Daytime TV: Running on empty

Gary Day looks into the psyche of the troubled detective Luther, a man trying to escape his past

May 20, 2010

There's a new cop in town. Luther. John Luther. He is tough and he is troubled. You can tell Luther is tough because he doesn't do up the top button of his shirt. This alone is enough to strike fear into the criminal fraternity. Those who refuse to be cowed by the sight of a loosened tie soon learn the error of their ways.

The villain in last week's episode, an ex-soldier, decides to kill Luther for complicated Freudian reasons (Luther, BBC One, Wednesday 12 May, 9pm). Cornering him on a walkway in a block of flats, he first of all tries to subdue him. This proves quite tiring. After pounding Luther's face with an assault rifle for several minutes, the villain had to stop for a rest. He had done more damage to his rifle than to Luther, for whom the battering was the equivalent of a facial scrub. His complexion positively glowed. The villain redoubled his efforts. He was in danger of overexerting himself for very little effect. A little trickle of blood, like an ironic smile, appeared over Luther's left eyebrow.

With his rifle now completely out of shape, the exhausted villain has just enough strength to pull out a small firearm. But instead of shooting Luther, he engages him in a game of Russian roulette. The chambers click round to the last one. The villain places the barrel gratefully against his temple. He is worn out. It would be a relief to cease upon the walkway with no pain. But it just isn't his night. Luther headbutts him so hard that when he wakes up, all he can remember is his name, rank and serial number.

Don't mess with Luther. Not only is he tough, he is troubled. It is a terrifying combination. You can tell Luther is troubled because he never walks anywhere, he runs. What is he running from? His past, of course. He let a suspected child-killer, Henry Madsen, fall from a great height. But despite plummeting a few hundred feet and bouncing off several girders, Henry survived. He's in a coma and will probably sit bolt upright in episode six and say "J'accuse" to Luther. It's not clear whether our hero is troubled because Henry survived or because he did not bring him in to face trial.

Luther is a supersleuth. A criminal could have a DNA makeover but would wake one night to find Luther staring down at him. Finding the culprit is not a problem, bringing him or her to justice is. In the first episode there was a hysterical call from a woman saying her parents had been murdered. Barely had she put down the phone before Luther screeched to a halt outside her door. Barely had she opened the door before Luther was in the hall, the kitchen, the lounge and the bedroom. "There is something wrong here," he said. Well, yes. There were two dead bodies, three if you count the dog.

It was the dog that attracted Luther's attention. The discovery of parts of the murder weapon lodged in its stomach confirmed his suspicions that the caller, one Alice Morgan, had killed her parents for complicated Freudian reasons. But Luther couldn't prove it. Alice was free. She didn't really want to go back to being a particle physicist. Luther is a much more interesting object of study.

Luther already has a counsellor, DCI Reed, to whom he pays as much attention as Pinocchio did to Jiminy Cricket. "Don't you ever answer your phone?" he asks Luther, whom he finds standing on the roof. He often finds Luther there. "If you get a reputation for answering the phone," says Luther, staring down the street, "it never stops ringing."

Luther's phone never stops ringing. It is usually Alice. "I've been reading Bertrand Russell," she announces. DCI Reed could learn a thing two from Alice. Luther listens to her. In the previous episode, she threatened his ex-wife. That made him sit up and take notice, I can tell you. In this episode, she nets him with philosophy. They are having an ongoing conversation about life. Luther believes in love, Alice just likes playing games. She feels she has an affinity with Luther. Each week we are winched a little lower into his unconscious.

They speak on a bridge. It is deserted. It is the same wherever Luther goes. That open top button makes people afraid to leave their homes. The emptiness heightens the action and intensifies the issues: guilt, failure and remorse. The detective is descended from Oedipus, the man who discovers that he is the criminal he seeks. Sophocles' protagonist was able to put things right but Luther can only make them a little less wrong. Which is about as good as it gets in our fallen world.

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