Binge or Purge? BBC’s ‘Luther’

BBC's Luther key art
Luther (Photo: BBC)

Binge. Elegantly, brutally, magnetically, maybe not often. But binge on Luther.


Luther, currently streaming on Netflix.


Idris Elba is DCI John Luther, a brilliant, fairly-upstanding London detective with a bit of a temper.


You know that BBC series that people who know TV, or great acting, or just generally awesome stuff talk about? The one that’s not Sherlock? That’s this one.

What’s to Love Now

Luther is a cop show with all the trimmings – clever criminals, regular people caught in terrible situations, occasional brutal violence, corruption, bosses caught between politics and knowing their man Gets Results… It’s also wonderfully non-clichéd, treating almost every character as a complete person, layering them together so it’s never just about catching the bad guy, or trying to win back an ex, it’s about the space that all of these stories share in a person’s life.

The life in question is brilliantly played by Idris Elba, loping about the screen with an energy that moves from warm smiles to deep contemplation to shocking moments of rage as warranted by the situation. Elba’s Luther is a fascinating throwback to 70s hardboiled detectives mixed with the brains, and arrogance, of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, all set delicately atop a flawed psyche that never screams its flaws into the script. He’s a man you want as your dad at his best moments, and as your vengeful guardian just about all the time.

The cast is filled out by a murder’s row1 of British character actors making meals of great scripts. Indira Varma does a sensitive, intriguing portrayal of Luther’s ex-wife during the first series. Warren Brown, as the young cop assigned to half-shadow, half-learn from Luther, takes an episode or three to grow into the role, but becomes a marvelous counterbalance to Luther as the show progresses.

One of the best things about Luther – and why it’s so bingeable – is how lean it is. With only three series of six, four, and four episodes apiece; a string of overarching character plots paced smoothly throughout; and some stunningly twisted criminals, you certainly won’t get bored.

What Makes Us Groan

There’s a tendency, especially in series 2 and 3, to have the episodes’ denouements center around Elba, looking very intense, standing off against the criminal in a final showdown, while intense music plays. Weirdly this doesn’t feel unearned – probably, again, a tribute to these runs being so short.

Ruth Wilson’s portrayal of Alice Morgan, Luther’s sometimes-nemesis-sometimes-vital-ally, causes some mild division in watchers of the show. It’s among the least-real performances on the show, but doesn’t hit cartoonish. By the show’s end, I rather liked the work Wilson did, but can understand those who are turned off by the smiling genius psychopath routine.

Really the thing that makes me groan today is the news that they’re remaking the series stateside. After the dragging morass that was Gracepoint, I have no faith that Fox will capture any of the energy that made Luther stand out.


Charge me with hyperbole if you want but this is one of the best cop shows ever committed to film. Elba’s performance alone would be enough for me to recommend Luther but there’s plenty more good stuff to binge on here as well.

Navigational Tips

Luther never really went downhill, but it did become a bit less spectacular as time went on. Series 1 was six episodes featuring generally unrelated crimes, tied together by the constant risks to Luther’s personal and professional life.2 The season culminates in a surprisingly emotionally hard-hitting episode five and pushes on strong from there. While some criminals are more interesting than others, it’s worth watching this whole season as a unit, and letting the performances build on and intertwine with one another.

Series 2 and 3 each contained two pairs of episodes, sort of movie-length tales where Luther is focused on a primary bad guy. Non-crime plots continued as well, including a well-crafted police investigation into Luthers actions, and, separately, him becoming trapped in a deal with a criminal to save a teenage prostitute. The killers in both halves of the second season took center stage; it was a season really (wonderfully) about Luther pitting his mind against the minds and chaos wrought by very different deranged individuals. Those four episodes are worth watching for the distinct sense that Luther may not always win. Series 3 has plenty of great moments, including one I won’t spoil, but that did make me curse at my laptop screen. Ultimately the third series was not as strong as the other two, but it was still pretty great TV.

  1. Yes, I went there  
  2. His ex-wife dating someone, a child-killer being able to ruin his career… the usual.  

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