Ripper Street: Series Two (DVD)

Why bother with Whitechapel when you could live in nearby Plaidchapel?

The best show you’re not watching creeps onto DVD with its second season on this three-disc DVD set. Ripper Street eyes Victorian England through a modernized lens, and it’s quite the sight.

It’s now been two years since the Jack the Ripper murders shocked all of England. While the omnipresent question of “Will the Ripper return?” no longer hangs over everyone’s heads, the smoky, shadowed back alleys of Whitechapel are still a hotbed of crime, sex, murder, and weirdness.

Three men work to keep the peace—stalwart Inspector Reid (Matthew MacFayden, Anna Karenina), bare-knuckle brawler Drake (Jerome Flynn, Game of Thrones) and Jackson (Adam Rothenberg, The Ex List), a boorish American surgeon.

This episode list was found scrawled on a wall near Mitre Square…

• “Pure as the Driven”
London is on the verge of panic when a police officer from the wealthy part of London falls to his death in Whitechapel, inciting a violent class struggle. The clues to the case lead Reid and company to drugs, mystery, and cultural differences in Chinatown.

• “Am I Not Monstrous?”
London is on the verge of panic when a homeless woman gives birth, only to be murdered and have the baby stolen. Also, this woman has a genetic anomaly, with talk of freaks and monsters lurking in the streets.

• “Become Man”
London is on the verge of panic when supporters of the city’s first female councilman go missing. There’s a battle of the sexes of another kind when Jackson’s lover Long Susan (MyAnna Burning, The Descent) runs afoul of some criminals.

• “Dynamite and a Woman”
London is on the verge of panic when an Irish bomber escapes police custody, and Irish versus English conflicts intensify, with fears that more bombings are on the way.

• “Threads of Silk and Gold”
London is on the verge of panic when police raid a homosexual brothel, exposing a blackmail ring against prominent closeted men in the city.

• “A Stronger Loving World”
London is on the verge of panic when a church is bombed, and a group of Jews are suspected. As religious war threatens to overwhelm the city, Drake learns some disturbing information about his new bride’s past.

• “Our Betrayal,” Parts One and Two
London is on the verge of…OK, this joke’s over. Jackson faces a troublesome face from his past and Drake goes off the deep end, leaving Reid to confront a conspiracy of corrupt police on his own.

For this new season, the Ripper Street creators clearly had a mentality of “embrace the crazy.” Although the show occasionally flirted with the steampunk genre last season, this year they’ve fully adopted a comic book/pulp adventure tone. I’m using “comic book/pulp adventure” in the highest compliment here. There’s no shortage of wonderful weirdness thrown at viewers. There are masked, cloak-wearing figures lurking at night. There’s an underground circus freakshow made up of generic monstrosities. There’s a poison-happy fanatical death cult. There’s even a kung fu fightin’ Shaolin monk to go toe-to-toe with Drake. Those who desire historical accuracy might shake their fists at this show, but I say all this outlandishness works in its favor. It gives Ripper Street both an edginess and a style that is all its own.

While the plots and cases are crazy, the writers haven’t forgotten character development. Between seasons, a lot of story happened. As this one begins, we find the characters at new places in their lives. Reid’s marriage has ended, and Drake is now married. After introducing the new status quo, the show makes us wait several episodes before we learn the circumstances of these events. The writers are playing the long game throughout the season, dropping hints as to the characters’ relationships as they go about any given case of the week, only to pay off those hints in later episodes. There’s also an ongoing arc of the heroic cops of Whitechapel butting heads with corrupt cops in the far-wealthier parts of the city. This adds a lot of tension and paranoia, as the good cops are constantly watching their backs.

As the straight-laced Reid, Matthew MacFayden is an island of calm in the center of the sea of insanity that is Whitechapel. Reid might not be as tough as Drake or as outrageous as Jackson, but he commands any scene he’s in by mere presence. There’s never any question that Reid is the man in charge, and that’s thanks to MacFayden’s strong, consistent performance. Once we get into the story of what happened (or didn’t happen) to his wife, Reid gets a few moments to drop the staunch cop act, and we see just how emotionally tortured this guy is.

When it comes to “emotionally tortured,” though, no one gets it better than Drake. Ripper Street’s resident muscle gets put through the ringer this season. The subplot about his marriage has many ups and downs, which takes its toll on the poor guy. It’s a nice contradiction to have the biggest, burliest guy on the cast to also be the most warm-hearted and vulnerable. It works thanks to actor Jerome Flynn. He really goes for it this season, not afraid of bringing the heartache. Late in the season, when it looks like Drake has hit rock bottom, a character pleads with him, telling him he’s a good man. The camera mostly stays on Flynn during this, as he coldly goes about his business. It’s a great subtle piece of acting that says a lot about Drake as a character.

Because he’s not actually a cop, Jackson gets to live with one foot in the law enforcement world, and the other in the criminal underworld. While this previously gave let him have a lot of fun by not being beholden to any rules, this season things get serious for Jackson. His relationship with Long Susan is strained, just as her conflicts with other unsavory men reach their heights. At times, Jackson’s storylines seem too separated from the other goings-on, making it feel like he’s in another show altogether, and we miss some of the “wisecracking cowboy” nature of first season Jackson. This is exchanged for Jackson, like the rest of the cast, finding himself in a new place in his life, and questioning what’s really important for him.

The supporting cast does admirable work as well. As Long Susan, MyAnna Burning is given much more to do, with criminals after her “home” and straining her relationship with Jackson. Charlene McKenna (Gosford Park) returns as Rose, her story still entwined with Drake’s. She’s just as vulnerable as he is, as McKenna is very good as wearing her heart on her sleeve. A newcomer this season is a rookie cop, Constable Flight (Damien Moloney, Suspects), is here more for plot purposes than for character, and doesn’t make as much of an impact. Also worth mentioning is David Wilmot (King Arthur) as Sgt. Atherton, the officer with the great big bushy beard who works behind the police station’s front desk. All he’s asked to do is be exasperated by everything happening around him, and he does it well.

No complaints about the audio and video. The standard def 1.85:1 widescreen visuals sharp and rich with detail, while the Dolby 5.1 Surround track includes plenty of atmospheric effects and the perfectly-suited theme music. A featurette takes a look at the making of the show, with cast interviews and a brief look at the visual effects used to evoke the past. There are no subtitles, which can make it difficult for us lowbrow Americans to follow the variety of accents heard.

Ripper Street is a rip-roarin’ good time, where smart twisty-turny plots meet deep characterization in a colorful-yet-dark atmosphere. Check it out.


Not guilty, from Whitechapel to the Limehouse docks.

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