The second episode of Luther finds writer/series creator Neil Cross settling into what I fully expect to be the series' standard formula groove for at least the next three installments: DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) applying his incomparable investigative and deductive skills to a Case of the Week while the more overarching concerns--Luther's relationship with his estranged wife Zoe (Indira Varma); the ongoing psychological chess game with the sociopath Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson); the ticking time bomb secret of the currently comatose perp Luther let take a life-threatening fall--further progress in the background. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--such is the nature of a crime procedural television series, after all--especially as practiced by Cross and director Brian Kirk here.
Said Case of the Week is an interesting one, revolving around a serial cop killer whose motivation is, naturally, not as clear as it may appear to be. Even if this thread isn't immune to cop show convention (yes, there is a "you're off the case!" moment), and Luther's heated confrontations with an imprisoned murderer with a connection to the culprit are far less tense and engrossing than his with Alice in the premiere episode (Sean Pertwee is a bit too ersatz-Hannibal Lecter-hammy to be as intimidating as obviously intended as the convict), the storyline culminates in truly memorable fashion. The palpable tension and suspense of Luther's face-off with the killer is almost secondary to Elba's harrowing performance, which turns the mere climax of the Case of the Week into a startling illumination of the character and his philosophy. It's a reflection of the care Cross has taken in constructing the series that all of the plot-driven concerns of this episode, from the cop killer thread to the ongoing threat of Alice, who this week creeps even closer to Zoe for anyone's comfort, ultimately serve as a study of the man at the center, who grows even more complicated and fascinating. As more formula-driven as this episode is than the last, it still manages to surprise, if not in plot progression then in the shifting character dynamics (the Luther/Alice relationship intriguingly evolves into more of the classically complex "frenemy" dichotomy as seen with comic book hero/supervillain archnemeses) and the raw immediacy of the performances. Based on the tease, the next episode looks to again follow the formula, but certainly by the end of the hour, the week's case will be closed in one way or another, but ongoing saga of John Luther will more likely be untidier than ever.