Luther: Top 5 Tropes in the Opening Episode
Since coming out in 2010, Luther has been heralded as a British counterpart to the trend of hard-hitting American drama, especially American cop shows. Of course, with every trend comes a saddlebag of tropes, and Luther is full of them. This doesn’t necessarily detract from the show – it’s critical success has been very good, and (let’s be honest) Idris Elba could carry any show regardless of its merit. Luther’s tropes range from general cop-show (he’s a liability, but damn he’s good!) to further out into general TV and film. In the first episode of Luther we’re introduced to the show’s primary villain Alice Morgan who, as a red-headed sociopath genius, brings some tropes of her own.
Looking at this pilot a few years after its initial release, now that the American cop drama phase has started fizzling out, really shows how many tropes this genre relies on. The first episode of any show generally uses them to demonstrate to the audience what kind of programme this plans to be, and Luther is a great example of the gritty cop-show institution.
5. Rule-Breaking Cop is the Best At What He Does
See: Bad Boys, Justified, Miami Vice
Even before the opening credits we see that Luther doesn’t play by the rules. He’s a bad-boy cop whose gut comes before procedure. He’s chasing a paedophile serial killer through some warehouses and then allows him to fall to his (likely) death, even though he could’ve saved him. Luther’s negligence with this comes down on him, and we return to the story after his 7-month suspension for this. His manager tells him that “any pro-active strategies must be signed off by me” but clearly knows full well that this will not happen. His manager’s boss tells her that he’s a liability, but she is willing to take him back as he’s such a good officer.
When Luther first questions Alice about the death of her parents after an apparent home invasion, he becomes irrationally convinced that she is the perpetrator. As she did not mimic his yawn in the interview room, he comes to the slightly far-fetched conclusion that she is a narcissistic sociopath who killed her parents for the thrill of getting away with it. To find evidence against her, he goes as far as breaking into her flat and having non-police-commissioned, oddly sexual arguments with her. He even finds the remains of the gun that she used to kill her parents, but rather than taking it into evidence (in fairness, it wouldn’t have been considered as he obtained it illegally) he throws it in the river so that she can’t have her trophy. This is almost Dexter-esque in its quality of a police employee using alternative means to punish a criminal knowing that they would not be able to convict them. A nice idea, probably not sustainable in the real world.
4. Cop is Married to the Job
See: Bones, NCIS, Castle
The majority of protagonists in police dramas (and often medical dramas) are single because their career has become their life. When we first meet Luther, he is looking to a reunion with his estranged wife Zoe, but Zoe has other plans. Like NCIS’ Gibbs or Bones’ Booth, Luther has not been able to hang onto his marriage(/long-term relationship) as his wife feels neglected by his insistence to choose his work over her. In a large amount of TV dramas, the protagonist can’t handle a long-term relationship in the first place. From a writer’s perspective the protagonist is then given the freedom to date random and incidental characters, giving the show a bit of spice here and there when needed. However, police employees, such as Castle’s Beckett or Bones’ Brennan, very rarely “indulge” in these encounters (though perhaps in part due to the trope that respectable women don’t have casual sex) because they are well and truly married to their jobs.
Unlike Brennan, who was unfazed at the end of a long-term relationship, Luther becomes a wreck when he realises he is losing Zoe. He hammers on her front door and smashes up bits of her house (seriously not OK, even if he is a bad-boy cop), so while he’s clearly married to his job, it’s not because he’s one of those geniuses who prefer to live in isolation. There’s no doubt that he loves Zoe very deeply, but the cowboy-cop in him turns her into a perp that he can’t let go of. As such, he treats her in a similar way that he treats Alice Morgan: arriving unannounced at her house or work and unprofessionally interrogating her. Luther’s combination of work-obsession and aggressive negotiation tactics may make him an excellent police officer, but clearly not the best husband.
See: Boardwalk Empire, Vampire Diaries, Green Wing
TV and film like to draw a very thin line between crushing on someone and turning into a full-on stalker, often for either a comedy or horror effect. Whereas Sue’s attraction to Mac in Green Wing was hilarious (if a little bit horrifying), films such as Homecoming are based entirely on the trope of a crush turning sour. In the first episode of Luther, we see Alice Morgan develop a bit of a crush on Luther (who wouldn’t though? He is super dreamy after all). She starts googling for him, as we have all done with people we fancy – don’t even try and deny it – and that’s when she starts to get a bit weird. While most of us do everything we can to cover up that we accidentally-on-purpose found out the object’s of our affections favourite bands, films, shows, colour, animals etc. etc., Alice Morgan is pretty upfront about it, which appears to demonstrate her sociopathic tendencies.
Like all crazy stalkers, Alice then discovers that Luther already has a love interest, and she isn’t too pleased about it. She goes after Zoe and pulls her behind a building, sticking a sharp object in her ear and threatening her. She tells Zoe that Luther attacked her, and so uses Zoe as a weapon against him, in addition to destroy what little feelings remain in her for her former husband. Obviously Luther isn’t thrilled, but that’s what Alice was going for. For a stalker like Alice, the attention that Luther gives her doesn’t have to be positive, and in this first episode she appears to be taking any attention that she can get.
2. Intelligence = Insanity
See: Smallville, Bones, Hannibal
Sociopaths and psychopaths are often depicted as incredibly intelligent, and vice versa. To be a psychopath in civilised society comes hand in hand with being brainy enough to know how to disguise your symptoms. Take a look at American Psycho: Patrick Bateman is incredibly smug at how smart he is to outwit everybody and cover up multiple (alleged) murders. According to your TV, people who are too smart go insane by default, looking down on all the sheep around them that brainlessly mill through life. The only answer is to start killing them. There’s nothing like the thrill of doing something you shouldn’t, so why not challenge the police to the ultimate game of chess? Not only that, but some more advanced serial killers have to be deeply intelligent to outwit the minds of the talented investigators that they’re up against, such as Zack in Bones.
This stems from the trope of the Evil Genius, which encompasses pretty much every Bond villain, as well as the majority of kid’s show villains. This quite dated stereotype has now been pared down and seemingly combined with the trope of Mad Scientists. Often made the lead killers in episodic crime dramas, this new breed of crazy-smart character is less obvious than previous incarnations. Alice Morgan was a child prodigy who enrolled into Oxford at 13, receiving a PhD in Astrophysics at 18. She admits in her first interview with Luther that this made her feel like a freak when she was growing up, which evidently is meant to set the stage for her narcissistic sociopathy. Indeed, her intelligence can only be challenged by her committing these crimes. The lesson we should all learn from this is that clever people are weirdos teetering on the verge of mental illness, and therefore we must shut them out lest they take us down.
1. All Mentally Ill People Are Violent
See: Six Feet Under, The X-Files, the whole horror film genre where the killer is actually the protagonist suffering from random mental illness
Probably one of the most frustrating tropes of recent times, particularly as mental illness is meant to affect 1 in 4 people each year. We’ve all heard of a film that does it: from Hide & Seek to Silent House someone is terrified of a violent anonymous entity and then, surprise!, it’s actually them all along, and they’re revealed to be a dangerous killer. Schizophrenia is usually the term thrown around for this, but Luther goes for narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies as reasons for these murders, as does Basic Instinct and Dexter, respectively.
The trauma of being intensely intelligent has driven Alice mad (although if I’d got a PhD from Oxford at 18 I’d be fairly narcissistic, wouldn’t you?) and, of course, the only way that madness ever manifests is violence. We first meet Alice as the person who called in the murders of her parents and family dog, in what looks like a house invasion whilst she was at the shops. Luther almost immediately recognises her as the killer, and diagnoses her as mentally ill although we weren’t informed that he’s had any kind of psychiatric training.
Obviously within this sphere Luther is right, and Alice’s mental illness means that she is not only violent, but sees her murder spree as a jewel in her crown. She keeps the ashes of the dog she shot, along with the burnt ends of the gun, on her mantelpiece as a trophy. As we know from shows like Dexter, sociopaths are predictable when (not if) they start murdering people, and always keep a trophy. You’d think that these incredibly intelligent, yet mentally ill, people would’ve realised by now that it’s their trophies which always give them away. As yet, this is not the case, and probably won’t be for a long time as a sociopath who walks away from a crime untainted doesn’t make for very good television. Alice is violent because she’s mentally ill, and in TV and film there often doesn’t need to be another reason.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Well done! I love crime dramas but I wouldn’t have thought of these tropes before. I can clearly see them now. I found the trope All Mentally Ill People are Violent really interesting and troubling. It seems so common place in fiction nowadays. I’d love to see someone subvert that trope sometime.
If anyone is interested in seeing more of Ruth Wilson, I would recommend you seek out Stephen Poliakoff’s “A Real Summer”, which is probably one of the two or three best pieces of fiction I have ever seen on television.
I was unimpressed
Luther acts like a three year old, throwing tantrums and pulling rank to get out of arrest for stalking his ex-wife, and everyone around him simply enables this behavior?
It was cliché ridden from pretty much the get go, I was also rather put off by the fact that no one in the show seemed to actually have a conversation they all did that annoying tv ‘statement’ speak. But the show got so much better after the first episode.
Glad to see an article about Luther! It is one of my favorite shows. Broadchurch and White Chapel are also great BBC shows that are similar, but I think Luther is still the best.
A British viewer here, who has seen the whole series. I thought it was worthwhile; certainly there are cliches, but they’re offset by some intriguing ideas and strong performances. Warren Brown is indeed good, perhaps surprisingly so, as before this he was mainly famous for appearing in ‘Hollyoaks’, a soap not exactly renowned for the quality of its acting.
I don’t know if I’d recommend this series. The Luther-Alice dynamic is interesting and a bit uncommon, but the crimes and criminals at the center of each episode are really kind of lame. Then again, they’re often not the point of focus, either.
Which is a problem because the cast in general is under-characterized, that is at least when they aren’t over-typed like Luther, much of whose behavior really does seem more like that of a mental patient than a wild or unconventional detective. This could be as much the fault of Elba as the writers.
Great character, saves the show from cliche.
How fun would it be if the cops all played by the rules though? We all love a maverick!
Enjoyed Luther very much. I saw all episodes back to back. Can’t wait for next season, which should come out within a decade lol
I’ve been intrigued by Luther for a while now, and meant to pick up the series. I’m a crime-drama junkie, and I’ve never really stopped to think about the tropes that draw me in and keep it going before now. Excellent piece!
Fantastic assessment on the opening episode — I just watched the first half of season one a couple weeks ago, and I can’t say I’m impressed outside of Idris Elba’s performance. It’s a good show, sure! But the tropes are certainly strong with this one. Maybe, in a weird way, it’s comforting to see a non-American cop show fall victim to the same cliches as the American versions — that if we in the US are so guilty of unbelievable plot lines (I mean, come on…this guy still has a job?) so to are our neighbors across the pond. The whole genre is tired, even when great actors carry the premise on their soldiers.
It’s such a shame that producers seem to think that deviating from these clichés is too risky. The cop show is so riddled with clichés that it would be easy to innovate with just a few deviations.
Great article. I really enjoyed this show, what I liked about it was that the villains were smart, because that made it harder not only for the cops, but for the audience to figure out what was going to happen next as well. I too liked your last point as I hadn’t thought about that as a trope before now.
Luther is a great show! I love Idris Elba even more!!!
As escapism/multi-tasking background, it’s better than most. But, there should be more backstory: e.g. Alice should have shared with Luther why she hated her parents enough to kill them (did the father sexually molest her, did the parents punish her as a child in some awful ways and the co-worker who sold out for diamonds – that was not put in any context to explain this extreme change in his character. On another note, I like the Alice character quite a bit – because she is intelligent, strong, NOT A VICTIM. It is EXTREMELY rare to see such female characters on the screen. I think humanity is overdue for a crime series where female victims turn the tables and 1) bring out a gun and 2) KILL the attacker. Or, in some clever way turn the tables e.g. a poke in the eyes, a kick to the balls, a baseball bat swinging along with a banshee yell. I am sick of seeing the female victim – again and again and again.
And, it is no accident.
Elba tends to be very good at acting and I have heard good things about the quality of this show, so it doesn’t surprise me that Luther might have a bit of depth.