[CORRECTION: Neil Cross wrote "Luther," not Nick Cross. Sorry about that. Now corrected.]
I have been in a turmoil recently over nothing, except that from another point of view, it’s over everything. My brain-box has been churning through a wash of thoughts concerning the death of Justin Ripley, Canada’s harvesting of baby harp seal pelts back in the late Sixties, the rise of Donald Trump, and what I think of as the metaphorical headlong approach of the United States to the brink of oblivion, otherwise called the 2016 Election. I will try to explain.
My husband and I have been watching a lot of slightly-used, but still very entertaining, British TV shows, one of which is of spectacularly-higher quality than the others, namely, the series, “Luther,” a crime drama set in London, written by Neil Cross, and starring Idris Elba, whom I had seen for the first time just last year in “Beasts of No Nation,” in his stellar performance as The Commandant, a complicatedly evil man leading a ragtag insurgent army of youths and boys through the towns and woods of a fictional African country. The scenario, set dressing and performances all were distinctively convincing, and the young boy, Abraham Attah, who played the hero, Agu, did as good a child actor performance as I have ever seen in a film. Mr. Elba, of course, having a mythic size and persona, was the most noticeable in any scene he inhabited, but still the young boy’s odyssey and his interactions with the other kids were memorably fine. We saw the film, because I am an SAG-AFTRA One Union voting member, and during the awards season, I received a screener of it for consideration.
“Luther” was launched on BBC in the United Kingdom in 2010 and aired for four seasons. PBS started showing it earlier this year here in the Western United States, and my husband and I quickly got interested and made it part of the group of programs that we regularly record to hard disk and then watch. I thought the program was up there in quality with “The Sopranos,” and even possibly nibbling at the heels of my top favorite, “Breaking Bad,” which I think was a perfectly written and acted television series. As we watched onward through the “Luther” episodes, my husband and I both noted to one another how dark the stories were and how tragic. I wondered what had thrown the hero, John Luther, so badly off-track in his life. His marriage was over at the start of the series, and things only got worse for him and his ex-wife as the episodes unfolded. Had Luther been mentally ill? You could think such a thing, seeing how violently he behaved in the very first installment, although the script was careful to have him torture only the very evil criminal he held at bay at the edge of a stair precipice to get the location of the child the criminal had hidden, or to kick and punch out an unfortunate living-room door in his former domicile, now taken over by his ex-wife and her paramour. At the time, in a rare humorous moment, Luther pointed out to his terrified ex-wife that he would never hurt her, how could she even think that? And of course, Luther’s posture, continually hunched when he walked the streets, and his very blackness (and Elba looks to be pure African, so almost blue-black in complexion), seemed to reflect the screenwriter’s expressed noir world-view. The overall light in the films is dark -- many episodes begin at night. The daylight sky usually is grey. The air seems mostly to look like it is chilly. A lot of what you see underlining the optics, even the soundtrack, and the story line, is dull, somber, and morbid. The show’s theme music has a throb that feels to me like a headache. It’s a fascinating, depressing, alternate view of everyday people in London, a city I have always loved, because of what I have perceived as its vibrancy and rush of life. I have always thought of London as the European city most like New York City in its energy. But I also lived for a long time in Los Angeles, and this show made London seem most like the absolute polar opposite of L.A., which is flooded with light for many months of the year, and always seems to my mind’s eye to be filled with flowers, sparkling things like the Pacific Ocean, or sequins, or jewels, and sunsets that are the very embodiment of Technicolor. The London of “Luther” is black, grey, dun, dirt-colored, everywhere looking like the prologue or epilogue of a funeral.
I don’t view myself as an absolute realist. I do try to be realistic. I am no longer young, so in some ways, I shouldn’t have the luxury of being a complete fantasist or idealist. I try to keep those mental indulgences down to a dull roar. Death and taxes inform my life these days, although it’s getting easier to pay the latter now that I am retired, and to make my peace with the former, which is peeking at me from not too great a distance of years. I didn’t believe I could get pulled in by a powerful unreality any more, but life and our existence seem to be here for us to prove our own self theories wrong. Let me try to explain.
I watched the Luther episodes, week by week, being introduced to stories of new villains, each one realistic and crueler than the last, some criminal, and some now Luther’s own gone-wrong colleagues on the force, and I began to perceive the growing constriction of Mr. Cross’ plotting starting to close in on Mr. Luther. Time after time, he would be at procedural odds with one higher-up officer or another, even those who had taken professional risks on his behalf. The stories didn’t allow us to see apparent resolutions to some of these conflicts, which would be business as usual in a typical American crime drama, but did not happen here in this English one, and while frustrating, it did add to the singular nature of the Luther series itself. I am still not certain why the George Stark character so hated Luther and why he seemed to make Stark go so crazy. I understood Erin Gray’s rancor, while she was working with Stark to take Luther down, because Luther had made her look bad to her colleagues in a prior episode. To the end, Stark remained somewhat of a mystery to me, although he seemed to have greater power over Luther than anyone else except Martin Shenk, his superior officer. We know Stark assembled a well-stuffed Luther file, but his explanations of everything in it all seemed to be his perceptions and wishful thinking rather than what we viewers all knew was the truth.
As I understand classical tragedy, there is always a doomed character, the person who meets Nemesis through no hubris or fault of his own. For me, this character was D.S. Justin Ripley, portrayed sympathetically and realistically by the actor Warren Brown. Ripley was introduced in Season One, Episode 1, and Mr. Brown had prominent cast member billing in the series credits, so I considered the Ripley character to be an ongoing part of the series. He joined Luther’s team, having made it clear that he wanted the assignment and had pressed hard to get it. As he developed, Ripley became the epitome of a hard-working, loyal, responsible and honest subordinate. In performing his job, Ripley waded unarmed into angry crowds, chased suspects down numerous back alleys and in one episode was strung up to a post and tortured by a suspect before managing to free himself and escape. As a viewer, I believed in Ripley and grew fond of him. In Seasons Two and Three, I watched anxiously as Stark and Gray tried to force him to gather evidence of Luther’s misdeeds in order to help them build a case against him. I was cheered when Ripley ultimately refused to turn against Luther. These scenes went by quickly, and I nearly missed Luther’s grateful realization of what Ripley had done for him.
Then in the next episode, Neil Cross killed Ripley off. He did it quickly, messily, and at the hands of an absolutely loathsome madman who had been made insane by grief and despair at the death of his wife. This character, named Tom Marwood, seemed to be the culmination of a number of insane murderers, each one nastier than the last, who paraded through the Luther series. Ripley, unarmed to the end, stood up bravely to Marwood, and Cross rewarded Ripley’s goodness and rightness by having Marwood unload a sawed-off shotgun into Ripley’s chest.
This episode was aired for the first time in the UK on July 16, 2013, when, if the Internet is correct, it caused a wave of dismay among fans. I saw it in May of 2016, and it absolutely knocked me for a loop. I cried out in shock when it happened, and I remained upset for quite a long time afterward. It was brilliant writing, and I’m sure Mr. Cross was quite satisfied with how he turned the plot, but I actually felt genuine grief for the imaginary D.S. Ripley, and sorry for his imaginary wife and children, and his imaginary family and friends. I felt I had been among them, and I was bereaved.
To be completely honest, it was more than bereaved. Somehow, I don’t know why this happened, but the untimely death of Justin Ripley brought up an ancient and extremely painful insight that I did not know still was swimming around in the inky depths of my subconscious. I had learned something from more than ten years of therapy starting in my mid-twenties until my thirties, and I recognized that this pain was old. I’m still not sure what originally caused it. It could easily have been something that happened to me before I could speak or even articulate a thought. In pondering it after I saw the “Luther” episode, I remembered another insight instance in my life, with similar pain, when I was twenty-four and visiting in Atlanta with my then-boyfriend, whom I did not end up marrying. He had that week’s copy of Look magazine, and I made the mistake of reading an article in it about seal clubbing in one of the Canadian Maritimes, probably Newfoundland, but now I don’t remember. The article, which I think was a polemic about animal rights, was illustrated with photographs, and they showed a succession of pictures of a baby harp seal, first alive, then with men clubbing it, and skinning it, and then a final picture of the skinned baby seal, bloody and still alive, left out on the ice. I put the magazine down and cried for three days, and I can tell you now, almost fifty years later, I still see that last picture in my mind’s eye. To me, it was and is a powerful, if extreme, illustration of the triumph of indifferent, inhumane cruelty over innocence, and if I thought enough about it now, I could cry again for three more days over that poor little baby seal. It wasn’t that Justin Ripley was the harp seal, but when he died in the Luther program, I was unexpectedly and sharply reminded again of that harp seal.
Which brings Donald Trump to mind, because it’s hard these days for me not to think of Trump when I think about indifferent cruelty. Let me try to explain. I just need to reassure you all, I mentioned earlier that I do try to be realistic, not too idealistic and to avoid letting fantasy take over in my real life. I break these promises to myself sometimes even more when thinking about politics than when thinking about television shows.
My husband and I have watched a relentless procession of liberal commentary programs, debates and other coverage of 2016’s endless cavalcade of candidates. We tend to vote Democrat. The last time I voted differently was for Jon Anderson in 1980. My husband was worse. He voted for Barry Commoner that year. I just want you to understand that I cannot in any way, even maybe in a former life, entertain a rationale for supporting Donald Trump for the presidency. After thinking about the “Luther” program, however, I believe I now can articulate an explanation that is not too idealistic or fantastic as to why I don’t want Mr. Trump for president.
It is because I think he is cruel. And further, I think he is indifferently cruel. I think he would be cruel to this nation in a way similar to Neil Cross, who with his Marwood character, was cruel to Justin Ripley’s fans by snuffing his light out, and to John Luther by yanking away yet another person who either loved him or was loved by him. The reason I think of Trump’s cruelty being indifferent is that I don’t think he really sees this country as a nation of individuals. I think he views all of us who are not rich like him as somehow being handy cash resources for his kind of people, the plutocratic ones. We are perhaps mere ideas, rather than being human beings. We are, in maybe a farfetched but not impossible metaphor, an ice field of harp seals being lined up for harvesting.
I think Neil Cross constructed a wonderful, if cruel, world in “Luther,” and I can picture this nation looking similar to that world if Trump takes over and redecorates the White House in his tacky 18th-Century French scrollwork and gilded plaster, and then pulls the blinds down. We haven’t been told yet the specific ways Donald Trump would be cruel to the people of this country, but he keeps dropping us hints. I’ve seen more than a few instances in which he has expressed his cruel intentions in some of the ugly things he has promised to people at his rallies -- the exclusion of Muslims, degrading of women, the Wall to keep out Mexicans, beating up anyone who protests. He has been absolutely masterful at playing to Americans’ worst qualities -- our provincialism, isolationism, bigotry and greed -- and one reason I think his supporters respond so strongly to him is because in a way, he embodies them, albeit dressed up in a bespoke suit and a sun-bed tan, and that weird hairstyle that looks like it is newly built for him every morning. To me, he seems like the classic negative archetype of a mid-twentieth-century American -- fat, ugly, and with a loud mouth. My recollection from the Sixties is that was how we Americans were viewed by people in other countries for many years after the end of World War II. It makes me think of Trump himself as one of those wealthy, loud-voiced, American tourists who go to spend the winter months at a small resort, in the Caribbean for instance, and to the locals, he is there seemingly forever, perennially demanding and boring, brazenly self-involved, and always tipping in small change.
As to the United States edging nearer to the brink of annihilation, I just made that up. I’m thinking after all the lies we’ve heard so far this year from televised debates and assorted politicians, my little fib won’t count for much. I’m fairly confident we would survive a Trump presidency, but most likely the nation’s recovery from the aftermath would not be completed within my lifetime.
© 2016 Raun MacKinnon Burnham