Luther series 3 episode 1 review

Idris Elba returns as Luther in a promising, pacey episode of the detective drama that's sure to please loyal fans. Here's Tom's review...

This review contains spoilers. Read our spoiler-free review, here.

Two years after it last graced our screens, the BBC’s Luther is back. With that length of time away from TV, fans’ expectations for this opening episode will have been high. The majority of what is on show here works well, and provides a great deal of promise for the third series as whole.

The show literally explodes back onto the schedules, with DCI Luther and Ripley dragging anonymous criminals from a burning crime scene. Season three lays its cards on the table early – it is happy to throw the viewer into the thick of the action with the same confidence and swagger as before. It contrasts with the quiet opening of the last series. Yet oddly, it also mirrors the Russian roulette scene in the series two opener. After leaving the fiery crime scene, Luther returns home, alone, still clearly haunted by the murder of his ex-wife, Zoe. The imagery used is hardly subtle, but it works and shows that even after the events of the second series, Luther has yet to move on. He’s still haunted by the same ghosts, and establishes him well for the coming episode.

Luther’s journey home is also mirrored by that of Emily Hammond, the first murder victim of the new series. She walks home alone, and slowly undresses before climbing into bed. Eventually, after everything seems peaceful, her killer appears from under the bed. The scene is a great example of the confident direction on show from Sam Miller. Events are allowed to play out slowly and deliberately. The choice to remove incidental music in this scene is crucial, as when her murderer – an unnamed fetish killer – appears, the great crashing of strings creates a true jump-in-your-seat moment. That same heart-jumping effect is created again later in the episode, with the same murderer bursting out from under a plastic sheet in the attic of another of his victims. Both scenes embrace the horror element of the series to full effect, using the classic ‘monster under the bed’ psychology. As well as psychological thrills, there are plenty of visceral horrors too, with the fight in the attic and Ken Barnaby’s kitchen standing out.

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Alongside the investigation into the fetish murders, Luther and Ripley investigate the murder of internet troll Jared Cass. This plotline proved to be far more interesting, and provides many of the episode’s best scenes. Luther hanging loan shark Shaun Beamish off the edge of a high-rise tower block certainly provides visually striking thrills (Ed – see more on dangling people from buildings, here). For me though, the highlight of this plot thread is the visit Luther and Ripley pay to the home of Ken Barnaby and his wife. With Cass having terrorised them following the death of their young daughter, Barnaby clearly has motive. As Barnaby’s powerful account of Cass’ harassment unfurls, a new subtext unfurls with it. Lucian Msamati is brilliant in this scene, balancing distress and grief with guilt and a sense of old-fashioned English reserve. It is a powerhouse performance.

With all this on his plate, you might not think Luther has time for a social life. Yet when Mary Day crashes into his world, literally, there is instantly a flirty banter between the two. Their humourous, awkward repartee helps to lighten an otherwise heavy episode. Sienna Guillory provides a perfect choice as Mary, pulling off the kooky part with great warmth. She has a Zooey Deschanel-like quirkiness that proves very alluring. The script actually provides a few laughs along the way, but this sub-plot certainly helps to lighten the load.

Not everything in the episode works. Ripley’s relationship with Luther disintegrates rapidly after some prodding from DSI Erin Grey and her new cohort, retired copper George Stark. The duo is investigating Luther’s practices, with a vendetta to take him down.

In one scene, Stark strangles Ripley half-to-death in an effort to make a point about how someone in a position of authority or trust should not abuse that trust. If I were Ripley, nothing would make me trust Stark after that. In the climax of the first series, Ripley sides with Luther when all the evidence points to his mentor having murdered his ex-wife. Having risked his career and freedom so willingly before, it makes the quick implosion of their relationship jarring. I am not saying Ripley should never challenge Luther, but he has trusted him through far worse than the events with Ken Barnaby. It just seems a bit rushed, and weak character development.

Besides that main gripe, there is a lot to like here. Performances are strong across the board, with Idris Elba, Warren Brown, Sienna Guillory and David O’Hara particularly impressive. The direction is good and the action is paced really well. While far from perfect, the episode should please loyal Luther fans, and provides plenty of promise for the run of episodes ahead. After all, we have the return of Alice Morgan to look forward to…

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