Even after being a bit thrown (and, admittedly, somewhat disappointed) by the Case of the (Two) Weeks(s) emphasis--to say nothing of the rather tidy and swift handling of some more overarching plot and character concerns--of the previous episode, I should have known better than to ever doubt Luther scribe Neil Cross and even slightly entertain the mere thought that he was growing complacent with his ever-complex creation. As the third episode of this third series proves yet again, Cross proves to have, to use a tired expression, a method to his madness--or, perhaps I should say, a downright menace to his madness, as the penultimate installment of this series (and perhaps the entire run of the programme on television) not only brings into clearer perspective the arc of this four-hour stretch, but the three-series journey of DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) as a whole.
Surprisingly and most ironically, if anyone is complacent as this hour begins it's Luther himself. With his nemesis DSU George Stark (David O'Hara) held at bay for now, partner DS Justin Ripley's (Warren Brown) loyalty cemented and confirmed once and for all, and enjoying the first tastes of a new romance with nice-'n-stable shopkeeper Mary Day (Sienna Guillory), our beleaguered copper looks to finally have achieved some semblance of peace--and that most unlikely-to-the-point-of-alien notion gives Elba the rare opportunity (both within the context of this show and in general) to play some lighter notes, which he hits at just right pitch. Luther's borderline giddiness, especially when Ripley arrives at his doorstep to begin their work day, is played just shy of silliness--after all, he would very plausibly have a bit of an exaggerated twinkle in his eye after indulging in a long-overdue release (bad play on words intended) after some long dark, years of angsty repression since series 1--and Elba, infusing a bit of his own offscreen personality, clearly has just as much fun playing it as Luther has with being in this positive space. (Ditto Brown, whose looks of what-the-fuck? bemusement at his longtime cohort's highly uncharacteristic emotional openness and sweetness are priceless.)
Initially, these moments feel a bit jarring, but such as it should be once that work day begins, and Luther and Ripley are thrust back into more familiar territory when a vengeful vigilante starts doling out his own brand of severe justice upon various criminals around the city. The villain of this Case of the (Two) Week(s) may not be as larger-than-life ghoulish as that of the last two weeks, nor are there really any outright scare sequences as in those episodes, but such is clever and rather sly refocusing done here by Cross and director Farren Blackburn, assuming the reins from Sam Miller. Although a newcomer to the Luther world as a whole, Blackburn shows an assured handle on all of the characters, their relationship dynamics, and their respective arcs over the years--which, beyond a procedural plot or watercooler-buzz-building set pieces, is what the hour is truly about. The specifics of the vigilante's motivation are rather moot, the real point being the clear parallels between his actions and modus operandi and Luther's own often less-than-reputable methods in adhering to his code of honor, with the killer's emergence coming as Stark regroups, along with an increasingly doubtful DCI Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird), in his quest to take down Luther for his law enforcement sins--not surprisingly bringing Mary into the mix, armed with some harsh truths about her new paramour. While given a bit more heft in this installment, Mary continues to exist as more of a pure-hearted ideal than fully-fleshed out character, but Guillory again goes a long way in making her likable and believable through the fine shadings she brings by simply, matter-of-factly underplaying, and she shares a palpable rapport with Elba in both the pair's lighter and heavier moments.
But the most striking and shocking parallel comes from a more macro sense, between this next-to-last episode in this series and that of the first, with some key character evolution and therefore contrast gained from that buffer that was series 2. One character may be in immediate physical jeopardy as a closing cliffhanger, but the one whose fate more precariously hangs in the balance is that of Luther, who once again has his world and worldview upended in most dramatic and devastating fashion. While the audience has witnessed him gain some perspective and tenuous peace over time, there's always the danger of any little thing setting off his innate, volcanic volatility in the wrong way--and now faced with another hugely tragic turn of circumstance, Luther could very well be poised to fall into another desperate and destructive tailspin, bringing back to fore not only his bad habits, but his very worst: hello, Alice.