We must wait until the feast proper for the “Doctor Who” Christmas special and all the way to New Year’s Day for the next installment of “Sherlock,” but the BBC is handing out one sugarplum early this year: The return of Idris Elba as the deeply troubled and equally dedicated tracker of super-crazed serial killers, DCI John Luther.
Oh, and in case you did not previously believe in Christmas miracles, the coat’s back too. As fans of British TV detectives and Time Lords know, you just can’t keep a good coat down.
Even when its occupant has an insanely busy film career. As with “Sherlock,” “Luther” has been threatened by its own success or at least the success of its star as well as its creator, Neil Cross. For a while it seemed that the Season 3 finale might have been it. But both Elba and Cross remain committed to their mutual creation, and though Season 4 sees the typical four-hour, four-episode mini-series reduced to a three-hour special on BBC America, we’ll take what we can get.
Especially when what we get is an emotional, necessarily freaky but surprisingly logical and altogether satisfying story and, one hopes, a reset for future seasons.
Things got a little crazy in Season 3, even by the series’ admittedly baroque standards. Known for his often unorthodox methods and high casualty rate, DCI Luther became the target of a personally vicious and covert inter-departmental investigation that made no logical sense (why covert?) but managed to result in several Really Big Moments, including the death of his partner, DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown), a big bloody shootout and the return of Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson).
As the tireless foe of psychopaths, Luther has crossed paths with some of the nuttier residents of Londontown, but no villain this side of Moriarty has had the charm and staying power of Wilson’s Morgan.
Having matched wits in Season 1, the two developed that psychotic law-versus-lawlessness chemistry so beloved by screenwriters everywhere, but Wilson’s particular brand of coy menace, accompanied by Elba’s ability to juggle Justice’s shining sword and an understanding heart, allowed the couple to (mostly) transcend the shtick.
Indeed, during the end-credit scenes of Season 3, Alice finally convinced Luther that his talents were lost on the British police department.
“You really need to lose the coat,” she said, and in one of television’s biggest winks to both the audience and literary symbolism, Luther heaved his iconic tweed into the river.
But if Luther honestly thought he was going to run away with Alice, the audience knew different. For one thing, Ruth Wilson is now burning up the screen in “The Affair,” and for another, well, as Luther would say, “it just doesn’t make sense, does it?” John Luther kicking back on a beach with a psychopath.
Who is, quite conveniently, now dead. Apparently. We open on Luther’s self-imposed exile, in which he is already contemplating the abyss only to be interrupted by DCI Theo Bloom (Darren Boyd) and DS Emma Jones (“Game of Thrones’” Rose Leslie), here to tell him that Alice has been killed in a car accident.
Life is not easy for most dramatic leads these days, but even among the tortured souls of prestige television, John Luther is something of a Job. His beloved ex-wife was killed by his initially beloved partner and then John was blamed for it. He had his hand nailed to a table in an attempt to save a young woman from the rape-film industry, he doused himself with gasoline and played with a lighter to keep a game-playing murderer distracted. He has been betrayed by people he works with, lost any woman he ever liked (admittedly, he is a very distracted date), and now blames himself for Ripley’s death.
Such a tragedy pile-up could easily become laughable, except no one laughs at John Luther. Cross is free to go full-bore crazy with his villains and his back stories because Elba fills out every unlikely corner of plot and character with humor, pathos and passion just as perfectly as he fills out the contours of that coat.
Luther doesn’t believe that Alice is dead or, if she is, that she died accidentally. Then, of course, something else terrible happens and, before you can say “tickety boo,” Luther is once again in full battle gear (apparently he had another tweed stashed somewhere) and tracking London’s most theatrical loonies, in this case a serial cannibal.
DS Jones is now Luther’s foil, and Leslie easily keeps pace with the endless dance around the moral complexities of a kill-or-be-killed world, a dance Luther and his many fans simply cannot resist.
It’s good to have you back, John. Oh, and love the suit.
Where: BBC America
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under age 17 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)