THE SHOW: Luther
THE PAIRING: John Luther (Idris Elba) and Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson)
THE EPISODE: Series 3, episode 4.
THE MOMENT: Luther and Alice walk off into the sunset…
WRITER: Neil Cross
I love romantic comedies. In fact, I embrace them whole-heartedly. You know, as long as the leading man isn’t some kind of buffoon (I won’t name names). Men get the bond girls, so why can’t I have the romantic comedies (which I argue is just an extension of a fairy tale anyway so therefore doesn’t need to be realistic)?
Personal rant aside, romantic comedies follow a formula. Sure, a writer can be innovative and find a new way to approach said formula, but I guarantee it’s still there.
Typically there’s some kind of ‘meet-cute,’ a romantic pursuit, a separation, a grand gesture, and of course the happily ever after ending where the romantic pairing walk off into the sunset together.
So what then does any of this have to do with Luther, a dark and gritty detective series? If you’re unfamiliar with the BBC series (season 3 just aired on BBC America), it tells the story of DCI John Luther, the impassioned detective verging on self-destructive Byronic tendencies and his burgeoning relationship with questionably sociopathic Alice Morgan.
The relationship between Luther and Alice is at the heart of the series. From the beginning, the audience wonders if Luther will act on his obvious attraction to this woman with a genius intellect, yet psychotic bent. She is Irena Adler to his Sherlock Holmes.
So in a dark, almost warped contrast to romantic comedies, Neil Cross ends series three with his version of happily ever after. If Edgar Allen Poe ever decided to write a romantic comedy, it might have turned out a little bit like this. Cross takes this familiar formula of the romantic comedy and twists it to his own end. And he does it with just a touch of mad genius. How exactly did he actually convince us, the audience, to successfully root for the hero to be with a killer?
I’m not going to focus on every formulaic point of a romantic comedy and compare it to Luther. Obviously an episodic dark series is not a romantic comedy. But I am going to focus on a few in a comparative way.
First of all, let’s take a look at the meet-cute. This screenwriting term refers to the moment two characters are brought together in some kind of crazy way. The movie The Holiday describes it best when aging screenwriter Eli explains the term to Kate Winslet’s character:
“It’s how two characters meet in a movie. Say a man and a woman both need something to sleep in, and they both go to the same men’s pajama department. And the man says to the salesman: ‘I just need bottoms.’ The woman says: ‘I just need a top.’ They look at each other…and that’s the meet cute.”
What then is Luther’s version of this? In episode 1, Luther is given a violent murder case, which on the surface looks like a home invasion of a suburban couple. This leads him to the person who discovered their bodies…Alice Morgan (It’s her parents who were killed). The two meet in the exact opposite of a romantic setting. There’s no department store, no taxi cab, no coffee house, nothing cute whatsoever. Instead they meet in an interrogation room.
Cross’s take of the meet-cute then is the intellectual meeting of minds. Luther knows she did it. Alice is intrigued that he knows she did it. And she for the first time has met someone who matches her own genius. Most people wouldn’t have been suspicious of the doting daughter so quickly. But because he understands her, she is enthralled. After being interrogated, she even throws out the simple statement as if they had just met and chatted in a café: “Well I enjoyed our chat. You’re very interesting.”
After that, their relationship evolves and deepens. Alice quickly falls in love with Luther, which is surprising even to her since she previously lacked empathy toward any other human being. Luther doesn’t really hold the fact that she’s a killer against her. Why? He understands her motives and he develops feelings for her, against his better judgment.
Not only that, they become kindred spirits in a dark way with a deep understanding of each other’s souls. Later in the series, she even becomes his accomplice to prove his innocence when he’s been framed for murder. In fact, it’s a typical part of their relationship. She rescues him and he breaks her out of prison. I guess it’s their thing.
There’s also always this question hanging in the air every time they’re in a scene together: Will he throw his moral compass out the window and choose to be with this woman he’s clearly attracted to? For the most part, he’s able to resist Alice even though he wants to give in to temptation. But one day he’s going to choose to be with her…right?
That brings me to my next point…the grand gesture. If a normal romantic comedy will present the grand gesture (or declaration of love) with an engagement ring at a train station, a field of flowers or even a boombox outside the girl’s window, what then does Luther do?
Series three introduced vintage clothing shopgirl Mary Day into the story, creating a love triangle. Alice is on the run and away and Luther is at home taking on difficult cases while he’s dealing with a secretive inquiry into his detective work. Mary is the exact opposite of Alice. She’s kind, sweet and loving. Wholesome even. By the end of the season, when Alice makes her triumphant return, Luther has to choose between the two vastly different women. Alice points out to Luther that Mary is who he wants to want, not who he actually wants. What then does Luther want? And what choice does he make?
In a disturbing, suspenseful scene Luther is given a literal choice. The vigilante killer Marwood has a gun to the heads of both Alice and Mary. He wants Luther to choose between them. Which one will he choose to live?
In that key moment, Luther makes his grand gesture. “Have you chosen?” Marwood asks?
“Yes.” Luther replies after a long, tense scene.
“Then say it. Say her name. Say it now!”
At this point, the moment becomes ambiguous. Has he chosen Alice to live or to die? The subtext of the scene of course is revealing to us that Alice is who he personally chooses on a romantic level. Alice understands him and smiles, looking almost happy even if she’s about to die. He has made his version of a grand gesture.
“Say it again?” the killer questions. He seems as surprised by the answer as the audience. But then Luther clarifies:
“Shoot Alice. ALICE!”
In his choice, cleverly Alice is able to get the time she needs to stab Marwood so neither girl is killed. All of this leads me to the romantic moment of the week which happens to be the final scene of the episode (and in turn could be the final scene of the entire series).
After Marwood is captured and Alice escapes, Luther and Mary officially break up. She gives him the chance to go to Alice and that’s exactly what he does. Most romantic comedies will end with the hero or heroine running through the streets to get back to their love before it’s too late. They then kiss and walk happily into the sunset.
Luther does the same, only with Neil Cross’s stamp on it. Luther makes his way through the city, limping because of a shot leg, all the way to a place that’s special to the both of them. The bridge. The place they both threatened to kill each other. “Go on. Kiss me. Kill me. Do something,” Alice once said. That line describes the fine line between the two of them. They take the sparring relationship to a new level.
The scene is not without its irony, however. As soon as Luther begins his “romantic” walk across the city, a song plays in the background: “Never Gonna Give You Up” by The Black Keys. The song makes the ending all the more poignant (and even satirically funny) as the passionate tune plays in the background with lyrics such as, “Never gonna give you up no matter how you treat me. Never gonna give you up so don’t you think of leaving” and “I’ve made up my mind. You know, I’m here to stay.”
The first time we hear the actual lyric “Never gonna give you up,” the camera on a static shot reveals Alice in front of the bridge, alone, looking out at the water. The audience now knows for certain Luther is making his way to Alice. And she’s waiting.
Luther finally reaches Alice who turns to look at him approaching with a knowing smile (she knew he would come for her).
Which brings me to my last point about the romantic comedy formula: the hero’s character growth. Michael Hauge says it best in his article “Writing Romantic Comedies” about the ending:
“…it is only by standing up for who he truly is that the hero can achieve real fulfillment and self worth, and connect with the love of his life. The romance character is TRULY the hero’s destiny; she’s the reward for finding the courage to grow and change.”
Luther is able to end up with Alice because he decides to change.
In a symbolic moment as the two of them stand on the bridge, Alice tells him, “You really do need to lose the coat.”
The coat represented his past life, his past self. (And honestly, it wasn’t all that great. Everyone he loved continued to die around him). He takes his coat off and throws it off the bridge into the water below.
“Love is supposed to dignify us, exalt us. How can it be love John? If all it does is make you lonely and corrupt?”
On this same bridge in episode one, Alice declared to Luther: “Love is supposed to dignify us, exalt us. How can it be love John? If all it does is make you lonely and corrupt?” By deciding to be with Alice, Luther will no longer be lonely. Their relationship has come full circle.
“So…now what?” Alice questions.
Luther smiles and the two of them walk away from the bridge down the city streets together in an ambiguous ending. But it’s not hard to figure out. Luther chooses to walk off into the sunset with his beloved sociopath.
So is the story between Alice and Luther romantic then? Comedic? Depends on your point of view.
What did you think of the Luther finale? Did you find it romantic or too disturbing? Do you agree this was the most romantic moment of the week? Or did something else stand out to you? Sound off below…
Check out our other Romantic Moments. We put up a new one every Saturday.
Read Autumn’s review of Luther season 3.
Check out the Top 20 Bad Boys: Byronic Heroes in Film.