I am coming up on my one-year anniversary of Mockingbird graciously allowing me to become a contributor. It all started with my series on the intersections between horror cinema and Christianity: “In the Event of a Cosmic Horror”. So I couldn’t leave the Halloween season alone without some sort of post dealing with horror and the faith. In that spirit, I would like to present my case for why BBC’s Luther is the scariest show on TV.
Television has broadcast its fair share of horror over the years—The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The X-Files, Supernatural, Fringe, American Horror Story, just to name a few. It has even allowed elements of horror to seep into crime procedural dramas by trying to make the “bad guys” less predictable and more psychotic, e.g. CSI or Criminal Minds. All of this to say, elements of horror have been a part of television for quite a while. So in the midst of all of these shows—some of which are fan and critic favorites—on what possible basis could a person claim that Luther is the scariest show on TV?
I would like to pinpoint three specific reasons. I will start with the one that will probably create the most concern for the health of my own psyche. The first reason I consider Luther the scariest show on television is because of the soft spot it has for its villains. One might dare say that the show portrays its villains in a downright sympathetic light–at least as opposed to the normal, rigid good/bad distinction. The shows I listed above, on the whole, keep the good/bad distinction intact. There are the good guys—no matter how flawed or haunted by their past they may be—and the bad—those they are after. On Luther, it’s not as clear-cut. Of course, depicting villains in a sympathetic light is a serious risk. If the viewer finds even the slightest identification with the villain in himself or herself or someone they know, then it makes us nervous and uncomfortable. And you don’t want to hit too close to home, not if you want people to keep tuning in. Like Neil Cross explained in an interview for The Guardian,
“People are scared of the fact that monsters are in a continuum with the normal, that there’s no divide; too often we need ‘evil’ to come in from outside, rather than lifting a stone beside us.”
Luther casts its villains as human, as a next-door neighbor, the cabbie driver, the bookshop owner, the artist, the cop, etc. and often shows that their psychosis derives from a deeply distorted human characteristic. There is no class of non-humans out there called psychotics that are foreign to the reality of everyday life. They are broken humans who, because of their past, their own sin, and possible mental illness, express that brokenness in the taking of life. The show seems to suggest that any of us, given the right makeup and circumstances could become psychotic–and that’s profoundly unnerving. Maybe your neighbor is not just a sweet old man, but also someone who is hiding something; that, maybe, we all are hiding secrets under our floorboards.
The second reason is because of John Luther himself. John Luther is a scary and intimidating character. Something is not completely right with him. It’s not that he is just a ne’er-do-well like Dr. House. Something is very unstable about him; he may, in fact, identify with the villains in some ways, because he feels the tug and pull of his own possible psychotic breakdown. As Cross put it, again, in the same interview:
“And if I was going to have a troubled cop, I’d have him even more than troubled. On the verge of mentally ill basically, that’s what I’m skirting. And reminding people that murder is frightening.”
The very first scene of the first episode of the show does not delineate John Luther and Henry Madsen as good and bad, respectively. Luther makes a decision that should leave a strange taste in the viewers’ mouths. Perhaps he is not significantly different from those he chases, but, instead, just happens to be on the opposite side of the badge from them. His unsettling nature comes back to haunt him time and time again over the course of the three series/seasons. But, again, like the villains on the show, Neil Cross’ sympathy is displayed for John Luther as well. There is nothing more disturbing than a protagonist who is realistically broken and conflicted about how he cuts the divide between good and bad.
Thirdly, there is Alice Morgan. This is as good a time as any to introduce the cult favorite character of the series. If John Luther is the “good guy” who often doesn’t come off looking all that good, then Alice Morgan is the “bad guy” who often does. Matter of fact, in the duration of the whole show, I find myself conflicted on who I cheer on more. Alice Morgan makes her first appearance with a bang in the very first episode of the first series. Alice is a certified genius and a research scientist at the university, who kills her parents in cold blood. Not even Luther can prove her guilt even though he knows that she did it. Her ideology is in complete opposition to Luther on almost every level, yet, throughout the series, she ends up being a severe grace for a hunted John Luther.
Neil Cross was interviewed by BBC America and had this to say about the character of Alice Morgan:
“Yes. I am extremely gratified that Alice has become such a cult figure because I love Alice. I could quite happily write Alice all day, every day. She’s great company. One of the fascinations we have with psychopaths—although she is in no way a traditional psychopath—is not that we want to kill and steal, but it’s the lack of guilt. That attraction that you could go through your life never feeling guilty for stupid things you’ve said or cruel things you’ve done, or mistakes you’ve made. To kind of go through life not caring is a spectacular attribute. It’s one I wish I had.
She takes no pleasure in killing. It’s more of an inconvenience for her. I always say when Alice kills it’s like killing a wasp with a rolled up newspaper. The best way to deal with them is to just get them out of the way. It’s not a real source of pleasure for her, it’s just something she has to do now and again.”
In other words, Cross wants the audience not only to question the goodness and stability of its protagonist but admire and maybe even cheer for its primary antagonist. There is something genuinely attractive about a life lived without guilt. So Cross is not peddling escapist crime or moralistic fable. In its fairly blatant “sympathy for the devil”, Luther infers that maybe the horror we experience (and read about) is not as external as we would like to imagine–and that it truly is horrifying. It may sound nihilistic, but fortunately, that’s never where Luther ever leaves us. As upsetting as much of the show’s anthropology may be, it is also not the only aspect. John Luther’s uncanny ability to sympathize with his prey is also the doorway to the little glimpses of redemption and hope we see. The darkness is neither meaningless or all-encompassing. It may even make the light that much brighter, and the victories that Luther snatches from the jaws of defeat that much sweeter.