of their skill-sets, blinded by the clarity of their ambitions. As a former cop turned murderous flunky says of Luther at one point, "He's not a dirty cop. He's a man over a barrel. There's a difference."
While I've never myself been a police officer, I have been a public defender, and public defenders are known for having an even more complex and self-destructive Jesus Complex than do patrolmen and detectives. For the seven years I defended children and adults in criminal cases ranging from marijuana possession to first-degree murder, I had nightmares almost every night. But they weren't nightmares about my clients, or about the things my clients may or may not have done—as 99.8% of alleged crimes are of the most banal sort—they were nightmares about failure. About letting down those I'd sworn to protect. And those nightmares made me work even harder during my waking hours, or, when too exhausted to work harder, caused me the worst sort of guilt about not being at my best. That sort of internal struggle is slowly but surely destructive, which is why I ultimately left the law, and why it's particularly wrenching for me to see John Luther so tied to a job that's slowly killing him. Indeed, it's not too much to say that Luther is a documentary of suicide-by-profession. The lead is always intimating he's about to leave the force—a strange conceit, for a detective drama—but the viewer never quite believes it. Luther without a badge is merely a broken man without a purpose, not because his skills aren't transferable but because he lacks the imagination to conceive of such a transference.
In the second season of Luther, a teenage porn actress who claims to enjoy her job—a job that entails being gang-raped while unconscious—is admonished by Luther to call her mother. Her response: "It's not my voice she wants to hear. She's no different from the freaks who get off on these films. It's not who I actually am that matters, it's who they wish I was." Throughout the three seasons of Luther that have aired on the BBC so far, the show’s lead is constantly being given hints like these—by porn stars, actresses, even sociopaths he'd once hoped to arrest and prosecute—that he himself is the one most in need of self-knowledge and salvation. Indeed, even those who’ve never worked in the public service sector can see in Luther a series of traits readily recognizable to anyone who's ever wanted to be a hero, or who's ever relied overmuch on someone else who wanted to be a hero, or who's ever had the misfortune of being the spouse or child of someone who wants to be a hero. In short, Luther sacrifices his mental health to be very, very good at what he does, and he does so because he places a higher premium on the well-being of others than on his own. The readily predictable result: Those he loves get hurt, and he himself begins a slow descent into despair.
For all its quirks, Luther does have many of the usual trappings of a detective show: a smart and strangely charismatic leading man whose weaknesses undermine his professional life and ensure persistent chaos in his personal life; a cast of loyal compatriots, sprinkled with the occasional two-faced villain in policeman's gear; a series of brutal crimes that can only be solved by a man nearly as troubled as the perpetrators themselves. What's unusual about Luther, apart from the stunning brutality of some of the crimes it depicts—viewer discretion ought be repeatedly and urgently advised—is the sense it provokes that it’s always mere seconds from going off the rails completely. It's not that John Luther is unpredictable, though he is; or that he's perpetually surrounded by intrigues of the most scandalous and destructive sort, though that's also true; it's that Luther is a psychological drama disguised as a detective show, not, like Monk or another recent BBC hit, Sherlock Holmes, a detective show masquerading as a character portrait. So the inherent instability of Luther's circumstances indeed cuts at the very structure of the series itself.
Rarely have I been so repeatedly surprised by a television program. Issues which seem likely to linger for several episodes are neatly resolved in minutes, only to reappear much later as significantly more complicated destructive mechanisms. Wise decisions made by characters are shortly reversed, with disastrous consequences. Natural allies, including most of Luther’s administrative superiors, become enemies under circumstances in which neither party is truly to blame. Minor characters who've been minor for some time suddenly receive promotions to "major" status. Killers are not always caught; in fact, they don't always remain villains, as one of the show’s primary characters, Alice Morgan, is a known killer Luther now uses as a clandestine advisor on other investigations. The genre of the show oscillates between police procedural and horror flick, as undoubtedly the crimes portrayed on Luther are some of the most heinous ever to appear on television. The show's habitually tight shots, particularly of victims at crime scenes, create a sense of claustrophobia mediated only by an occasional wide shot of sterling beauty. Ultimately the very structure of the show, as to both its plot and its cinematography, is every bit as chaotic as the life and times of Luther himself. As Luther unravels, so do (and so must) our expectations for what his world should and will look like.
What's superlative about Luther is that it draws no attention whatsoever to its oddities. The show's lead plays Russian roulette with himself while sitting alone in a room, but it’s merely one scene among many with more bells and whistles; he assaults a suspect while in disguise to capture a DNA sample, and it seems strangely apropos rather than creepy and illicit; Alice Morgan turns from a villain into Luther’s ally by a process of osmosis so slow it's almost imperceptible; the basis for a shifting allegiance five episodes down the line is put repeatedly under your nose, only you don't realize it until you're trying to put together the pieces later on. One can only conclude, from all this, that Luther is seeking to normalize that which cannot be normalized, in much the same way that Luther himself—who wants very much to be a hero, however understated his body language is—must normalize his psychic degeneration in order to keep doing the job he loves so much.
Luther poses for the attentive viewer an important question about the daily manifestations of evil, and our own complicity in their devastations. How many of us make erroneous assessments of what we do or don't need in our lives? Or of what we are or are not called upon to do, or who we are or are not capable of being good to, or of what we can or cannot withstand? Luther is a show about the crime of having both too much and too little self-knowledge, not the harrowing and intricate gorefests staged by the show's murderous rogues' gallery. It's a show worth watching because it's a cautionary tale, not because we feel the vindication of justice served or heroic instincts validated by merely watching it. Such instincts aren’t validated; in fact, they're revealed as poisonous, and in time we see them cause as much injustice to the innocent as to the guilty.
Luther—the man as much as the show—is an emotional train-wreck it's impossible to look away from. The series is so cunningly disguised as entertainment that we can almost (but not quite) forget how many of our own errors in judgment it reflects back at us. Evil at its most pure, as Luther says in Season 2, quoting verbatim (ironically) an unrepentant murderer, is a "black hole"—anything that "drags you in and crushes you to nothing." Earlier, another unrepentant murderer is heard distinguishing between the banality of evil, which he considers rightly taken for granted, and the much less feared but considerably more insidious "evil of banality." Detective work is a civic function—a workaday banality—John Luther feels compelled to execute, but which he cannot participate in without self-harm; it's just the sort of black hole that slowly and almost invisibly crushes a man into nothingness. Like many detective shows, Luther is finally about the insidious mechanisms of evil: it's just not the sort of evil you'd ever expect, nor the sort of self-destruction you'd ever see coming.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.