Thursday, September 1, 2011

In Praise of Alice Morgan

Finished off the first series of "Luther" last night, which was a blast and everything that I hoped it would be. The show broke from police procedural formula in its final hours and became a character-based thriller, capped off by one of the best cliffhanger endings I think I've ever seen on television. Idris Elba and Steven Mackintosh gave impressive performances, and I finally recognized the familiar actor playing Mark North. However, in the end my favorite character was still the serial killer Alice Morgan, played by Ruth Wilson, not only becase Wilson is so good in the role, but because of the kind of role Alice Morgan is. Some spoilers ahead, up through the third episode of "Luther."

There have always been likable psychopaths, most notably Hannibal Lecter and occasionally Professor Moriarty. We know that they're terribly evil people, and yet they are so intelligent and so genial in their villainy, we appreciate them even as we abhor them. However these characters are almost never female, because the female killer tends to have her own set of tropes and cliches. Most involve a high degree of emotional disturbance or mental instability that make them more pitiable than impressive. And when they're not being overrun by their own worst impulses, female villains tend to be utterly cold, cruel, vindictive, and mean. Many follow the Nurse Ratched model of an asexual, matronly authority figure gone bad.

So you rarely see a villainess like Alice Morgan, who is not only entirely self-possessed and accepting if her own nature as a killer, but enjoys it in such a way that allows the audience to enjoy it too. She's also a younger woman, attractive, and has considerable charisma. Though Alice initially seems totally lacking in empathy, it's revealed that she can be quite emotional and form strong attachments. When she gets upset, she doesn't lose her temper or go into histrionics, but expresses herself in more thoughtful and deliberate ways. She can even show affection in her own twisted fashion. Above all, Alice is keenly observant and intelligent, a scientist trying to see what makes human beings tick, specifically what makes John Luther tick. She's over the top evil, clearly an entirely fantastic creation, but not so much so that she ever seems too unlikely to exist.

Ruth Wilson walks a fine line between creepiness and charm as Alice, initially an antagonist to John Luther before slowly befriending him against his will. It's a fascinating relationship we see forming over multiple episodes, and I had no idea where it was going to go. Would Alice become a love interest? Was this all part of a larger cat-and-mouse game? When push came to shove, would she turn on him? There was never a moment where it was suggested she would ever be reformed, which I appreciated. It's laughable that you could reform Hannibal Lecter, and that goes for Alice Morgan too. Every time it seemed that she was behaving too normally for too long, out came the wicked grin and the predatory gaze, and you knew she was absolutely up to no good.

I also like the way the character was used in "Luther." In a series that is all about a morally ambiguous hero trying to stay on the side of angels, Alice becomes the devil on his shoulder instead of an ultimate villain to defeat. Another reason why I put Alice in the company of Moriarty and Hannibal Lecter is because she operates on the same level as John Luther, making her a proper adversary for him rather than a simple target. Their ongoing conflict just happens to be a tug-of-war over Luther's moral fiber, rather than the usual business of trying to catch or kill one another. By becoming his ally and confidante, Alice is actually a greater danger to Luther than if she was simply one of the criminals he chases. They may yet get into a showdown in the future, but neither side seems too eager for that to happen at the end of the first series.

Why haven't we had more of these cerebral villainesses? I've seen a lot of female antagonists driven by jealousy, revenge, psychosis, or a man is in control behind the scenes. Occasionally you'll get a power-hungry manipulator or two, but never a pure serial killer of Alice Morgan's caliber. Trying to think of similar characters, they best I could come up with was the Borg Queen from "Star Trek: First Contact," another very lethal monster of great power and intelligence with her own brand of womanly wiles. I'm not calling for gender parity among criminal masterminds, but surely there should be more of these villainesses out there in TV land, especially considering the sheer number of police procedurals and caper shows that have flourished in recent years.

Alice Morgan is so much fun and breaks so many tropes and is so good at being bad - I guess I just don't understand why it took so long for a character like her to show up on television.

1 comment:

  1. Just finished watching four seasons of Luther and your comments and your conclusion are exactly what I was thinking too. Alice is refreshing, interesting and leaves me craving her evil genius.