Set in the Whitechapel area of East London in 1899, the BBC’s Ripper Street uses place and time to set the tone for a detective series in which the threat of Jack the Ripper potentially hangs over every case. An intriguing premise, the series does a fine job of keeping the threat present, yet never used as a cheap ploy to bring in or trick the audience.
Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew MacFayden) is the lead in the series. He is idealistic, ethical, and intent on achieving justice through the right means. Helping Reid is Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn), hard fighting and seemingly brutish, but intensely loyal to Reid. Rounding out the trio is American Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg). Jackson is a former Army doctor and Pinkerton and his medical expertise is often the key to solving the cases in Ripper Street.
The crimes committed in East London are often particularly gruesome and violent. As Jack the Ripper looms large over the city, Chief Inspector Fred Abberline (Clive Russell) and newspaper reporter Fred Best (David Dawson) are both quick to accept him as the culprit. It is Reid’s dedication to seeing all the facts objectively, combined with Jackson’s medical knowledge, which ultimately decides who the murderer really is, despite interference from the two, though for very different reasons. Abberline is still haunted by his previous work on Jack the Ripper cases and Best is desperate to sell papers at whatever the cost.
By placing the shadow of Jack the Ripper over every murder, the series is able to convey just how overwhelming the fear of his return was, not only for the people of the area, but for the police as well. It is Reid’s level head and his single-minded focus on using evidence and objective reasoning to solve crimes that sets an example for both Drake and Jackson. Initially, it seems as if Drake, quiet and intense, and Jackson, gregarious and easygoing, couldn’t have less in common, but in fact, they both harbor pasts that continue to haunt them. Though they are quite different, they both have an overwhelming need to move as far away from the pain of their pasts as possible, using either silence or misdirection as a way to avoid dealing with it in the present.
The past also plays an important role in Reid’s life.The disappearance of his young daughter a year earlier has created a chasm in his marriage. While his wife, Emily (Amanda Hale), mourns her death and takes comfort in the church, Reid is not ready to believe his daughter is dead. His inability to understand his wife’s need to mourn, and his failure to communicate why he refuses to, leads to a distance they both have difficulty bridging and one that carries through to the dramatic end of the season.
As the series moves closer to the season’s finalé, more is revealed about the histories of all three, but it is perhaps Drake’s story that is most heartbreaking. The episode focusing on his past puts a great deal into context for the character and Flynn is wonderful throughout.Much of what drives Drake is his effort to be good. His time as a soldier has colored much of his perspective, yet he strives to move past the brutal violence of war. His attempts to court a local prostitute, Rose (Charlene McKenna), show Drake in an awkward, yet gentlemanly light, making for a complex character finding his way.
Long Susan (MyAnna Buring), a cold and calculating woman with a past linked to Jackson, runs the town brothel. Their intertwined and complicated past serves as part of the season’s ongoing mystery. As Jackson lives at the brothel, both Susan and Rose are frequently integral to not only the cases being investigated, but also in their interactions with Reid, Drake, and Jackson. Rose’s naiveté is combined with a naked ambition to gain wealth and comfort, while Susan is decidedly more practical, albeit with a much harsher edge. Unsurprisingly, the brothel is the setting for much drama and misunderstanding, yet Ripper Street does well to keep both Rose and Susan as more fleshed characters than the clichés of their profession often allows.
Ripper Street is the kind of show that the BBC does so well. It is beautifully shot, well written, and well acted. The premise sets the series up as a time and place of great fear and violence, while leaving the door open to tackle Jack the Ripper more directly in the future. For now, his shadow makes for a detective series with higher stakes and deeper mysteries.
The DVD release contains a fair amount of bonus material. There are short blurbs on the characters, language, and the setting, as well as featurettes that offer a tour of Whitechapel, and profiles of Jack the Ripper.They are a nice addition to the set, but more in-depth interviews with cast and crew, along with commentaries, would offer better insight into the series.