Last night I was able to finally catch the first episode of the new BBC series “Ripper Street.” The period drama is set in London’s East End in 1889, six months after the last canonical Jack the Ripper murder. It follows a pair of detectives working in Scotland Yard’s H Division and the American former Pinkerton assisting them as they investigate homicides in London’s notorious Whitechapel district.
The first episode, “I Need Light,” deals with the ghost of the Ripper himself as the body of another woman with mutilations similar to those of the previous victims is discovered in an alley. Detective Inspector Edward Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) and Detective Constable Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn) take the case, despite the very vocal protests of Inspector Frederick Abberline, who had been one of the lead investigators in the Jack the Ripper case. Reid enlists the assistance of former American army surgeon and ex-Pinkerton Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) to do an autopsy on the body, and he determines that the woman was not killed by the Ripper. Further investigation reveals that the woman was a reformed prostitute who had married and was teaching violin lessons to children before her murder.
A break in the case comes from the most unlikely of places. Jackson has been involved in an affair with Rose Erskine (Charlene McKenna), one of the prostitutes employed at the brothel at which he resides. Rose has been posing for risque pictures for extra money, and despite the reservations of the house madam, Long Susan (MyAnna Buring), she takes Jackson to the studio, and it’s at this point that the trail becomes clearer.
To me, it’s always interesting to see how fictional works based on the Whitechapel murders present themselves. “Ripper Street” doesn’t exactly focus on the actual murders, but it does touch on the social issues that were still relevant even after 1888. There was a lot of poverty in the East End at that time, and there was little to no recourse for the thousands who suffered from it.
The divide between social classes is also explored, particularly the ease with which those in power exploit the unfortunate because they believe that no one will care. But the series also highlights the brighter points of the time, particularly through the character of Reid. Reid is a progressive, open-minded man who embraces the new technology of the age and the new developments in detection and evidence-gathering. He seeks to bring H Division up to date with the times, as is shown in the first episode when he has a telegraph installed in the station so that it might communicate more easily with other jurisdictions.
The characters themselves are very compelling. Reid and Drake are both very driven, conscientious men with empathy who do their part to uphold the law and protect the citizens of their jurisdiction. They honestly care about the murder victims who they are trying to vindicate and they want to do things correctly, instead of jumping to conclusions and pursuing their case sloppily, which is shown quite clearly in their interactions with Abberline. Jackson, on the other hand, as a former private detective and investigative jack-of-all-trades, has more freedom to pursue his own lines of inquiry and seems to revel in the thrill of the hunt more than his English counterparts. The writers seem to play into the stereotypical differences between Americans and Englishmen of the time: Reid and Drake follow a certain procedure and line of inquiry, while Jackson goes off, does his own thing, brings what he has found back with him, and collaborates with the two other men on his own terms.
Both Long Susan and Rose are engaging characters as well. Even though she’s a prostitute in a brothel, it’s clear that Rose has intentions of leaving the business and pursuing her dreams of becoming an actress, and she views her foray into the pornography business as a means of doing so. Long Susan, however, is a much more hardened woman who has clawed her way from the bottom to the top as a madam. Much like Jackson, her reasons for coming to London are mysterious, and there’s clearly a rift between her and Jackson that is for some reason irreparable.
The series is brilliant and I’m already addicted and ready for the second episode. This is a definite must-see for crime and history lovers.