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Luther: "Episode Two"

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Luther

"Episode Two"

Season 1, Episode 2

Six episodes’ worth of television isn’t a lot of time to get things done. You’d figure a show that starts with a triple murder, which then leads into with a cat-and-mouse game between a detective-on-the-edge and a diabolical non-yawning malignant narcissist killer would provide enough story arc in itself to go the distance. Not so for the second episode of Luther, which introduces a standalone plot that defers the overarching one for now, as if (a) the series were starting an open-ended run and (b) the urgency of locking down evidence for a triple homicide had somehow dissipated. It’s a curious detour from the main story, and the A-plot for “Episode Two” is ludicrously overblown, and yet I’d be lying if I didn’t confess to finding it an entertaining hour of television.

The slam-bang opening has two officers approaching a man they believe to be injured under an overpass. The man shoots them both with four “perfect” shots and replaces one of their police radios with a dummy so he can track the coppers. Luther, being the preternatural genius that he is, correctly deduces that the suspect has a military background (the “perfect” shots were a giveaway) and is deliberately targeting men in uniform. Turns out the deranged sniper in question is the son of another military man who’s serving life without the possibility of parole for murdering a cop in a barroom fracas. The prisoner wants his sentence reduced to five years or else his kid will keep picking off cops.

Meanwhile, a truly ridiculous number of cops are getting shot or blown up. In addition to the two under the overpass, there’s a gutshot policewoman, scores of officers ambushed while tending to the gutshot policewoman, and four dead, six injured in a building rigged with an IED. That’s quite a body count for a case-of-the-week episode, but it certainly raises the stakes. (If nothing else, the hour gains in excitement whatever it loses in plausibility.) Then there’s the deliciously entertaining Alice on the loose as Luther’s frenemy, at once needling him (and terrorizing his ex-wife) for the truth about Henry Madsen’s fall and buddying up with a man whose dark intellect clearly intrigues her.

“Episode Two” plays Luther’s detective-on-the-edge image to the hilt, first by introducing him literally poised on the edge of a building, then later involving him in a game of Russian Roulette with the cop-killer. The latter scene is the episode lowpoint: We get that Luther takes risks and has confidence in his ability to talk his way out of trouble, but to confront a disturbed killer unarmed and without backup is beyond reckless. Add to that the outrageous Russian Roulette scene—which is not only a dumb cliché, but gets to the last bullet in the chamber—and the A-plot lost me in the end. I understand the scene’s thematic import—that Luther is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to save a perp, after letting Henry Madsen fall—but subtle this was not.

Until going too far over the top, however, “Episode Two” does have its pleasures. The A-story does give Luther plenty of opportunities to show off his detecting/brooding skills, and Elba does riveting work in his scenes with the killer’s incarcerated father, even if there’s too much pop psychology for my taste. And Ruth Wilson continues to tear it up as Alice, arching those incredible eyebrows of hers in sadistic delight as she toys with Zoe and Luther. She’s a woman entirely in control right now—she weirdly doesn’t seem to be under investigation, despite being unambiguously guilty—and her pleasure proves infectious.

Stray observations:

• For Zoe’s new man Mark to drop charges against Luther at her request seems like a relationship killer to me. He tries to regain his diminished masculinity by refusing to heed Luther’s warning about Alice, but winds up humiliated a second time. He even gets a strong sense of how much Zoe still cares for her ex. As Liz Lemon would say, “That’s a dealbreaker.”

• On falling into the IED trap, an officer notes: “I bit down on it like… a Mars bars.” Those writers, they make me madder than a yak in heat.

• Luther to Alice: “One coffee doesn’t make us friends.” It’s like the end of Casablanca