Idris Elba and Neil Cross have done it again, in a gut-wrenching and sharply written fifth season of the fan-favorite detective drama. Well-written characters and continuity like this can carry any plot and cover any flaws.
This week, the relentless hurricane which was Luther Season 5 hit the UK once again. For four nights in a row, over four and a half million viewers went to bed nervous, shocked, or in some cases pledging to make changes to their lifestyle. Season five rewarded loyal viewers with returning characters (including one from several years ago), as well as new insight into familiar friends. It was a fast-paced and incredibly satisfying story which wove two strong plots, leaving us both bereft and hopeful for more in the future.
The police procedural plot at the heart of season five is a murder mystery: episode one opens with two very different murders close by each other, in a residential area, and then another quite separate, but clearly related. These murders are brutal, almost True Detective style (but not so artistic) and seedy; and as the episodes go by the killer gets more self-assured, via kidnapping and betrayal. DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) and his new partner, Detective Sgt. Catherine Halliday (Wunmi Mosak) have very little to go on until psychologist Vivien Lake (Hermione Norris) pops up with a lead about one of her patients. The mystery zigzags as the pair sometimes trust their leads and sometimes their instincts; but as all TV thriller fans know by now, murderers don’t get caught easily… especially when the lead detective is distracted by extracurricular concerns.
This is the secondary plot which surrounds DCI Luther throughout this season. It starts off when he takes an interest in the disappearance (presumed abduction) of the son of George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide), a gang/black market boss, who you may recall from previous seasons. In doing so, Luther gets an informant into Battle Royale style danger… but that’s just the start. Once the reason behind Alastair Cornelius’s disappearance becomes apparent, things escalate dramatically, and it’s even harder to stop than the murderer.
Again, the series is written by Neil Cross, who created the characters, wrote every season of Luther so far, and wrote the prequel novel too. They are truly his characters, and many of them are well drawn enough to feel like family to some of us by now. There are a couple who are given extra depth and extra backstory; and this works, coming from Cross – it’s not like a new writer has come in to make his mark. We do have a new director for season five, though: Jamie Payne, who did such a nice job in The Alienist, and a fine job he does here too: the pacing, production, and quality of characters mirror earlier seasons, and everything flows together as it should, with music, tension, and the two separate shitstorms piling up exponentially as the story progresses.
The plot and production are sufficient to keep viewers gripped, but what makes Luther is the characters, and indeed the beautiful casting that makes those characters work so well. The writing is sharp enough that it doesn’t take many lines to see into any individual personality: in one sentence, or one facial expression, we can see a blend of naïve and intelligent in Halliday; we can see down-to-Earth and loyal in Benny Silver (Michael Smiley). None of that writing is overdone, and none of it is needlessly reinforced with naff moments of pointing out to the audience what a character has just realized (if we notice a certain ambulance earlier, that’s fine, but it’s not given to us twice, just in case, like in some shows). The writing is more than sufficient, and the intellect of the audience is respected.
DCI John Luther is bloody good at his job, so much that he is consumed by his dedication to pretty much everything he investigates. Protocol goes by the wayside, in favor of stopping the baddie, leading him to be mistrusted by colleagues, which leads to shortcuts, losing track of loyalties and so on. But all this seems to happen because he feels a duty to protect, and feels everyone deserves that from him: no wonder he is so torn a lot of the time, not to mention exhausted. (“I’m no cynic. I think that might be my problem.”) Elba is a confident actor, even when he’s playing a man who’s losing confidence. I admired him as much in Zootopia as I did in Molly’s Game and The Wire; in fact, I can’t think of anyone who’s seen Elba on screen and not admired him.
Luther’s new partner, DS Halliday (Wunmi Mosak), is a naive fast-track recruit and a very interesting part. She shows presence of mind in her job, and autonomy when Luther isn’t present, but clearly plays second fiddle when he is (not very often). Mosak plays a very similar personality to the one I’ve seen in every other role (they’ve been smaller roles so far, but a great variety, from In the Flesh to Batman vs Superman and Philomena), but the added mixed feelings of confidence and naivety are new and portrayed very well. But watch: she has great instincts and the consequences of following instincts or not feature again and again in this show.
The other key new characters are Vivien Lake and her husband, the heart surgeon Jeremy Lake (Enzo Cilenti). Vivien is so often acting a part – to the police, to her husband, to their guests – that it is difficult to know when she is telling the truth: and Norris is still a bloody good actor. As for Jeremy, the writing is carefully applied to show how self-controlled he is in presenting himself differently according to context. We see him talking privately with a patient (he’s a heart surgeon), using a playful Patrick Bateman turn of phrase. Then Luther and Halliday visit him, finding him more than a bit off. And finally, we see him performing surgery, while his wife is in the viewing gallery. He’s a smug bastard, except in Vivien’s presence.
With regard to the recurring people, don’t worry: I’m not going to spoil any surprises. I must however mention two who do Luther a great honour with their contribution during this season. Firstly, DSU Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley), Luther’s boss. He is a particular example of a character given a little extra insight into his history, and one where mere moments on screen are sufficient to demonstrate his personality: Crowley is a fine actor, and I feel a little neglectful in not having noticed before. The other is Patrick Malahide, who plays Cornelius: he has some slightly clichéd dialogue, but the real quality in his acting comes out during scenes of complex emotion: it is silent, either in his face (a twitch of an eye) or his posture. I’ll be looking out for more of him.
There is one more person to mention: Benny Silver, played by Michael Smiley. Benny has cropped up as a minor role in each season, a believable everyday friend and colleague. Smiley is well loved as an actor no matter what role he’s played, whether action (Free Fire), humour (Spaced), historical (A Field in England) or gritty drama (Wire in the Blood). Season 5 of Luther is Benny’s season, and Smiley is destined to be remembered as much for that part as he is for Tyres in Spaced.
As for Luther himself… rumour is we will see him again, in a feature film. I wonder which of his “friends” and colleagues will have a part to play. Those who live might not want to see him again: the man is a hurricane, not just his show.