The second season/series of Ripper Street began on BBC America in February, and finished last month. I have my ups and downs with this show, and can’t ever decide how I feel about it. But I never really love it, and the second season was more of the same. It’s the sort of show you watch, but it doesn’t really hold your interest, and when you’re done you can’t really remember what it was about.
The second season had Inspector Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) again leading a Whitechapel detective squad with his right-hand man, Sergeant Drake, and his American scientist, Homer Jackson. But it’s the private lives of all three that bring about most of the problems across the season arc. Reid begins to see a new woman, June Cobden, after his marriage had fallen apart.
I like her more than I like him, to be honest, and I’m comforted to see she’s based on a real person. She’s a feminist, a leader, a politician, and very interested in reforms that can help poor families. As a bleeding-heart liberal woman, I am 100% happy about her. But I still don’t really like Reid. He hides behind the guise of a good, moral man. Perhaps he is as moral as a man can be in that position in that age. But you cannot be a good, moral man, who employs a personal ‘enforcer’. I was most pleased with this season because the show finally addresses this fact. Drake has a certain moral superiority over Reid, because though he is doing the ‘enforcing’, Reid is the one pulling the puppet strings. I get really irritated with shows (like Copper, and somewhat Ripper Street) that imply that you can be a good guy, and still shoot/beat/intimidate people in order to get your own way, and that that behavior is somehow allowed because you are in search of justice. Nope. The ends do not justify the means.
In the previous season, Drake wanted to marry Rose, one of Susan’s girls. She rebuffed him, determined to be an actress/singer. He marries a different one of Susan’s girls. This tells me that more than he wanted Rose, he just didn’t want to be alone. Forgivable. But the one he does marry, Bella, turns out to have a lot of baggage. She used to be part of some sort of violent, incestuous, proto-cult. She drags Susan into the matter and things go from bad to worse there. Drake loses his wife, and probably most of his mind. He leaves the station and deals with his grief by putting his body through physical pain—he works menial jobs (gravedigging, etc.) during the day, and at night he is a ‘boxer’. I hesitate to even call it boxing, because he has his hands tied behind his back and people make bets about how many punches he can take before he passes out. I would liken his behavior to a 19th-century form of self-harm. Easier to deal with physical pain than the emotional.
But this foray away from the precinct puts Reid in a very awkward spot. He has always been able to keep his hands clean of the riff raff. He would nod at Drake, and Drake would punch witnesses until they talked. Without Drake around, Reid is forced to come up with alternative tactics, or forced to do the punching himself. That made me feel better, but by the end of the season this dynamic reverts to where it was, without much change on either side.
The other big character shift was the relationship between Jackson and Susan. He loses her trust and her love, and things go from bad to worse between them. Men are so stupid sometimes, and Jackson is definitely one of them. Susan is forced to go through a lot of horrible things to keep afloat after Jackson’s stupid decisions.
The other constant on Ripper Street is the highly unlikely plot points, usually relating to new technology emerging at that point. The first season had the invention of video—in order to make snuff porn. This season, in addition to featuring proto-cults, there were opiates, people smuggling diamonds in their anuses, electricity scheisters that did something very disturbing to a farm animal in order to prove the safety of their form of current (sadly, this is based on a very real and very horrifying truth), telegraph messenger boys as a front for gay pedophiles, police corruption, a garroted man, Joseph Merrick (the elephant man), and several scenes with pig carcasses that I had to watch between my fingers because yuck.
The problem I really have with Ripper Street is the lack of depth. They put a lot of effort into salacious plots and nefarious villains, but the character development is sometimes lacking. Reid has almost no internal emotions portrayed, and people are too often separated into the wholly good or wholly bad. There are exceptions. The women are believable, and have the most depth. Drake is probably the only man that I think has a level of substance that makes him relatable. Despite Reid’s use of him as a bulldog and nothing more, Drake has an understanding of the world and of himself, and also a fear of those same two things, that make him the most interesting man on the show.
BBC cancelled Ripper Street after season two. But the fans of this show pulled together and sent emails, signed petitions, etc. to get it renewed. And it worked! Sort of. Amazon is going to make the third season. It will air on BBC and BBC America, after being streamed online. Even though I’m not a huge fan of the show, that makes me feel good. I wish things like email campaigns or kickstarters had existed when I was younger. That being said, I’m not sure I’m going to watch season 3. Despite my love of all things Victorian, I just can’t get into this show. This is a show that often eschews emotional substance in favor of flashy scandalousness. I would prefer a show that did the opposite.