“Is it him, sir? Has he returned?”
In recent years, the BBC has had great success with new programming that modernizes various aspects of English history or culture. We’ve had new versions of Merlin, Robin Hood, Dr. Jekyll, and, yes, Dr. Who. It was only a matter of time that this mentality turned toward the Victorian era, and to one of the most famous names history—Jack the Ripper.
It’s been a long time since those five fateful murders in 1888, but the world’s imaginations are still ablaze with the thought of the horrors of the still-unsolved killings. How to turn this into a weekly series? Not by recreating the killings, but showing how much of an impact they had on the city of London, and how they represented the changing of the times. Hence the address, Ripper Street.
It’s 1889, one year after the Jack the Ripper murders caused hysteria on the streets of London. Everyone fears the Ripper might still return. In the scum-ridden streets of the Whitechapel district, police work day and night in the hopes of maintaining some semblance of peace. This includes the level-headed Inspector Reid (Matthew McFayden, Anna Karenina) and tough guy Sgt. Drake (Jerome Flynn, Game of Thrones). They’re often joined by Jackson (Adam Rothenberg, The Ex List) an American surgeon, who helps out with autopsies and with his connections in the city’s criminal underbelly.
This episode list was last seen at the Ten Bells:
• “I Need Light”
London is on the verge of panic when a prostitute is found murdered, with similarities to the Jack the Ripper killings. Upon investigating, Reid uncovers a different kind of conspiracy, complete with frightening use of new technology.
• “In My Protection”
London is on the verge of panic when a young boy is a key witness to a crime, and Reid and company must protect him from a vengeful mob.
• “The King Came Calling”
London is on the verge of panic when a dead body is found with signs of cholera. Reid must sort out whether this is a murder or a full-blown epidemic.
• “The Good of This City”
London is on the verge of panic when a murder is committed inside a building scheduled for demolition to make way for the city’s new subway system. Can Reid preserve his crime scene with the railroaders breathing down his back?
• “The Weight of One Man’s Heart”
London is on the verge of panic when a bunch of former military men plan a heist, while Drake shows his sensitive side by pursuing the girl of his dreams.
• “Tournament of Shadows”
London is on the verge of panic when a series of bombings rocks the streets, traced back to striking unions. Reid convinces Jackson to go undercover with the union to root out the culprit.
• “A Man of My Company”
London is on the verge of panic when murdered bodies are found floating in the river. Jackson’s old friends from America show up, not by coincidence, threatening to reveal the secrets of Jackson’s sordid past.
• “What Use Our Work?”
London is on the verge of panic when a prostitute is found “ripped,” and a familiar face is accused of the crime. Has the Ripper truly returned?
The question, “Is Jack the Ripper back?” both does and doesn’t hover over the whole series. I’m not sure which the creators intended. Are they trying to establish the threat of the Ripper always lurking in the shadows, or are they saying that the Ripper is over and done with, and that it’s time focus on all of the other horrible murders going on? Reid makes a speech saying as much at the end of the first episode, which seemingly closes the book on the Ripper case. But then, other episodes will drop the occasional reference to the Ripper, and then the season finale gets surprisingly Ripper-centric when others haven’t. So is this truly a Jack the Ripper show, or merely a Victorian-era detective show that uses the Ripper as an attention-getting hook? It’s both, depending on which episode you watch.
Episodes are mostly plot-heavy, following the usual police procedural formula. A murder is committed, clues are sought for, the autopsy is performed, there are various plot twists, a fistfight or two, maybe a chase, and then the resolution. Although it’s not too terribly different from other cop shows, plots are still complex enough to demand a lot of concentration on the part of the viewer. Along the way, the writers slowly peel away more and more aspects of the characters’ personal lives. We get a sense of Reid’s tense relationship with his wife, Drake’s loneliness, and Jackson’s colorful and sordid past. These hints in early episodes are then explored fully in later episodes, rewarding those viewers who’ve watched attentively and paid attention to all the little details.
McFayden carries the show nicely as Reid, bringing a level-headed seriousness to it all, so that you really believe he’s the island of calm in the sea of fears and craziness that is Whitechapel. This is contrasted against Rothenberg as the rough n’ tumble American, Jackson. Because he’s not a cop, Jackson is able to have all kinds of fun, talking back to authority figures, hanging out with crooks, and even living at a brothel (!). His past includes work as an army surgeon and as a member of the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, which Ripper Street dismisses as nothing but a bunch of mercenaries. As the more colorful one of the group, Jackson is a lot of fun, and the tension between him and the cops adds another level of drama to any given episode.
As the muscle of the group, Jerome Flynn as Drake has that genuine tough guy look about him. He’s not taller or more muscular than the other guys, but one look at his world-weary face, and you can tell that this is a guy who’s survived a lifetime of both giving and receiving beatings. Drake’s spotlight episode, “The Weight of One Man’s Heart,” is the best of the season, because it’s the most emotional. Maybe the whole unrequited romance thing is too easy a route for some instant drama, but Flynn sells it so excellently that you can’t help but feel for the guy. He can crack skulls up and down Whitechapel, but he still can’t get the girl.
The supporting cast shines as well. Amanda Hale is Reid’s wife, who manages to portray being distant from her husband without coming across as cold or heartless. Reid also meets the owner of an orphanage (what’s the Victorian era without orphans running around underfoot?) played by Lucy Cohu (Gosford Park). She too lends a lot heart to her scenes. MyAnna Burning (The Descent) plays the brothel madame who shares in Jackson’s mysterious past. She has the best icy stare of the whole cast. Charlene McKenna (Breakfast on Pluto) is appropriately sweet and charming as the object of Drake’s affection. Clive Russell (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) appears a few times as Inspector Abberline, the real-life detective who pursued Jack the Ripper, showing how much the Ripper case devastated him. He’s on the show as a metaphorical warning for Reid, in that he is what Reid is in danger of becoming.
Ripperologists and related historians will have lot to nitpick. Upon seeing a dead body, Reid is quick to declare that it’s not the Ripper’s work. But, the Ripper murders were frustratingly inconsistent, which why they continue to baffle crimesolvers to this day. Maybe Reid was merely saying that to quell people’s fears, but if so, that could be made clear.
At other times, the show tries to dip its toe in the steampunk waters, by introducing technology that is years ahead of what they really had at the time. This can be amusing, as it illustrates the changing of the times, but it’s inconsistent as to when the show is trying to be gritty and historically accurate and when it’s fanciful by going into “gears and brass goggles” territory. If you’re going to do the steampunk thing, either go full-bore with it and bring on the dirigibles, or don’t bother at all.
All eight episodes of Ripper Street: Series One are on this three-disc set. Picture quality is good, but a little soft at times. Details are occasionally good, but black levels too often come out grey and murky. Sound is good as well, but not as booming or as immersive as it could be. The bonus features are where the Ripperologists like myself can really enjoy, as they’re more Ripper-related than a lot of the series. Four featurettes look back at the Ripper killings, Whitechapel of the era, and whether today’s forensic science could have/would have solved the case. This is followed by another three featurettes, focusing on the cast and production, along with some character profiles.
Ripper Street is much more of a cerebral drama than it is suspense/thriller, and it’s more a standard cop show than it is an exploration of Jack the Ripper. Don’t let these facts stop you from checking it out, though, because there’s a lot to enjoy. I’m looking forward to Series Two.