Warning: Spoilers ahead!
I'm going to spill the beans and confess that since I was a kid I've been obsessed with anything to do with the Jack the Ripper murders. So much so that if I'd been alive and kicking back in late 1888 I probably would have been a suspect (let the record state that I am in fact an '80s child, and that's the 1980s, for any of you conspiracy nuts out there).
And I'm not the only one. Since the series of five canonical murders that shook London's East End and the wider world, Jack the Ripper has been imagined in books and graphic novels, on stage and screen, and our fascination with the Ripper murders continues. The seemingly limitless appeal of the murders occurs partly because they were never solved. Jack the Ripper disappeared as mysteriously as he appeared, a macabre magic trick that lives on in our nightmares.
In Whitechapel 1889, Jack the Ripper could still be out there. So it makes perfect sense that the Beeb's new drama Ripper Street takes the fertility of this idea and asks, in the aftermath of the Ripper's reign of terror, what happened to the residents of Whitechapel after their most famous resident skipped town?
The answer is that people lived and died much as they had before, but Whitechapel's reputation was forever stained with the memory of the vicious killings that took place on her cobbled streets. Inspector Edmund Reid (played by Matthew Macfadyen) is one detective struggling to do his job in a world that is terrified of another murder, one which the audience knows will never come. While watching Ripper Street I couldn't help but note that the hysteria of post-Ripper Whitechapel was eerily reminiscent of the world in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the sense that every successive tragedy be viewed in the light of a trauma that no one could have prepared for.
That is exactly the issue that Reid faces, as the discovery of another dead bodily immediately ignites the fire of terror. Everyone assumes that at first sight the Ripper has struck again, but Reid correctly infers that the dead woman is not JR's sixth victim, or even the work of a copycat. Instead he theorises that the death is the mark of someone trying to pass under the radar.
|Inspector Reid and Sergeant Drake rush to stop a killer in Ripper Street|
Throughout the episode Reid has to work mostly off his own intuition, although he is also backed up by the talents of Captain Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) and Sergeant Drake (Jerome Flynn), a promising triumvirate of crime fighters. We don't learn a great deal about the characters' personal lives, although there are brief glimpses of their flaws and setbacks that are sure to be fleshed out at some point in the 8-episode run.
The central story introduces an interesting mystery of a well-to-do young woman found dead in a down-on-your-luck part of London, and I was intrigued by the series' exploration of backroom Victorian exploits. We know now that the respectable decorum the Victorians worked hard to uphold was a veneer for a far raunchier reality. Ripper Street manages to demonstrate that contradiction without being too gratuitous.
However the real inventiveness of the episode occurs through the pictures that eventually help Reid and Co. to locate the killer. History has revealed that advances in technology often occur synonymous with great atrocities, so it's an inventive twist that it's seemingly the invention of the cinema that allows the killer to indulge in his deprave sexual fantasies. If Ripper Street can continue to deliver those interesting developments throughout its first series then it's likely it will develop a loyal and engaged audience.
My only real issue with this episode was that I felt the female characters were under-served by the narrative. Charlene McKenna's Rose has little to do other than play the part of damsel in severe distress, and Myanna Buring's Long Susan is a promising character who is nonetheless confined for the most part to the brothel, although it's likely she will become more prominent in future episodes.
Altogether it was a solid opening episode that sets the stage for seven more weeks of death and debauchery.
What did you think of 'Ripper Street'? What kinds of secrets might Edmund Reid and Long Susan be hiding?
Leave your thoughts below!