The Ripper may be absent, but the Reaper is hardly short of work in this week's episode...
WARNING: There be SPOILERS ahead!
This week's Ripper Street simultaneously ups the body count and the dramatic stakes, as Reid, Drake and Jackson are set against an adversary well-known on the streets of Whitechapel: disease. Fate is clearly discontent with their apparent aptitude at unravelling the motives of human foes, and as such, most of this episode is structured around a plague that even Detective Reid seems unable to outsmart.
While previous weeks have dealt with maniacal killers (including those using Jack the Ripper's legacy as an invisibility cloak for their own vices) this week offers a nice change of pace by introducing a threat far more universal and terrifying than any serial killer.
As expected, it is a death that kicks off the action this week - while a Preacher projects his words of wisdom in the heart of the city's most lawless district, a man spews his guts out onto the grime-soaked cobblestones before collapsing in the street. The Preacher acts as first crime scene investigator on site, as he surveys the corpse of the recently deceased and delivers the verdict that 'King Cholera' has returned.
It isn't long before the signs of King Cholera's coronation are scattered throughout the district - there's the moans of the dying, mass hysteria, as well as lots and lots of vomit.
|Human dissection - one of life's simple pleasures in Ripper Street|
At the start of the episode Inspector Reid is clearly a fish out of water, unpracticed at dealing with the 'Invisible Ripper', but determined to do his part in protecting the residents of the area.
But he is not the only member of the Reid household determined to do their part, as his involvement in the outbreak leads him to his estranged wife Emily (Amanda Hale), who this week takes centre stage. The strong-willed Emily is introduced as she attempts to help a victim of violent abuse and reveals her ambition to establish a shelter for wronged women. Her role in the episode is quickly established - only moments after the opening credits we witness her take a sip of water (no doubt water from the same source that is thought to be contaminated with cholera). As confirmed later when she succumbs to the illness, Emily is the damsel in distress of this week's episode.
It's clear from this week's storyline that Ripper Street is trying to provide us with a strong Victorian heroine, and Emily proves herself a worthy candidate for the role. There's a clear attempt to sidestep the convention of the damsel in distress towards the end of the episode, a subtle sense that Emily might in fact 'save herself' (Jackson explains to Reid that those who survive the affliction tend to do so because they are fighters, something that appears to be applicable to her). While her husband may excel in his relationships with the dead, Emily proves herself to be much more skilled than Reid at dealing with the living.
As expected, the central illness is man-made, and from this point on Reid firmly regains the reins. It was only a matter of time before the series would have to address the issue of copycat killers, and it presents a plausible and disturbing villain, depicting a madman on the rampage, determined to catapult himself to celebrity status through his violent acts. It's a reminder of one of the key effects of the Ripper murders. He is, after all, an example of one of the many Switchblade Michelangelos who have thought themselves artists for taking their malice out on other people's bodies.
For me, the real highlight of this episode came in the form of the Preacher (played by Stuart Bunce), a character who is at once steadfast in his strength and beliefs and yet stands out from the residents of Whitechapel. Throughout the episode he remains somewhat baffled at the events taking place around him, his belief in the inevitable triumph of good over evil somewhat at odds with the meaningless reality of the deaths occurring around him. It's a rare instance of a character making a powerful impact precisely because he feels redundant - in a place as hopeless as Whitechapel, it is the Grim Reaper and not the Preacher who has the last say.
It was startling how quickly life went back to normal following the departure of the illness, but on hindsight it felt like quite a truthful representation. After all, against all odds life moves on. Perhaps that was the central sermon to be gained from this week's story - a sense that even diseases have their time to die.
What did you think of 'Ripper Street' episode 3? Were you, like me, watching while eating? Leave your thoughts below!