Lynching Luther: The Crime Thriller as Reflection of Psychology Tropes in Television

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In its three-season run, the British thriller series Luther (BBC, 2010-2013) has garnered universal praise for its acting performances, especially that of its lead, Idris Elba. In virtually every other respect, critics have been ambivalent about the show, especially its use of clichés of American police procedurals. The character of DCI John Luther is indicative of the series’ general approach: he is unmistakably constructed from stereotypes of US television, yet not in a straightforward way, as he combines elements of both the impulsive, physical maverick cop and the psychologically adept, cerebral detective – two character-types traditionally rather juxtaposed as irreconcilable opposites. In this fashion, the overall story arc meshes together elements from Thomas Harris-style serial killer fiction and intuitive detection in the tradition of George Simenon’s Maigret. Similarly, the individual episodes oscillate between carefully plotted psychology and lurid plot-holes. In other words: taken at face value, Luther is as interesting as it is messy.

This paper proposes a reading of Luther that reconciles its many inconsistencies by treating it as if it was a David Lynch movie. If one approaches the series with the allegorical mindset presupposed by e.g. Lost Highway (1997) or Mulholland Drive (2001), DCI John Luther’s journey appears less outward than inward, to such a degree that we might surmise that he never leaves the mental institution to which he is confined in the first episode. The improbabilities of the series, from the docile Ian Reed turning homicidal maniac to the vigilante who needlessly kills a cop, as well as the downright odd moments (such as the hero’s wardrobe of six identical suits), all fall into place if read as the struggles of Luther’s mind to regain its sanity.

From this vantage point, Luther appears as a meditation upon various psychological models. Its first season is about negotiating one’s place in society by trying out subject positions in relationships structured like Freud’s structural model of the psychological apparatus. Initially, the protagonist appears as the id to his superior Rose Teller’s super-ego and his former partner Ian Reed’s ego, a configuration his subconscious tries to overwrite by juxtaposing those two characters to sociopath Alice Morgan and sophomore detective Justin Ripley. The second season finds Luther at odds with several mother figures, a surrogate daughter and an estranged student/son, i.e. in a position where Freudian models of oedipal relationships stop being adequate. The third season’s anti-Luther task-force marks the forceful return of Freud’s simple hierarchic structure, which eventually gets superseded by the acceptance of the more complex Jungian model. Ultimately, his acceptance of the shadow (Alice Morgan) empowers Luther to form a wholesome animus-anima relationship with Mary Day. While Luther may not be an overt and scientifically grounded examination of psychoanalytical practices, it is doubtlessly a show that exposes and toys with the kitchen-sink psychology used in crime fiction, laying bare its inadequate heritage and hinting, in the end, at a richer model that favors archetypes over stereotypes.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDas andere Fernsehen?! Eine Bestandsaufnahme des "Quality Television"
Place of PublicationBielefeld
PublisherTranscript Verlag
Publication date2016
ISBN (Print)978-3-8376-3187-6
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-8376-3187-0
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • British thriller series
  • Idris Elba
  • American police procedurals
  • Character analysis
  • Psychoanalytical models
  • Freudian structural model
  • Serial killer fiction
  • George Simenon’s Maigret
  • Psychological allegory
  • Television stereotypes


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