Tag Archives: Susan

The Bletchley Circle (season 2)

91cMb90PWAL._SL1500_The 2nd season (series) of The Bletchley Circle ended a few weeks ago on PBS (it aired in January in the UK).  I really like this show, though I’m never catapulted out of the ‘like’ category into the ‘love it/need it’ category. I think that is because the ‘season’ is so short (3 episodes in season 1, 4 episodes in season 2), that I never have a chance to get really into it. Unfortunately, I won’t be seeing any more episodes, as the show has not been renewed for a 3rd series.

I remember talking in my last review about the importance of seeing strong and smart women, working together in a world (1950s Britain) that at best, underestimates them and at worst, subjects them to violence and abuse. The second season didn’t shirk away from that.

The season begins with a new character.  Alice.

HattieMorahanB_1Alice (apparently) worked at Bletchley, though not all of the season 1 girls knew her.  She has been accused of murdering a man, and has not put forth any defense, ergo she will be hanged. Jean is convinced that she is innocent, and asks the other girls to help her prove it.

Susan, after the danger she and her family were in during their last escapade, is reluctant to help.  It quickly becomes apparent that Alice is innocent, and also becomes apparent that Susan will be leaving the show and Alice will be brought on as the resident slightly-rude code genius. It’s hamfisted, but what can you do with 4 episodes? Seems like they could have kept Susan around for 2 more episodes, before sending her off somewhere.  This is the part that bothered me the most about the second series.

During these first two episodes, we see that Lucy is now working at Scotland Yard, and Millie is working as a German translator.  How strange it must have been to stop fighting the Germans and then almost immediately begin doing business with them again.  And only a decade or so later, the beginnings of the EU. Strange to think of. The wars I’ve lived through, from the US, have only been with countries that were a-geographically distant, b-with vastly less powerful armies than ours,  and c-of almost zero importance to our economy. (Western) Europe is so small compared to the US that it might be easier for me if I imagined the end of the civil war, and returning to normal trade and travel among the different states. Millie finds it odd herself, making such an about face. Working with people who had probably been Nazis.  And they had no idea, but she was one of the women who helped break their codes and interrupt their plans.  *Insert vague idiom about strange bedfellows*

The first two episodes revolve around saving Alice from the gallows, and uncovering a government experiment with chemical weapons, used on soldiers. Lovely. I vastly preferred the second two episodes, but they also made me uncomfortable and angry.

In episode 3, Millie is abducted from outside her apartment. She wakes up in a strange room, held captive. Millie has been using her connections and her skills to sell ‘black market’ goods that were hard to get during and after the war. In England, unlike the US, the ’50s were not a time of prosperity and consumer freedom. War rationing continued for nearly a decade after the end of the war. Millie seems to mostly sell perfumes and cigarettes, nothing dangerous or damaging. She works with a partner, Jasper.

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Here’s the thing. Millie is my favorite character. She is the strongest, the bravest, and the most confident of all of them. She wears pants (get your pearls ready for clutching), she travels alone, she lives on her own, she holds her head up and walks with purpose. This in a time of our history and a place in the world where women were still very much expected to be quiet, modest, maternal, and submissive. If I had been alive at the time, I’m hoping I would have the strength to be like her. I’m saying this because I want to explain how a part of this episode really affected me.

Millie is taken in to see a woman, Marta, who was supplying Jasper (who was supplying Millie). Someone has stolen from Marta (spoiler, it was Jasper, because of course it was), and she’s going to take her proverbial pound of flesh from one of them.  Jasper claims he can repay the money, and is given a chance to do so. Millie manages to talk herself into freedom, proposing she works with Marta as she worked with Jasper. Essentially she wants to cut out the middleman.

Only Millie does not in any way want to work for Marta, because she has just discovered that in addition to cigarettes and perfume, Marta imports girls. Young girls from behind the iron curtain, who can be easily ‘sold’ to wealthy men in the UK. That’s so horrifying I can’t even comprehend it. It is literally beyond my ability to understand, much like the Higgs Boson. But I know it happens every day, even now. Probably much more so now, since people are easier to move in this century than the last.

So Millie manages to talk her way out of the bad situation, which is part of her gift.  Marta lets her go, and one of her goons drives Millie home. She asks him his name, and he shoves her against a wall and threatens to rape and hurt her.  This scene made me so angry; I took it almost personally.  It takes confidence to act like Millie does–that’s part of her protection from anyone who wants to hurt her. There’s a reason people tell women to project confidence, to keep from being mugged or attacked. If you walk through the world with confidence, in some ways you’re saying to potential predators that you have enough resources in this world that someone cannot hurt you without expecting retribution.  But this man is so sure that he can do whatever he wants, that he has no problem showing he can physically dominate her.  And she’s not a small woman–she’s 5’9″, she’s curvy (by Hollywood standards anyway!).

I’m writing this entry after a man, angry with women for rejecting him, went on a murder spree in California over the weekend. After posting videos and a manifesto about how much he hated women, and how much they deserved to die because they wouldn’t have sex with him. Women have responded on twitter, posting their own stories of misogyny, fear, assault, and general inhumane treatment. And everyone has stories.

I know I’m digressing wildly now, but just a brief (okay not so brief) word about the fact that very little has changed since the 1950s. Most women are in a position where they can be physically overpowered by men. That means most women have reasons to be afraid. No matter how confident you are, how strong or smart, your ability to walk around in the world could be shattered at any minute. You are able to be happy or sad or whatever you are, only until a man near you decides he wants to hurt you. I project confidence into the world, like Millie, and it keeps me free from most harassment.  But, just like Millie, it could all be taken away.  Which means I walk quickly, I stay aware, I keep my keys between my knuckles when I’m alone at night. I can only slightly comprehend how much worse it might be for women who don’t have the resources I do. I’m a white female, and am a pretty high-risk target because of that.  Women who are marginalized by society have even less power. Because they are women of color, or they are children, or they are intellectually or physically disabled, or in a country illegally, they are more likely to experience abuse (sexual or otherwise) than I am. And they are far less likely to receive help or justice from the police. That’s a universal, throughout the world.

The Bletchley Circle, for all the parts that seem unrealistic or hamfisted, is an important show because it does not pull away from these issues. When I compare it to Downton Abbey, and the way Anna’s rape was …fodder for dramatic tension and how Bates was more concerned with his own revenge than with his wife’s happiness… I know they are different shows, different time periods, and very different pathos. Downton Abbey used rape the way Coronation Street uses tragic and improbable deaths (and also probably rape, but I haven’t seen enough of it to know for sure). To titillate, to engage the empathy of the audience, without much reality thrown in.  The Bletchley Circle did not show rape.  But it showed the systematic, widespread, abuse of women. From the girls being smuggled in by Marta, to Millie’s abduction, to Jean’s being shot, to Lucy’s abusive husband. These are pretty lifelike portrayals of the treatment a lot of women get from men. And the women keep going, keep fighting and pushing for safety, for their rights. I don’t think The Bletchley Circle is a perfect show. But I think it’s important to continue to have shows like it–that focus on women, and that focus on the different types of women, and the problems they face that men may not understand. I’m not saying that if every show were like The Bletchley Circle, there would be no more rape or spousal abuse.  Obviously not a lot of rapists are probably watching it. But, I think if more shows acknowledge that these things happen (and how often they happen), then people who have been lucky enough not to see this firsthand, will at least not dismiss it as a non-issue. And maybe won’t see women speaking up about their own freedoms as an attack on men.

Ripper Street – Season 2

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ripper Street

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.

 

Ripper Street Season 1

Ripper Street cast

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.

The show focuses mainly on Inspector Reid, played by Matthew Macfadyen. Inspector Reid

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 and RoseDrake 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:

Homer Jackson and Susan HartHe 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.