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History of TV: The Masterful Characterization of BBC's 'Luther'

March 25, 2021
3 min read time

I’ve watched the Luther pilot three times. The BBC series started in 2010 and despite being “on” for nearly a decade, features only five seasons of bizarre, sadistic murders and mayhem on the dark and moody streets of London  with Idris Elba as DCI John Luther in his signature grey trench coat on their tail. Elba racked up many a nomination for the role, including one Golden Globe® win for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-series. Well-deserved, because characterization is one of the things this show did best.

Masterful characterization

Not gonna lie, as much as I loved Luther, I was obsessed with Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson). She swung from frighteningly in control to just plain frightening, though I’m not sure which was actually scarier; the fact that she was seemingly one step ahead, or that there was total chaos beneath that cool exterior. Pure insanity. A literal wolf in sheep’s clothing. She was a fantastic study in how to create a complex antagonist; layers of psychosis, deeply wounded, and able to extract both disgust and empathy simultaneously. Not unlike Klaus Mikaelson of The Vampire Diaries. Wildy different shows, both evidence there’s just something about a smart villain that elevates a show. In Luther’s case, from regular police procedural to can’t-miss-what-she’s-going-to-do-next.

For his part, Luther was the antithesis. While the hero of the piece, he was also always on the verge of coming apart completely; that coat of his barely keeping him from exploding. His job as an investigator for the Serious Crime Unit ensured work weighed heavy on his mind and soul. He is clearly fascinated with Alice, a child prodigy and the personification of everything Luther isn’t  and fighting against. She is utterly free in her actions, powerful, and lives for no one but herself. Yet it feels like Luther is constantly straining against the binds of the law to exact justice, often ending up one step behind and thus powerless to prevent the atrocities of the people he’s meant to stop. He makes questionable decisions, while hers are meticulously calculated. His expression is always blank; a mask for the heaviness within. Thus, Alice breaks Luther’s deep wound wide open and that makes for some heart-stopping moments of television.

Throwing structure to the wind

While BBC shows in general follow a different format than North American shows  their "series" (aka seasons) are shorter and more spread out, Luther was exceptionally so. A series aired every other year with a four-year gap between the last two. Not unlike the madness of its characters, Luther’s series feel ad hoc and vary greatly in what could be generally considered good television. The procedural’s five series began with a six-episode arc of stand-alone crime stories in 2010. Subsequent series featured two-parters that felt more like mini-movies.

At its heart, however, one knew what to expect: the gruesome side of human nature on display in a barely lit London. No one ever turned the lights on, sometimes literally, and that made it all the more disturbing because the darkness, both literal and metaphorical, is fearsome in its complete incomprehensibility. The show also took leaps in logic, much like the criminals and run-down law enforcement officials that populated it. So while on the surface Luther looks a muddled mess at times, perhaps that is the message. Life can be complicated; a blurred puzzle that we’re often one step behind in seeing how all the pieces fit together.

Planning your series ending

Whether writer Neil Cross planned out series in advance or not, it is a good lesson in how to bring your audience back to what made them fall in love with the show in the first place. By referencing opening imagery and themes, the point is hit home. You feel the loss of the character  and of the show itself. A luxury not all shows get in today’s cancel culture.

In the pilot episode, we watch Luther let a suspect who has just given up the desired confession fall to his death in an abandoned warehouse. It’s a little stunning; Luther is supposed to be “the good guy,” after all. Clearly, he’s dealing with some demons of the non-corporeal kind. In the series finale, Luther again watches a villain fall to their death. Also reminiscent of the first series, Luther is yet again framed for a murder he didn’t commit. While this time we won’t know the outcome, it feels like a complete ending (if not a happy one) because that was the show: a snapshot of the messy life in which Luther lives. There can’t possibly be a happy ending for someone who has experienced and made the kinds of decisions he has.

In retrospect

Luther is a great study for screenwriters in how characterization can be elevated through the themes and structure of your show  and vice versa. This is not Guy Ritchie’s London, or that of any other London-based show that reveals the seedier side of its historied streets. Through character, Luther sets a mood and tone that is entirely its own… and succeeds in making one check the backseat of the car for murderers before getting in at night.

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