I have a weakness for TV shows about police and detectives more generally. Some are genuinely excellent -- The Wire, for instance -- and some are merely entertaining (that would be most of the rest). I used to watch Law and Order with some regularity, even Special Victims Unit, in spite of the fact that I find that particular iteration of the franchise not only tedious but morally deficient (the pleasure it takes in its own ugliness is second only to the smug pride the characters take in their own perfection). So my standards for the genre aren't exactly high, I'll admit.
I took an interest in Luther, a BBC detective series starring Idris Elba, first because I was curious what sort of British detective show would need an American actor, and because I love Idris Elba (again, The Wire). Well, turns out Idris Elba is British! So, that's one mystery solved. And for the first three episodes, I was mostly watching for him: the writing was okay, but -- much like SVU -- it seemed a little smug in places, a little too proud of its grasp of The Criminal Mind, a grasp that was (as it will be in any hour-long show) basically nonsense, the sort of excessively confident simplification that so often haunts the genre. And it felt, to be honest, a little exploitative at times.
There were a couple of continuing threads in the series: Luther's estrangement from his wife Zoe, who had found another man, and his relationship with Alice, a sociopath who murdered her own parents and got away with it. Alice immediately recognizes Luther's genius and becomes obsessed. This stuff was fine, but when an unexpected third element emerged in the fifth and penultimate episode -- a betrayal that made it impossible for things to continue as they had been -- the show seemed to find its legs. There were echoes of Othello here and there in the show, but of course a proper Othello requires an Iago, which is what the show found. And, here's the thing: suddenly it was fearless about ruining its characters' lives.
There had been a number of signs that the show would basically operate as a tragedy. Luther is an intellectual, but he's also a very large man with an uncontrollable temper, one who allowed at least one suspect to die (or nearly die) under his watch. In the first episode, we see him tear a door apart with his bare hands. Where his wife is involved, he tends to lose control. In a later episode, he throws something through his office window in full view of the entire unit, in spite of the fact he's currently under investigation for ethics violations and instability. He risks his career seemingly once daily, and his life nearly as often. However, unlike some shows featuring occasionally reckless cops, I always felt the odds were he would eventually ruin himself, that the status quo could not last.
In the fifth episode, this seems to happen. Central characters are killed in unexpected ways, Luther is sent on the run, his few real friendships are destroyed, and his career seems very likely to be over. So to do those of the people he's worked with, the young policeman he's taken under his wing, the officer who put her career on the line to keep him in work. By the sixth episode, some of these people are trying to kill him.
Luther is basically heroic, and so by the end of the series he comes around to make the right decision. Even still, he's screwed; his remaining allies make, in the last moment, an error that should put them all in prison. The cops are on their way. It seems impossible that they can talk themselves out of it, or flee, or otherwise repair what they have broken. There will apparently be another series, two episodes of two hours each, very soon. I don't know what on Earth they'll be about. As far as I can tell, all these lives are ruined.
This takes me back to when I was teaching introduction to creative writing, and I had one of those insights that you realize immediately should have been at the center of a whole day's lesson, or a week, or a semester's. We read a story by Daniel Wallace, from his novel in stories Ray in Reverse. The story was about a moment in Ray's life where he could have found love with a man. It seems clear, from the rest of the book, that Ray wasn't gay, but this story suggested that he was very probably bisexual, and that he could have been happy with this man, this artist. We talked as a class about how the reasonable thing to do in this moment would have been to explore the possibility of a relationship with this man. To take his time. To talk with friends about what he had come to know about himself. To find a way to accept himself, and to be happy.
Instead, he flees the man he could have loved, finds the woman he already failed to love, and asks her to marry him. In subtle ways and ways less subtle, it probably ruins his life.
We talked about how this was probably the right way to make a story, or at least a certain kind of story. You find a character with the capacity to ruin himself or herself. You figure out what would make that happen. And then you push them until they snap. They don't have to go all the way, of course -- the ruin can be very small, in a sense, so long as it seems the worst thing this character could do, the worst thing he or she could see or know or feel. You want characters who make big mistakes. Who live to regret.
We so often encourage and reward carefulness in writers. But I think that a lot of us could stand to be more careless. It hurts to break someone you made. But that's what fiction is for. To imagine that level of pain without having to live it.