The third season of Luther kicks off with a scene that any supercop thriller willing to settle for a more conventional level of hyperbole would be happy to have for it season finale. As officers in riot gear toting high-powered weapons take up position in the moonlit streets, the sound of their boots hitting the pavement drowned out by the whirring blades of the police helicopters hovering overhead, a garage door slowly opens. Out of a burning room strides DCI John Luther (Idris Elba), dragging a cowed villain along beside him with one massive hand. Luther hands the perp over to the guys in riot gear, and staggers on; having made the mistake of getting on Luther’s bad side, and then compounded it by not coming along quietly, he is now a broken shell of a man, a discarded cartridge who can be booked and otherwise dealt with by mere mortals. Maybe someday he’ll get enough of his spirit back to regale the grandchildren with the tale of how he once went head to head with John Luther and lived to tell about it, but for now, he’s happy just to be shipped off to prison, to lick his wounds and meet his new roommate, Vern Schillinger. For his part, Luther keeps moving away from the scene of the arrest, passing a small army of cops running in the opposite direction, Truly he is a man who goes his own way, alone and against the tide, even when he’s just trying to get to his car to see if he can get in a few minutes of staring mournfully out the window before the cock crows and it’s time to hit the streets and start kicking ass again.
This opening doesn’t connect to anything that happened in the previous seasons, and it has nothing to do with anything that follows. It’s just there to set the tone, and remind us that Luther is no mere servant of the law. Like Judge Dredd, he is the law. That’s why, of all the antagonists he has to overcome this time, the most ludicrous and least fearsome are the internal affairs cops who think they can hold him to some kind of conventional standard: Stark (David O’Hara), who looks like Gabriel Byrne with a softer profile and a constipation problem, and Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who, at times, seems to doubt her own motives for her obsessional, vindictive pursuit of Luther. When they’re alone, she looks at him as if he were an itch that she just has to scratch, however best she can. Alice (Ruth Wilson), the beautiful, stylish, and brilliant psychopathic murderer who Luther has protected in the past, amuses herself by referring to Erin as “the lesbian.” As Elba deadpanned to the camera in the single funniest moment of his guest-star arc on The Office, “I am aware of the effect I have on women.”
It’s not just women. The returning characters this season include Luther’s younger, duller police partner, Ripley (Warren Brown), who is torn between his fears that Luther’s more outré methods will get them both in trouble and his sure knowledge that whatever Luther thinks is best is what’s best for Lady Justice. The four episodes of this season break down into a pair of two-parters, and at the end of the first half, Luther, who has had his doubts about his partner’s loyalty, learns that Ripley is indeed a square fellow. When Ripley visits his home the next morning, Luther invites him inside for the first time, introduces him to the stunning young blonde he’s been shagging (Sienna Guillory), and announces of Ripley, “I love ‘im!” Ripley will not be returning in any future installments of Luther, and if you think that’s a spoiler, it’s high time you learned what usually happens to colorless sidekicks who are suddenly treated to that kind of enthusiastic greeting by the charismatic heroes who’ve been basically ignoring them for three years.
As for the new girl, Mary, she brightens up the scenery, but that doesn’t tell us whether she’s up to challenges of being the object of Luther’s affections, which include pulling damsel-in-distress duty at regular intervals. The enemies of Luther who don’t want to abduct her or kill her want to brainwash her and turn her against him. Luther may be the first thing I’ve ever seen that really helps me understand the appeal of having a secret identity, for the safety of the hero’s loved ones. Luther can’t tip the mailman at Christmas for fear that some Dr. Evil will decide he must have a soft spot for the guy and pop him, just to get Luther’s goat. That’s one reason Alice is convinced that she’s the real woman for him, a view that seems more sensible with each passing episode. She can take care of herself. And besides, a sweet little ball of fluff like Mary will never really understand Luther the way he and Alice understand each other. They have both been acquainted with the night.
Luther is driveling bullshit, but it’s bullshit served up by talented people—most notably, Elba and series creator Neil Cross—who believe in what they’re doing. This may reflect more favorably on the sparkle of their talents than the state of their brains, but it makes for pretty decent, pulpy late-summer entertainment and a worthy showcase for the leading man’s star wattage, so long as you’re more inclined to giggle along than throw something at the screen as the action gets loonier and loonier. Things go farthest around the bend in the second half, which almost seems meant, in the craziest way possible, to address viewers’ concerns about Luther’s improvisational attitude toward the rules governing acceptable police conduct. The villain, Marwood (played by Elliot Cowan, who, as Lorenzo Medici, brought a little sanity and authority to DaVinci’s Dreams), is a vigilante who murders scumbags who’ve gotten the better of the justice system, sometimes putting their fates to a vote on the Interwebs. (This wrinkle gives the show a chance to humanize Luther, as best it can, by revealing the limitations to his power: He may walk on water and shrug off being shot faster than I can recover from catching myself in my zipper, but he admits to not understanding “social media.”)
The second Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force, did something similar, pitting Harry against a secret squad of vigilante killer cops. Harry’s catch phrase in that one was, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” a line that, out of context, might sound humble. In the movie, he was warning his adversaries that they’d good a good, full taste of their limitations if they made the mistake of tangling with him. That’s the idea here, too: Marwood and Luther might both sometimes take the law into their own hands, but Luther is compelled to do it for the right reasons. As Alice, the show’s combination of Catherine Tramell, Emma Peel, Ursa in Superman II, and Barbara Woodhouse—she shuts Mary up with a single upraised finger and an abrupt “Shhh!”—puts it to Marwood, "You so very much want to be admired, which is a defect in a multiple murderer.”
She’s just as blunt with Luther, telling him of Mary, “She’s not what you want, she’s what you want to want!” The final episode of Luther is the most shamelessly ridiculous of the entire four-pack, breaking the needle on the “give-me-a-break” meter at three distinct points. Yet it’s also the best episode of the season, just because it’s the only one with Alice. (A victim of her own success on the show, Ruth Wilson got called up to Hollywood to appear in The Lone Ranger.) I don’t know whether this really is the last of Luther, though at the end, he discards his trademark butt-ugly coat, which seems meant to be essential to the character. But if it is, the series might be ending just as things are starting to get really interesting.