Thursday, January 23, 2014

Whatever You May Think of Him, You Can't Deny He Cares (Luther)

So this is totally appropos of nothing, but did you know that horses are really, really loud? 

I did not. Not until I moved to a horse farm, that is, and now I have a front row seat to how incredibly not stoic and silent horses are. I mean, yes, there was a really loud donkey living down the street from us when I was a kid (I had a weird childhood), but it had nothing on these horses. For crying out loud. Literally. Crying out loud.

Anyway. Let's talk about Luther, season two!

Even though I know that the comparison is largely unfair, I have a lot of trouble not looking for similarities and differences between Sherlock and Luther. After all, they're both BBC crime dramas, both feature incredibly talented casts of BBC regulars, and both of them put a fair amount of effort into making their episodes more cinematic and beautiful and artistic than a lot of crime shows.

But when I do compare them, and I can't really help it, I usually come to the same conclusion. That Luther is smarter, better written, better acted, more sensitive to the realities of the world, a much more realistic representation of people, character, crime, and especially women, and generally an amazing show. And that Sherlock is more fun.

Honestly, I really hate that this is how I feel. Because I'm not kidding when I say that Luther is my Christmas list come true of what a want in a television show. 

The show follows DCI John Luther (Idris Elba), a somewhat disgraced detective with a bad history of mental instability and accidentally murdering his perps. In the first season, he's just coming back on the job after probably maybe killing a guy, and his whole life is in a shambles. His wife, Zoe Luther (Indira Varma) has left him and is in a much healthier relationship with a coworker, Mark (Paul McGann). His friends are all convinced he's about to go off the deep end. His partner, DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown), has been assigned to him and is kind of terrified of him, for good reason. And oh yeah, Luther's closest personal relationship is with Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a sociopathic murderer.

Suffice to say that the show is a little less than chipper. The second season, which follows directly on the heels of the first, has Luther under investigation again, though this time for the death of DCI Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh), who was a dirty cop that killed Zoe in order to frame Luther for his crimes. Luther, for the record, didn't kill Ian, but he was there when Alice shot him. Alice, having no particular conscience and an unhealthily strong attachment to Luther, admits happily to the murder, then buggers off to hide out in Mexico or something, while Luther stashes Mark (another material witness) in a safe house.

Apparently seeing Zoe's murderer shot is what it took to bring Luther and Mark together. Isn't that sweet?

Funnily enough, though, the real arc of season two isn't about Zoe's death or Alice's exile, or even the ongoing investigation. Instead, it's about Jenny (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), the daughter of a murder suspect from one of Luther's old cases. It seems that Jenny has managed to get herself in way over her head, doing pornography for the mob (I forget which mob, but one of the bad ones, doubtless). Luther rescues her, or kidnaps her, depending on who you ask, and decides to set about rehabilitating her. All while he tries to keep the mob off their backs, investigate murders, and convince his fellow cops that he's not about to start gunning them down or anything.

It's a bit of a tight line to walk, and a huge part of the season has to do with watching Luther painstakingly edge along the border between good cop and dirty cop, as his best intentions threaten to tip him over. Luther isn't in danger because he's too close to the criminal element, his real flaw, as a detective and as a man, is that he's far, far too compassionate for the work he does. And he takes it all far too personally.

You see, the real difference between Sherlock and Luther isn't about the format or the fun or even the race of the main characters. It's to do with the central conceit of the story. Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant man who understands every mechanic of how to commit a crime. John Luther understands why people commit crimes, and ultimately, I think that matters more.

For all that Luther is an unhinged, scary, angry black man of a protagonist (and I mean angry black man in the sense of the old stereotype, which is totally being subverted here), he's actually a deeply kind person. And that is his problem.

Luther can't turn away a person in need. He doesn't like Caroline, Jenny's mother. Actually, I'm pretty sure he hates her. But when she calls him, afraid that her daughter has gotten herself into trouble, Luther can't hang up on her. He has to go looking. When he finds Jenny, and she doesn't want to go with him (which is actually quite sensible on her part - he looks terrifying and she doesn't know him), he can't say no. He can't leave her there, not when he knows how dangerous it is.

When Jenny (SPOILERS) kills a man in self-defence, Luther can't just walk away and let her face the music. He can't even call the police and report it and wash his hands of the matter. He knows that the man was in the mob and that Jenny would be killed before she ever reached a court. He knows that Jenny was scared and being stupid and running. And he knows that he can't leave her to fend for herself.

The difference between Sherlock Holmes and John Luther is compassion. Luther falters and falls because he cares too much about the people under his wing. He loves Jenny like his own daughter, so he perverts justice in order to see her safe. He loves Zoe, and so he watches a man be murdered in her name. He wants to keep the people he loves safe, so he gives information to the mob, so he takes out murderers, so he hides bodies. John Luther is not a nice man, not a quiet man, and probably not a man you'd want to meet in a dark alley, at least not if you have anything to hide.

But he is a good man, a kind man, and a worthwhile one. He does horrible, terrible things, but always for such righteous reasons.

No matter that Luther is determinedly not funny, and rather dour, and sometimes really hard to watch. It's amazing for the simple fact that John Luther is good, no matter what he does to the contrary.

And there's something brilliant and comforting and great about this subversion of the "angry black man" stereotype. Because John Luther is angry, black, and a man, but he's also the one cop I would most like to take my case, were I ever made a victim. I would want John Luther there, because I know he would care about me and my story and getting justice.

I'll trade any number of one-liners, running gags, and zippy action sequences to know that.


  1. Idris.
    I think I liked S2 of Luther even more than S1 specifically because of the emphasis on his compassion (rather than his 'I'm so good, I'm so bad' thing) with regard to Jenny. I was totally prepared to hate that storyline, too, btw, because it has all the elements of a traditional arc I find revolting (I have this weird hatred of ingenues. Don't know what it is. Created a life-long prejudice against Natalie Portman).

    Let's be honest though: Idris. Elba.


      Season two was more fun, insofar as Luther is ever fun. I was a bit wary of the whole Jenny storyline at first, but honestly I warmed up to it because of the actress. She's hilarious, and she just keeps skewering everyone's pretensions. I think I knew I was going to like this season was when Jenny and Mark were stuck in the safehouse together. Good times.

  2. My mother and I were, funnily enough, discussing the differences between Sherlock and Luther yesterday afternoon. She made a comment somewhere along the lines of "Sherlock would throw someone under the bus if it meant he would look good, but Luther would throw himself under the bus if it meant keeping someone safe." Also I third Idris Elba, my mother's a total fangirl for him...every time he appeared during the Thor movies she was like, "Look! Idris!"

    1. Oh man that is so, so true. I love that. And I will admit that I was thinking in literal terms when I first read that, but I love that it's true either way. Metaphorical or literal bus. Sigh.

      And I love that your mom appreciates Idris Elba as well. Yesssssss.

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