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For those of us who died a little the night we lost Stringer Bell on The Wire, watching Detective Inspector John Luther will come as a relief. How long, we all wondered, would it take for the menacing charisma and cool of Idris Elba—the near-unknown British actor who was The Wire’s breakout performer—to find another role as complex and mesmerizing as Bell’s doomed, visionary-capitalist drug-lord?
Not long, thankfully. For Luther, Elba is on the other side of the law and the Atlantic as the morally compromised lead detective of the London Metropolitan Police’s “Serious and Serial Murder” squad. His performance is richly layered as a workaholic cop so immersed in outthinking heinous crime that evil has taken up residence inside his mind.
Luther is not your world-weary, familiar fictional detective, even though he may work with the intuitive and deductive gifts of Sherlock Holmes and the doggedness of Columbo. Instead, the show takes the archetype of the profoundly troubled maverick-genius cop and makes it completely fresh and more complex: a new “man of law,” who only feels fully alive when he’s in the presence of maleficence, detecting its patterns, decoding the broken minds of the show’s rich and terrifying parade of murderers. And there is no such thing as leaving it all at the office. Every last one of the show’s complicated villains—be they fiendishly clever, detestable, or just chillingly random and arbitrary in their work—takes another psychic bite out of Luther before the criminal goes down.
The series also explores this compelling question: How can someone like this relate to anyone else when darkness pervades all of his relationships? The richest, sexiest, most complex and original relationship in the program is between Luther—an insurgent evangelical figure and a breaker of institutions, like his namesake—and stylish psychopathic redhead Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), who’s truly through the looking glass, and sees getting away with murder as a kind of intellectual challenge. Their extraordinary kinship, which runs like a vein of comic-erotic gold throughout the series, remains largely chaste but positively hums with sexual promise. Each is the other’s only intellectual equal—perhaps even soul mate—and no one will ever understand them as fully as they understand one another. They’re locked together in some death-dance of the doppelgängers. “We’re yin and yang,” purrs Alice early on, “Bonnie and Clyde, Bert and Ernie.”
And it all unfolds at breakneck velocity in a mythic London that partakes of the sparkling new skyline of the city’s post-Thatcher overhaul, but also honors the ancient anthill-metropolis, the phantasmagoric Mother London of Dickens, Hogarth and Holmes—the only place Luther could possibly call home.