Having already earned its share of admirers stateside, “Luther” returns to BBC American in what’s being billed as a four-night event, but which really isn’t. The third installment in this grim cop franchise — worth seeking out primarily for star Idris Elba — actually plays like a pair of movies, split up to air over four consecutive nights. As always, the show mixes particularly sadistic criminals with a bureaucratic hierarchy that doesn’t know quite what to do with Elba’s driven, tortured, rule-bending lawman, who experiences as much punishment as he metes out. If the third time isn’t quite the charm, the show isn’t without its brooding pleasures.
One nice part of the structure for the “Luther” faithful is the way in which writer Neil Cross weaves past plotlines and occurrences into each new visit to the life of DCI John Luther, who has suffered his share of loss — including the death of his estranged wife — over the previous outings.
This time, he again finds himself battling on parallel tracks, initially trying to stop a home-invasion killer, while another investigator (David O’Hara) seeks to mount a case that will put Luther away for corruption — placing Luther’s loyal partner (Warren Brown) in a difficult spot.
Parts three and four, meanwhile, introduce a new threat, which further drives home the question of where the lines between justice and vigilantism begin to intersect. Another continuing subplot involves Luther tentatively seeking to begin a relationship with a new woman (Sienna Guillory), although as the above description suggests, the copper already has quite a lot on his plate to juggle.
Although the series hardly breaks any new ground, Elba’s commanding presence — and Luther’s willingness to walk a tightrope in terms of police protocol — manage to elevate the material above standard procedural fare, as do the clever callbacks to earlier episodes and characters. (That includes a return by Ruth Wilson, whose icily efficient killer remains one of “Luther’s” signatures, although the series has never really equaled the opening salvo that featured her the most prominently.)
Notably, the second run of “Luther” left viewers with a sense of closure that felt as if that might be the end of it, and this limited arc (“miniseries” almost seems a misnomer) does much the same. If it’s truly over, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to see “Luther” take his cowboy code and ride into the sunset. And if it’s not, well, it’s equally comforting and always enjoyable to have Elba back on the case.