Ripper Street Episode 1 Review: “I Need Light”

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BBC America’s Ripper Street has finally made its debut on this side of the pond.  It’s been tough to resist the urge to download the eps and watch them all at once.  This show has actors I love, set in a violent and fascinating time period.  It has all the makings of a gritty cop drama, a tense thriller, and a snide black comedy in one grainy package.  This season will have a mere eight episodes.  If the debut is any indication, we’re in for a wild ride.

BBC shows work differently than series in the US.  There’s no chance that viewers will get really in to the characters and storyline, only to have the show cancelled before a resolution can be reached (I’m looking at you, Alcatraz, Terra Nova, and Caprica).  Nor is it likely that the show will live on long past its welcome, because advertisers are still willing to buy ad space on it.  I think what the BBC does is better for the viewers.  But I imagine it’s a worse system for anyone trying to milk any decent show for all its worth (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead).

The main cast features Matthew Macfadyen as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid.  Macfadyen is an intense performer with a strong background in live theatre.  He’s got a vivid screen presence and a smooth deep voice that conveys urgency no matter what he’s saying.  Jerome Flynn, who I already dig as Bronn in Game of Thrones, plays Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake.  Drake is the kind of guy they get when they need someone to go undercover as a bare-knuckle boxing champ who can’t be beaten unless he wants to be. Then there’s Adam Rothenberg as the American, Captain Homer Jackson.  He’s a scoundrel!

Rounding out the main cast are prostitutes Long Sally and the young and lovely Rose.  Don’t worry, she ends up in peril before you know it.  Also appearing is the boss, Chief Inspector Abberline, who Ripperphiles should already be well acquainted with.

Rips 1.1 main 3

The ep begins with a walking tour of Whitechapel, while a guide explains the goings on at a Jack the Ripper murder site.  But what’s this?  A body!  Murder most foul.  Inspector Reid is temporary unavailable as he’s currently working a sting on a crooked fight promoter.  When he gets the news, Reid dashes to the crime scene and begins a fervent investigation.  He meets Creighton, a seedy looking photographer who assures Reid that he hasn’t disturbed the scene.  Honest.  Reid tells Creighton to take crime scene photos.  Certain tell-tale signs including specific incisions and writing on the wall inspire everyone but Reid to presume that it’s another Ripper murder.  That’s when things get interesting.  To everyone’s dismay, Reid wants to summon Jackson.

Homer Jackson removes his head from under a tart’s skirt long enough to confirm that the woman, later identified as Maude Thwaites, was NOT killed by the Ripper.  The woman is also not a prostitute. She lives in the north, and plays the violin.  Drake is dubious of pretty much everything Jackson has to say.  See, Drake isn’t into all the crazy sex talk and lewd snapshots.  It gets worse though.  Through Creighton’s photos, Reid learns that Fred Best of the local paper was responsible for the writing found at the crime scene.  I can’t help but noticed that shady newspaper man Fred Best has a strikingly similar name to wretched British serial killer Fred West—thus inspiring instant dislike.

Rips 1.1 Cast

The plot of the ep involves a sadistic scumbag and his progression from pornographic still photos to “high-tech” snuff films.  It’s a good story if a bit formulaic.  Watch for a riveting scene where the heroes are locked in a room with burning film.  Drake is aghast when throwing water on the fire makes it worse, while Inspector Reid MacGuyver’s a gunpowder bomb that blows the bolted door.  Amazing!  Reid’s pointed musings on moving images was well written, and delivered with ferocity and wonder.

It is the precise details of our lives

Caught and re-presented to us.

Let’s hope that doesn’t catch on, right?  The focal plot device of I Need Light is Creighton’s amazing crankable machinery that takes moving pictures.  This week’s villain, a guy named Sir Arthur Donaldson, takes this extraordinary technology and uses it to capture himself as he strangles women to death.  Sickened and caught, Creighton destroys the machine and himself.  Sad that such revolutionary technology was perverted by the whims of evil men.  But then, tech geeks have long postulated that pornography drives the progression of media tech like nothing else can.

This first episode of Ripper Street was all about introducing characters, setting up conflicts and longer story arcs, and giving us a sense of the era.  On that note, look for the hilarious early typewriter that despite training, a poor young cop is simply hopeless on.  I had fun imagining how much nicer the internet would be today if it took a super high level of technical proficiency in order to add new content.

Rips 1.1 Rose

Character summary: Homer Jackson is a shady asshat.  He lives for free at Long Sally’s brothel, and their cryptic conversation leads the viewer to think that he’s even shadier than he’s letting on.  Long Sally is suspicious of Reid and doesn’t want him around.  Jackson would rather have Reid as a friend than an enemy.  Speaking of Reid, his relationship with his wife is steeped resentment and distance.  His wife seems kind and religious, but terribly unhappy and sick of her husband working all the time.  Typical for any cop, I hear.  Reid removes his shirt at one point to reveal some crazy scars.  Will we get more on that later—or is it a reference to the time period that I’m not getting?  Sergeant Bennet Drake is an ass kicking badass, but is also single and a little repressed.  He’s likely the character that comes out of his shell as the season progresses.  Fred Best is an a-hole and Rose is very sweet.  I predict that one or both of them will die.

The wrap up for the episode was revealing and fun to watch.  Inspector Reid sits in his office with Abberline (who was actually instrumental in catching the bad guy) and newspaper man Fred Best.  He hands Best the complete file of the Maude Thwaites case, telling him to print the truth.  The clear subtext is that Best should stop being such a fear mongering a-hole and serve his community the way a journalist should.  He and Abberline go on to disagree about Jack the Ripper.  Reid means it when he says the Ripper will own his life no more.  But Abberline also has a point when he asks how anyone can not  look for the Ripper, knowing that he’s still alive.  What Inspector Reid is actually telling us is that Ripper Street is about real people in a real time period, dealing with the hysteria that Jack the Ripper left in his wake.  We’re not gonna be talking about Jack the Ripper every week.  So far, the theme of the show is to illustrate that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  That’s cool by me.  I’m a big fan of the sociopolitical commentary.

See you next week!