Season three of “Luther” returns to BBC America tonight with a four-night mini-series event, and by God, the series should come with a warning for those with heart conditions or who are susceptible to fainting spells. Season three is flat-out f*cking fantastic, every bit as good as you’ve come to expect from the series that is bleak, punishing, heart-pounding, and entertaining as hell.
Season three echoes the themes and storylines of earlier seasons. Once again, Luther (Idris Elba) is in pursuit of vicious, f*cked-in-the-head serial killers, and once again, internal forces within the department are also out to get him. Specifically, DCI Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who witnessed Luther cutting some procedural corners last year, has joined forces with a retired detective, DSU George Stark (David O’Hara), who is not above cutting the same procedural corners to take Luther down. Meanwhile, Luther has a new love interest this season in Mary Day (Sienna Guillory), a pixie-ish woman with whom Luther is instantly smitten. The problem, of course, is that the people around Luther — his friends and loved ones — have a tendency to die, often brutally, at the hands of the serial killers Luther investigates. However, the British equivalent of Internal Affairs has cooked up a theory suggesting that Luther himself is somehow behind those murders, and they’re not above using Luther’s affection for Mary to their advantage.
As in previous seasons, the serial-killer cases are tend to be broken down into two episode installments, with the first centered on a serial killer with a foot fetish. That case is brimming with horror-movie tropes, but it’s a testament to Neil Cross’ writing, and the excellent directing on the show that I found still myself yelling at my television screen when the serial killer cornered his victims in their house. The second, more vicious serial killer is a vigilante determined to kill those the police cannot keep off the streets. He’s Dexter with a sawed-off shotgun, only he’s actually terrifying.
The show, however, lives and dies by the performance of Idris Elba, who whispers with such force that his sweet nothings could knock a man to his ass. There’s so much effortless weight to his performance that some of series more crooked lines disperse into his gravitas. Cop shows have never seen the likes of John Luther, who has menacing voice of Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg and the strapping body to back it. He speaks volumes with grunts and whispers, and you can almost physically feel the weight of the burden he carries.
But as always, what really sets “Luther” apart from your standard police procedurals are the stakes involved. When a bomb ticks down on almost any other show, you expect that the hero will glide in and defuse it with a second to spare. In “Luther,” however, those bombs go off as often as they don’t, so there’s a real threat of danger in every confrontation. Characters — both major and minor — could die at any time, and they do, which we learned the hard way in season one when Luther’s ex-wife was murdered. With no hint of a fourth series, and a prequel movie in the works, there’s even a real sense that Luther could fall prey to either a serial killer or the internal mechanisms of the police force. The increased tension as the third season wears on is enough to burst a forehead vein, spraying geysers of blood all over your mobile devices. It is a brutally slick, and slickly brutal third season of one of the best British series of all time.
And yes, Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan returns, but to say anymore would spoil it.