Last week was the season finale of Ripper Street on BBC America, after a short 8-episode season. In the UK, it ended in February. The show has already been picked up for a second season to air in early 2014.
As I mentioned in my review of Whitechapel (here), this Jack the Ripper theme stuck to a traditional police procedural is a bit overdone and not very sufficient to make a show good or memorable or necessary. That being said, I decided to give it a shot. It does take place in Victorian London–my favorite place and my favorite time. That alone is reason to watch.
Reid is the standard good guy, walking the line between being a gentleman and doing what it takes to solve the terrible crimes he encounters in the grimy and rough East End. The show takes place a mere six months after Jack the Ripper’s last victim is found (1889). Reid was one of the inspectors on the case, and it left him emotionally stunted and physically scarred. He’s lost his daughter under mysterious circumstances, and that has caused an extreme rift between he and his wife. His life is mysterious at first, with bits revealed throughout the first series to explain who and what he is. I like Matthew Macfadyen, so I was predisposed to like Reid. As a character, however, there are things that really bother me about him. He neglects his wife and then is unfaithful. Worst of all, he seems to exist as a thinking man and employs his faithful sergeant to do the dirty work of policing. Of course, just like Copper, the show exists in an era well before the police were required to protect and not harm suspects and witnesses. Brutality was a way to accomplish their goals. On the other hand, if you’re going to have a character who believes this behavior is warranted, it’s a little uncomfortable to watch him require his second-in-command to shoulder the burden of brutality.
The second-in-command is Sergeant Drake, an ex-soldier with the appearance of a thug, but he proves himself an honorable man. He becomes smitten very early on with a local prostitute named Rose:
Drake is very good at exacting information and subduing suspects through brute physical force, but that doesn’t mean he should be used for that alone. He was in the Boer War in Africa, and has horrific memories of being a man prone to and enjoying violence–memories he is trying to run away from. Of all the people in the show, he is the most afraid of violence and simultaneously the one forced to utilize it in his work. Knowing this about him makes Reid’s reliance on Drake as an enforcer all the more repugnant and…there’s something class-ist about it. Reid treats Dr. Jackson as an equal, but Drake as an inferior. Drake is inferior to him at the police station, but their relationship seems to be predicated on social class and not career standing. I did not like that fact, and it made me not like Reid because of it.
Dr. Jackson is known as ‘the American’ by most of the characters. He has a suspicious past, is married to a woman who runs a local brothel, and seems to be a pioneer in the art of the autopsy:
He is Reid’s medical adviser, performing autopsies and necropsies. He acts as a one-man CSI lab, despite the limited technological advances inherent to a show set 130 years ago. He has a very mysterious past–the first thing we learn about him is that he has something to hide. Later, it is revealed that he is using a false name, running from the Pinkertons (19th century private police force in the US), and has committed a serious crime. Reid protects Jackson from being discovered by his enemies, but at the same time uses this information to force Jackson into continuing his work for the police. It makes me think that Reid is just obsessive about solving cases, and all of his other values take a backseat to this need to find out whodunnit.
The show is very violent and regularly contains extremely graphic scenes, either of murder or sex or both. The very first episode was about the making of the first snuff film. The show makes it very clear that we’re living in a world with evil and with very little good. There are no heroes to be found; everyone is flawed and many are downright monsters.
Reviews have been fairly mixed. Critics are especially irritated by the anachronisms. I am currently writing a Victorian-era historical fiction novel, and feel a shiver of dread thinking about the websites that might crop up over my mistakes. It’s simply very difficult to think about every piece of clothing, every word or idiom, every bit of food, and to research whether said item was available/used/known in that time period. Then again, I would hope the BBC would have better resources than I do–my current resources include Google and a library card. A Guardian column discussed the outlandish crimes committed during the running of the first series and where they had historical precedent. More of them were accurate than I would have guessed.
I’m still deciding my final opinion of the show. The first 2-3 episodes were incredibly dull and took a lot of work to get through. It picked up at the end, with the last 1-2 episodes being pretty tolerable…but those first 2-3 episodes make up a large chunk of the season. So I’m not sure it’s worth the effort for the 1-2 good episodes at the end.
The acting is good and parts of each episode were truly enjoyable. At the same time, the show was never great (in my opinion). I was never enraptured, even when I was interested. It also didn’t feel true to the period. It didn’t transport me to a different time, it felt more like I got off the bus in a bad neighborhood. But I liked the characters, and I did feel for them. I did become invested, especially in Drake and Jackson. I will be tuning in for next season, despite mixed feelings. I just hope they drop the Jack the Ripper stuff and deal with other types of crime and realities of living in that time and that place.