Why I Love Luther….And What That Really Means

Promotional photo for the BBC crime drama ‘Luther’

When I first saw Luther, I was honestly just intrigued by the idea of seeing Idris Elba on a television series. I had missed every single episode of The Wire and had no intention of catching up on an entire two years of BET drama, but I’d seen him in film after film and in him I was well pleased. So when the very first thing I saw was Detective Chief Inspector John Luther standing menacingly over a serial pedophile, watching the man dangle dangerously from a piece of broken catwalk over a dark pit of rusty steel, leaving him to fall to his doom, I was shocked. I was appalled. And I was in Love.

There was a darkness, a brokenness in Luther’s character that I was desperate to unravel. It was partly because it was a darkness that I could easily witness within myself – if I were charged with finding a rapist before his next victim died, I would do whatever it took. If I had to run him down without backup into a condemned building, I wouldn’t think twice. If I had to save the man’s life when he had taken so many others, I might think a few times… And I knew from the very moment that these were decisions that this man found himself making too many times, and couldn’t always tell himself he made the right choice. Luther was a good, Loving soul, damaged by too much violence and death, called to solve the puzzles surrounding it all. And it seemed to creep into him, to the point where he couldn’t understand that his good friend and ex-wife and almost anyone who crossed his path was slightly afraid of him.

But it was one thing to have moral dilemmas from watching the life and times of a volatile black British copper. It was a totally different affair for my then girlfriend to tell me that she thought I was exactly like a volatile black British copper.

Make no bones about it – the modern-day drama has been marketing brokenness. ABC’s hit series Scandal is largely the twisted affair of a self-made woman and the man she can never be with – the quite married President of the US, and the emotional, political, and sometimes even murderous barriers to their relationship. The new NBC powerhouse Hannibal finally puts our favorite serial killer Hannibal Lecter in an entirely new light, at the expense of our true protagonist Will Graham. We’ve fetishized dissonance – in a world where hopelessness, violence and mental illness seem normal, we’ve taken it a step further and romanticized it. One step further than teens misinterpreting OCD or joking about rape, we’ve created role models out of the disturbed, aggressive and depressed.

That’s where watching Luther, and maybe television in general started becoming a difficult ordeal for me. People were envisioning me as dark, uncontrollable, reckless, broken. People who were close to me and said they Loved me and hopefully knew me as well as anyone can. And I was starting to see the exact same thing in myself – someone who’d leave a murderer to die, who’d bathe in gasoline and light a match to prove a point, who’d mash up my own house if I heard my ex-wife had found another man…

What I’m really getting at is that it was acceptable to see a borderline psychotic, possibly abusive insecure nervous wreck in me. It was something that, now, I could see in myself and be well pleased with. In fact, the hawkish yet despondent Luther was someone that I could imagine myself aspiring to! He was the ‘right kind of psychotic’, I would sometimes find myself thinking, and he did the right things with his hurt and anger.

Looking now at how we understand the character of the hero – mysterious, brooding, with a past that scares the hell out of us – it brings up interesting things about how we view hope in our world. The virtuous Superman doesn’t hold our attention the same way as the ruthless Dark Knight. Even more arousing to us is the passionate villain – the Jokers and Catherine Tramells and Hannibal Lecters – who represent an incorrigible evil that we almost find ourselves wanting to engulf the world that we ourselves share with them. And, with just one episode left in Season 3 of Luther, maybe the only lily-white character that we see throughout the entire series dies standing for the very values that made him so Lovable throughout the show.

Don’t get me wrong, I still Love Luther. It’s a riveting show, with masterful storytelling and a near-impeccable Idris Elba. It’s good TV…but what it stands for might be a product of bad TV. And that bad TV might represent a bad life. We’ve learned to understand our own world through the lens of hopeless noir. So much so, that we may not be able to recognize anything else…

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4 thoughts on “Why I Love Luther….And What That Really Means

  1. Great post! I love both the show and the character. I think the trend toward darkness in storytelling of late may be traced back to global events and trends – we’re in an era defined by recession, war and terrorism and our fiction is reflecting that darkness. I guess I’d never thought of it the other way around – in that our fiction can affect our mindset and the way we view the world.

  2. Here it is December 1, 2015. I am anticipating the next installment of LUTHER. Idris Elba has become part of my world, not only as LUTHER , but as MANDELA, in ROCK AND ROLLA, Beasts of No Nation, No Good Deed and Daddy’s Little Girls ( Prometheus and Pacific Rim). I watch him drive fast cars in Detroit , drink Tanqueray and marvel at the production value in a video game ad in which he features, so this observation from 2013 truly engages me. I agree that the images of our broken-ness are prolific and are taking us places we never thought we’d go. There’s no promise of getting back to normal. All said and sad, I find solid footing in the person of Mr. Elba. His persona, his humor, his honesty keeps me rooting for John Luther. We are all capable of deep despair in our brokenness; we need paths to wholeness. I’ll continue to follow the actor who brought me this character.

  3. rereading this on 1 December 2016. Much has happened in the world since then. This take on the Luther series is such an eye-opening read. Today, I think the only actor who could sell this is Idris Elba because he is so very well and whole in his persona. The criminals depicted are so very shattered and twisted that Luther’s broken-ness appeals as more wholesome or less wicked. And here is where Brendon’s comments from 2013 hit me so hard and fresh today : We are all hurting so much that a broken approach can not fix the hurt. We need a wholesome repair. The lesser evil is still evil. The healing will not come from that axis. I am withdrawing from this clearly fascinating aspect of human (or less than) behavior because I’d rather ask, ” where does it hurt?” and take a different path.

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