After a Five-Year Hiatus ‘Luther’ Returns for a Fifth Season With Flawless Intensity

After nearly a five-year wait we at last get the fifth season of “Luther.” The intensity of the show remains intact, much due to Idris Elba, who returns with the tired, solemn look of a born noir hero. It’s also impressive how flawlessly the storyline continues, combining a strange serial killer angle with gangster movie plot twists. Some of it is inevitably downright unbelievable, but the execution is masterful.

So as we return to cloudy skies over the U.K. Detective Chief Inspector John Luther (Elba) is dealing with an ongoing murder rampage by serial killer Jeremy Lake (Enzo Cilenti). The chap roams around at night, wearing a neon mask to obscure his face on CCTV cameras. Luther has a new partner, Catherine Halliday (Wunmi Mosaku), who does her best to stay cool when the unexpected gruesomeness of the job manifests itself. Meanwhile mobster George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide) is grappling with the kidnapping of his son. All he has is obscure footage sent over by the mysterious kidnapper, which of course makes the gang leader more ruthless and paranoid. On Luther’s end another gruesome body is discovered which makes the detective suspect the killer is escalating. To try and track down the predator Luther and Halliday start questioning Dr. Vivien Lake (Hermione Norris), who points the finger at James Hauser (Jami Reid-Quarrell), her patient who according to Lake, houses some pretty dark sexual impulses. Luther may have to violate his ethics a bit to stop the murders, while Cornelius begins to suspect the detective himself as he grows desperate to find his son.

The season premiere, titled “Episode 1,” understands that fans have been waiting for so long that there’s no point in playing around with the whole “slow burner” style now in vogue. “Luther” is a real thriller, obsessed with building atmosphere and tension. We open with a young man running down darkened streets, he’ll speak with a woman he knows, then later pounds on her door, begging to be let inside. The neon-masked killer is nearby. Elba knows this character so well he easily slips back into his shoes, walking over a crime scene with that brooding look that would have made for a perfect, updated James Bond. Benny (Michael Smiley) is back, helping Luther deal with being pulled between cases. At night they’re chasing a killer, by day they’re convincing one of Cornelius’s bodyguards, Errol (Michael Obiora), to wear a wire to one of the crime boss’s meetings. This leads to one of the episode’s moments of great suspense and comic relief as Errol is sniffed out by Cornelius and left to die with a bomb strapped to his neck, which Luther and Benny must of course race to deactivate (complete with a shot of crisscrossed colored wires).

Quite a few twists are expertly thrown around without cluttering the plot. Dr. Vivien you can guess is not all that she seems, and we get visual hints through framed photos in her house that she and Jeremy Lake might have been married at one point. One unnerving scene finds her staring down at a deranged Lake, sitting naked on the floor, cackling behind his mask. How he went insane, or what part she had in his transition into a killer are questions that will certainly keep us watching. Breakneck editing combined with sharp visuals show us just enough while keeping the rest on edge. And yet the writing never loses sight of the genre. Luther isn’t merely a rough thriller hero, he’s complex and still dealing with deaths from the previous seasons, in particular the murder of Benny Silver. Scarred and cheated by life one too many times, Luther is not beyond crossing lines, like manipulating Dr. Vivien into luring James Hauser out, to stop bloodshed. But it never ends and when they corner James he cuts his own throat, seeming to end the terror until Halliday connects some dots and another scene reveals James was a mere patsy, used by Vivien to cover for Jeremy.

“Luther” is so well-done that even moments that suspend belief come across as stylish and disturbing. There’s the scene inside a bus where our neon-masked killer assaults a passenger, in the middle row, without anyone having apparently noticed his presence. This is small compared the whole plot involving the doctor and her double killer scheme. The final scenes are fantastic in the grand cliffhanger tradition. Luther collapses from exhaustion at home, Cornelius meanwhile rallies his thugs to go find the detective. Then there’s a knock at the door, and it’s Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson). She apparently survived the Belgian jewelry heist from last season and is back to wreck new havoc. Alas such are the ingredients of many a good thriller, so as long as it’s done this well who can complain? Bringing it all home is Elba, who evokes tiredness mixed with the sharp sense of a skilled detective. Overall this is an actor who brings a presence to whatever he does.

Airing on BBC America, “Luther” will only deliver four episodes this season, but going by the season premiere, there will be some great craft all around, full of maddened murder and the hard gaze of lawmen who have seen too much.

Luther” season five premieres June 2 and airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on BBC America.