Luther returned for its second season on BBC America last night. The episodes aired this summer in the UK and I, well, procured and watched them during that time. I’m not going to write weekly reviews about this season’s four episodes for a couple of reasons: I don’t have enough time and I wasn’t particularly engaged by them. So this short piece will explain why that is and generally discuss the short season as a whole. There may be a few spoilers within, but I won’t be discussing specific plot developments or anything.
Luther’s first season was so great because it continued to ratchet up the tension and insanity in the lead character’s life as time progressed. The last two episodes were completely bat-shit crazy and unbelievable in the best of ways, but it all worked because the stakes were real for Luther and the other lead characters. Luther had lost his wife to another man and was feeling all sorts of professional pressure and then suddenly, his long-time friend kills his wife and all hell breaks loose. Again, Ian’s actions in those final two episodes were sort of random, but it worked because it directly impacted Luther, a character who was already on the verge of mental breakdown at times. Most people wondered how the second season would deal with the wild cliffhanger and what that would mean for Luther moving forward.
Well, the answer that season two basically just walks away from all of that. It moves the story forward with Luther working in a new department, still grieving his wife’s death and haunted by all the other twisted things that have happened to him, but there’s not much said about the showdown at the end of season one. Alice is floating around the fringes of Luther’s life* and he and Mark are sort of friends now. It sure feels like Neil Cross didn’t want anything to do with the consequences of that cliffhanger.
*Seriously, there is way too little Alice Morgan in this season. Didn’t we agree as a society that we all needed more Ruth Wilson in our life? The scenes between her and Elba are electric in such an odd, somewhat uncomfortable way. Season three needs to pull her Alice back into the fold more. I would probably complain less just based on that alone.
Instead, season two of Luther spends most of its four episodes dealing with fairly traditional procedural cases that he has no personal connection to. Don’t get it twisted, the cases in season two are much more demented, weird, violence and uncomfortable and that certainly helps matters, but the overall story feels like it’s missing something at the center. There’s more of a “investigative team” element to these episodes, though Luther does of course go off the book and avoid orders and protocol. However, the process is a bit less interesting. Luther is always going to be a messed up genius and Idris Elba is so tremendous in the role that watching him try to figure out these creeps is still damn compelling.
However, there’s no real major ongoing thread to get invested in that creates real stakes and danger for Luther or those around him. Sure, Justin gets abducted in an episode and there is a new story about an acquaintance’s troubled daughter, but Cross’ scripts just assume we’ll care about people we’ve never met because the script tells us to and it ultimately feels tacked-on and half-assed. The series tries to make up for the lack of emotional stakes with grotesque and super-odd criminals and it partially does the trick. Every episode is still intense and very much worth watching and yet, I definitely enjoyed this season quite a bit less than I did the first.
Perhaps BBC asked Cross to make this season less serialized or perhaps he realized there was absolutely no way to top the dramatic insanity and emotional gut-punch that season one provided and so instead of attempting to top himself, Cross went in a slightly different direction. I can respect that decision, I really can. However, season two of Luther feels a lot less novel than the first. Dark, twisted creepiness goes a long way, but topping those things off with a pinch of real emotional stakes makes the story dramatically better. You should watch Luther’s four season two episodes. Just don’t expect the exact same brand of out-of-breath wrenching you felt last fall.