“No, much as we would hate to admit it, we love to watch heroes suffer. And the greater the suffering and the more emphatic ability of the hero, the more we admire the hero…. I love to see heroes who fuel some kind of moral furnace inside them, who are driven to take on the evils of the world, despite the fact that the evils of the world are more powerful than them. And essentially can never be defeated, but they refuse to bow down. And in order to enjoy that aspect of the hero, you’ve got to put them through hell.” – Neil Cross (writer of Luther & Mama) in an interview for BBC America
In only fourteen heart-rending episodes over a forty-month period, Luther has set the standard of writing, acting, and production for crime dramas on both sides of the pond. I happened to stumble upon the series back in 2011 on Netflix streaming and, in a purely apathetic state of mind, decided to give it a chance—I had already caught up on all of my normal shows and needed something to watch while I ate lunch at my job. What actually happened that afternoon was something more akin to a divinely-appointed event where several of my interests were aligned into a single television show: horror, British television, and tragic heroes.
From the first scene of the show, Neil Cross’ writing and Idris Elba’s acting reveal a depth of emotion, tragedy, and a healthy dose of psychosis in the character of John Luther, the protagonist—a “copper” on streets of London. After an initial chase scene in pursuit of a particularly evil criminal, the show goes black and we are transported to six months in the future. We see that Luther has been placed under the internal microscope for misconduct and found innocent of the charges. He is re-instated and put on a gruesome new case and given a new partner, DS Ripley, an officer who actively sought out the position. It seems that Luther’s reputation for getting his man precedes him. It is at this point that the audience is brought into the world of John Luther along with his enemies and cohorts—including a genius killer named Alice Morgan (played by the incomparable Ruth Wilson). We’ll get to her later.
The absolute beauty of this show is just how soaked it is in subtle theological allusion, metaphor, and investigation—even down to the title of the show and main character. Neil Cross was asked about why he picked the name Luther for the main character and if it was meant to call up some sort of theological/mythological allegory or just a matter of liking the name. His response is telling:
“Sadly it’s the latter [liking the name]. I like how it has some weight to it. And I am very interested in theology. In fact, my first degree was in theology so it’s something that interests me greatly. I knew I wanted the show to be about the deep moral cost that exacts on the individual human being as they walk through the world, and that the main character had chosen this path. This was a specific moral choice that he made when he was a young man. So there’s no specifically theological link to Luther, but the theological echoes are deliberate.”
This is exactly why this show works on so many levels. The moral decisions made by John Luther are shown in all of their thanklessness. He seeks out the evil in the underbelly of London and attempts to bring it to the light, and all he gets in return are accusations and hurt. Much like The Dark Knight trilogy, the good guy ends up being cast as the enemy of the people time and time again, even though he is the only thing keeping them safe. It is easy to say that our sins affect the lives of others negatively, but TV or film seldom depict instances of doing good reaping those same negative consequences. Alas, this is the reality of a broken world, and it is not hidden in Luther, which makes the show extremely fertile ground for theological insights about humanity, love, hope, sin, morality, grace, and mercy.
Neil Cross continues with the marvelous insights about the creation of the property by focusing on “the greatest of the three”:
“This is a man who’s driven by a dogged belief in the existence of love in its finest forms. Where his everyday experience testifies to the opposite. Where the world is a kind of selfish place driven by depravity, he insists on believing in the reality of love and I think it’s one of the great appeals of the character.”
A man—more suited a priest than a ‘copper’—holds fast to a hope grounded in real love in the midst of experiences that attempt to tear that hope asunder. The emotional and existential effects of living with such hope while grappling with some of the most evil and depraved killers in London is what leads to the psychological edge that John Luther constantly teeters on. The audience is left to question not if he will crack under the pressure, but when. And as we shall see, although it may not recognized or named in the show, God is very much present in the life and story of his servant, Luther.
For our purposes, the torment that John Luther endures can easily be likened to that of Martin Luther, who argued and fought with his own demons while rediscovering the doctrines of grace in the Reformation. Neither man could live in a fake façade of spirituality; they both insist that if truth doesn’t hit us on the gut level then we are still in the clutches of unbelief. John Luther understands that there is good and evil, a kingdom of man and a higher kingdom, and that those who pursue truth and justice in a broken-down world will suffer because of it. John Luther’s suffering is for us all, to show us all that living in the realm of truth is anything but easy or convenient or free from torment by man nor power. It will cost us everything.
Stick with us over the next few weeks as we follow and unpack the third series of Luther, airing this month on BBC America.