Ripper Street: Season One Retrospective
BBC’s Ripper Street came to America months after it dropped across the pond. Miraculously though, I was able to avoid spoilers on the Internets. I suspect that’s because not enough people were watching this show. That’s a stone drag. Ripper Street has infectious characters, forceful and lyrical writing, gruesome goings on, and intense performances from the whole cast. If you haven’t been watching, it may be because nobody told you that you should. Allow me. This retrospective will be spoiler free, so you can read it and be inspired to sit down with all eight episodes of Season One.
Ripper Street is police procedural meets period drama. Expect filthy streets, archaic police techniques, rampant poverty, and corruption all over the place. There is plenty of sociopolitical commentary in this series–generally driving home the point that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The media, big business, sexism, government corruption, rampant class warfare, and the rise of technology are all skewered and deconstructed during the eight-episode season. Expect each ep to have a stand-alone plot, while also spending time developing character and giving the three leads a wide story arc that takes us through the season.
Our leading man is Inspector Edmund Reid. He’s in charge of H Division, where we pick up mere weeks after the last Ripper murder. People are still hysterical about bloody killings in the streets. The citizens on Reid’s watch are impoverished, disenfranchised, undereducated, and generally vulnerable to all manner of unscrupulous behavior. Edmund is weighed down by a sadness that is clear even when we know very little about him. He’s a serious man. Matthew Macfadyen, who you might remember as Athos from the 2011 version of The Three Musketeers, is superb. He has a deep baritone that makes me wish he’d sing me something. Inspector Reid is handsome, stoic, troubled, and damn good at what he does. Like fellow TV cops SSA Hotchner (Criminal Minds), or Det Goren (Law & Order CI), Reid is no nonsense, and deeply affected by…some stuff. What it is that pains Reid is revealed gradually throughout the season.
Sergeant Bennet Drake is Reid’s partner and underling. He’s played by the dashing Jerome Flynn, who also plays Bronn of the Blackwater on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Drake is introduced as a violent thug, which is just one aspect of his complex character. Sergeant Drake has a fierce sense of morality, and thus finds himself routinely outraged by the depravity he faces on the job. We get to see him sarcastic, love-struck, violent, tormented, circumspect—Bennet Drake shows us a range of emotions, and we end up digging the hell out of him by the midway point of the season.
Captain Homer Jackson is the only American character that we see regularly. He’s also the only American actor–a guy named Adam Rothenberg, who I’d never seen in anything before. Homer Jackson loves the whores, and takes up permanent residence in the brothel of Long Susan. More on her later. He’s a drinking, smoking, gambling scoundrel who has some big secrets he’s not too keen on sharing. Jackson is hired by Reid for his skill in forensics. Forensics is a term I use loosely here, since we’re in the 1890’s. Seeing pathologists perform autopsies and handle putrefied human organs without gloves takes some getting used to. Jackson is the Han Solo of the show, the Will Riker, the Dylan McKay, the…something from this decade. Jackson’s life is like a train wreck, and you will not want to look away.
Long Susan is a rather unpleasant upscale Madame, running a stable of well-dressed prostitutes, or toffers as is the parlance of the time. She’s pretty, mysterious, no-nonsense, and knows how to handle a gun. Her relationship with Jackson is not immediately clear, but they are on the run from someone, and deceiving…well, I did say no spoilers.
Long Susan’s most popular prostitute is Rose Erskine. She’s lovely, young, and convinced that working on her back is a great way to begin improving her life. Given the opportunities available to her, she may be right. Rose is smarter than she looks in some ways. In others, she’s woefully foolish. Often the damsel in distress, Rose is at her most vital when she’s in peril. We want good things for Rose, even as we long for her to make better choices.
Fred Best is a journalist and general asshat. He’s the guy sniffing around every crime scene, spilling the beans about things Reid et al are trying to keep quiet. He’s rude, irksome, and just this side of unscrupulous. Best is instrumental in a few plotlines, and receives a satisfying comeuppance or two.
Constable Dick Hobbs is a wonderful character. He’s a young go-getter, enthusiastic and diligent about his work. He painstakingly learns to use a nightmarish typing device that doesn’t appear to have any letter keys. Hobbs also trains with the resident surgeon, and becomes proficient in forensics and pathology under Jackson’s tutelage. Hobbs is married, brave, and easily the most lovable of all the bobbies.
Mrs. Emily Reid is Inspector Reid’s wife. The Reid’s have suffered a tragedy, and it has practically estranged them. She is never home, but then neither is he. Emily’s passion is helping the disadvantaged women she sees suffering every day. With the help of a benefactor, she is eventually able to open a shelter for prostitutes who want to get out of the life. Mrs. Reid is played by Amanda Hale, who gives us subtle yet evocative performances every time we see her. I’m especially struck by the lack of warmth and closeness between she and Edmund. Their formality is chilling—and becomes more so the more we learn about them and what is pulling them apart.
Sergeant Donald Arthurton works the desk. We never see him out in the field, which is just as well. You see, Arthurton is an anti-Semite. Tough talk coming from a freakin’ ginger, but I digress. Arthurton is a colorful character with a unique appearance. He also has some great lines, and may even be called the comic relief.
Deborah Goren runs the Jewish orphanage. She is casual but straight forward, and looks to be one of those women who works all the time and never complains. Her importance grows as the season progresses, and the more we know about her, the more we like her. I love the way her story develops and the kind of person she turns out to be. She’s also pretty and full figured. I’m used to American television, where any woman who weighs over 115 to be criticized as fat and unhealthy. To see a variety of body types on these BBC shows is most heartening.
People who know the lore surrounding Jack the Ripper already know about Chief Inspector Fred Abberline. He’s obsessed with the Ripper case. The fact that it remains open continues to plague him. He is a friend to Reid, suspicious of Jackson, and seems to have no feelings whatsoever for Drake. We don’t see much of Abberline, but when we do—it’s always significant. So far as I know, he’s the only historical figure who appears as a regular character.
Ripper Street will be back for another season. Sadly, it doesn’t drop until 2014. The good news is that you now have plenty of time to catch up before it starts. Remember to come back and read our episode recaps. I explain the period slang, tell you where you’ve seen the guest actors before, and regale you with pithy commentary. If you like my reviews, you’ll be pleased to know that I’m also covering The Following on FOX, Bates Motel on A&E, Game of Thrones on HBO, and the new season of Doctor Who on BBC America.
See you’s then!