Now that the dust has settled following the fifth season of Luther, here are my thoughts.
***Please note this post contains spoilers for all seasons of Luther.***
Four whole bleak episodes. What a way to start 2019! With a show blighted by ever-reduced air time (season one: six episodes, season two and three: four episodes, and season four: a mere two episodes), it certainly feels like they’ve given us something to work with –from it’s meatier, updated titles to Alice’s vastly increased screen-time– although season five plays out more like a greatest hits; even with everything ramped up to eleventy-stupid in a rather fantastic fashion. A coda, if not the coda. Season five isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but they’ve committed to giving it more love and attention; especially given Luther’s lean and lacklustre fourth romp. Season four started promisingly with the introduction of DS Emma Lane (Rose Leslie). It also intrigued with Alice Morgan’s supposed drowning following a bungled robbery in Antwerp, but there the wasn’t time (or Ruth Wilson) to play any of it out effectively. It feels satisfying then, that given the four year gap, the creators are able and willing to tie up loose ends. That they can tell a full story without pulling punches, even if it means killing Alice for good this time.
Season five has only one serial killer making it more feature-length as a result. So the first episode with its somewhat gimmicky LED mask and now iconic bus scene plays a little like trailer-fodder (I’d seen too much already to experience any real surprise fright, but it was still cool). If anything the season improves from episode two.
Everything makes sense in the world Neil Cross and co have built
Though a lot of fans share my enthusiasm, season five is not without detractors, who find it overly-violent and generally over-the-top. To me this is misguided given the very first episode’s opening scene in season one saw the titular copper chasing a paedophile off a precipice and into a coma (yes, John’s always commited morally questionable acts in order to solve crimes). It also offered up three brutal murders (including a family dog). That and a bungled attempt to catch a killer John rumbles due to the fact she doesn’t exchange yawns, proving she’s the empathetically bankrupt culprit –I’m still not convinced this is a foolproof approach. Everything makes sense in the world Neil Cross and co have built. It feels for all the world like a vast chunk of the British population has gone and pandered to the sniffier verdicts and then formed an opinion which isn’t theirs (see Google reviews to reach enlightenment). There’s been no tonal shift since John madly dashed onto our screens a decade ago. Luther has always had the propensity for at best uncomfortable viewing and at worst brutality and gore. So by now I’d have thought those still watching would have made their peace. The show is pretty highly rated where it matters –season five has the highest viewing figures of the bunch in the UK to date. Perhaps then, it’s simply a victim of Idris Elba’s success; and I wonder whether Luther would have found a much more universally agreeable cult audience if not for this. Hell though, Luther is Luther and Idris is Luther and we probably wouldn’t have had a season two let alone a season five without Idris Elba and his dogged persistence at singing the show’s praises, so its fine by me.
London itself has always been one of Luther’s major characters, and season five does not disappoint, but rather expands its locations (and even goes cross-continent at one point). The stark white cliffs and John’s home there (“the days seem to fill themselves” –season four, but we realise they probably fill themselves with Alice and John’s inability to switch off, and indeed, to switch off the news –season five). We revisit Alice’s parents home too –a dusty monument to season one, and where it all began. And then London itself with its wicked streets, askew suburbia and rain-soaked colour palette, transforming double deckers and side-streets into nightmare territory. As ever, the settings are on-point and fit the mood perfectly.
For the first time I find myself more compelled by what I would ordinarily see as a side-story to the main event, that being the hunt for the killer. You’re really following John, Alice and George Cornelius ((Patrick Malahide), that old-school London mob-boss from the last season). The serial killer/s: Jeremy (Enzo Cilenti) and Vivien Lake (Hermione Norris) are a surgeon and psychiatrist respectively and begin to feel somewhat secondary the more things progress, which I know a lot of people have had difficulty getting behind. Things start out twisty-turny, where the Lakes use James Houser (a disturbed client of Vivien’s) as both a sacrificial lamb and scapegoat for Jeremy’s killings when he is almost caught. There’s intrigue and horror to their story but things culminate perhaps a little too quickly for some viewers towards the end. This doesn’t bother me too much, but perhaps this is why the Lakes feel less iconic compared to some of Luther’s previous villains: I’d argue for the likes of the Millberrry twins (both Steven Robertson), Graham Shand (Rob Jarvis) and DCI Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh) to top the billing in that department. Having said this, what we do get of Jeremy’s character is brilliant, and with two of his major talkie scenes –to a patient and also John and Halliday– you really get a feel for his narcissism, almost to the point of god complex. Despite his wife’s culpability in this crimes, there are some things she just won’t get behind. He drugs her in order to sneak a mistress into his underground dungeon. In a suitcase. She is one of two characters who manages to evade a horrible death at his hands (and there are plenty who don’t).
Unable to parade his killings publicly, the exposure of Jeremy’s incriminating art work doesn’t do him much good, but by this time he’s putting masks of his own face on corpses, and living out his happy families fantasy by inviting plumbers and sex workers to sit around a dinner table being …well…dead. This final Jeremy Lake showdown segment is completed in record time (Vivien’s already safely behind bars), but it’s spooky stuff nonetheless.
Jeremy’s doctor/patient speech is incredible:
Alice turns up with a wound courtesy of George’s shotgun and John patches her up. He’s not pleased to see her, and George wants her head on a spike for kidnapping his boy. We learn through flashbacks of John and Alice’s whirlwind romance at that lush little house by the sea I’d wanted more of in season four. We find out what happened in Antwerp, how Alice faked her own death (with money), and then we witness the full force of the mob bearing down on them both.
Things escalate as Alice kills George’s son and a hit for her goes out (she’d kidnapped him to get what George owed her –instead of trading cash for diamonds he’d chosen to take it all, and with it, Alice and John’s getout clause). John pays Mark North (Paul McGann) a visit to drop-off Alice and Benny “Deadhead” Silver (Michael Smiley) in the not-so safe house. The appearance of Mark, however welcome, and the fact Benny is suddenly allowed out of the office, makes me instantly uneasy. One or both of them, I know, is bound to wind up getting killed. That I care about Mark given the manner of his role in season one and his relatively small role since is testament to his likability. Benny too. Both are gentle souls wrapped up in all of the horror. Mark North it turns out, has been vegetarian since he was seventeen (a fact Alice finds entirely unsurprising). He obviously has a nice house and apparently a new wife: “Don’t drink all the orange juice and don’t get blood on the sofa”, he says. Unfortunately he seems to have jinxed the sofa/living room with this statement, but at least he lives to breathe another day. When Benny catches a bullet defending Mark in that selfless/foolish way characters sometimes do? Well, there are no words.
Brand new (and potentially fast-tracked) DS Halliday (Wunmi Mosaku) is happy-go-lucky but never evolves into anything more before effectively solving the case for John and catching Alice’s bullet which spirals us into final act territory and ultimately seals everyone’s fate. Which is a shame because although there’s the obvious shock-factor of bumping off Halliday so early into her tenure, we still have a DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) shaped hole that was not filled by either Halliday or Emma Lane, either of whom could have become more layered, interesting characters. Despite criticism, I think the fact John doesn’t have the chance to do much actual police work in this season is more to illustrate how he’s spread himself too thin and that the chaos Alice has thrown at him is simply too big to deal with at the same time as a case (or ever). I believe that’s what Neil Cross intended. This is escalation; where before things felt tough, now they feel impossible. And they are. Nobody can go on the way John has without consequences. His downfall is trying to save everyone and solve everything and he pays the ultimate price for it. After Alice’s fall, DSU Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley) removes John’s famous coat (he’s a bit the worse for wear at this point having taken two none-fatal shots from Morgan) and places it over his hands, apparently to cover the cuffs (George killed his own hired hitman, framing John for it with a phone-snap). This derobing has happened once before (at the end of season three, when Alice says “I think you should get rid of it” (his coat) and it lands in the Thames), but not like this. Will we ever see John plunge his hands into his pockets “to not spoil the crime scene” again?
If like me, you’ve recently rewatched all of the seasons (easily the best way to appreciate Luther as a coherent whole), or perhaps for the first time to prime yourself for numero five, you’ll notice a lot of seemingly deliberate repetitions. You’ll have registered the first season with the falling/dropping of Henry Madsen compliments the end of the fifth with Alice’s fall, but there are also plenty of other nods to previous seasons.
“Totally disco” – John Luther
John drinks tea, there are “wotcha”s and a “totally disco” (potentially referencing Jenny Jones (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) from season two). There ard also more apparent character references than in previous seasons; “I had this thing once with brothers” (a nod to the twins, Aka Robert and Nicholas Millberry from season 2) and Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves): “a really good cop”. Which all helps add to the sense of things coming full-circle. We also have all of the usual “now what?” and variations on “it’s not right” / “isn’t right”, which are the Luther equivalent of the Star Wars franchises’ “I have a bad feeling about this”.
Alice Morgan is dead? I must admit, I am gutted. Justin Ripley level gutted, though in a lot of ways this death made more sense to me. Alice has been dead before, and unless they think of some dazzling way to bring her back, it’d just be too silly to do so. Belief-suspending Luther may be, but I’m not sure I’d buy Alice falling from a great height onto concrete and then walking off in the guise of a balaclava-clad officer moments later. If anything the more poetic “fuck you” would surely be to make it look like John had killed her. Aaaand Halliday. Mission accomplished?
The end of the forth episode finishes on Nina Simone’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, the same track that left us bloodied and gasping beside Ian Reed’s shotgun-blasted body at the end of season one, accompanied by another “what now?”. Time will tell. I picture John in prison garbs, reviled for being an ex-copper in a distinctly Arkham-esque institute. Fighting to stay alive against a backdrop of larger-than-life grotesques, and potentially one or two he’s put away. Perhaps the first third of the movie involves him clearing his name, before they fast-track his reinstatment so he can halt the nefarious plot/tip-off he heard about in jail. Then he gets the coat back. Or perhaps numero five really was it? Apparently Neil Cross (series creator) gets tetchy whenever he’s finished a season and there are positive rumblings from Idris who spoke out about a film follow-up akin to Seven. Fingers crossed!