This post contains spoilers for episodes 1-8.
I watched the first seven episodes of BBC’s Ripper Street on Amazon over the course of three days, even though each episode is 75 minutes long. Matthew MacFadyen (Pride and Prejudice; Spooks) excels at playing Inspector Edmund Reid, the kind of serious, dedicated, and quietly tormented hero I love. He is interested in new technology, and is forward-thinking in other ways as well, which is perhaps only practical. For instance, when he goes into a transvestite brothel to ask the proprietress for information, he removes his hat and addresses her as “Madam.”
Jerome Flynn, recently seen about to remove a whore’s loincloth thingy with his teeth as Bronn in Game of Thrones, plays a much different character here: Sergeant Bennet Drake, an tough ex-soldier with some very Victorian prudishness and sentimentality. The American guy, Captain Homer Jackson, is an ex-Army surgeon, a libertine, and a genius. All three of them are fascinating characters.
I love the setting of 1899 Whitechapel in London, six months after the notorious Jack the Ripper murders, depicted in convincing grottiness and pallid light. The dialogue is so sharp, so convincingly Victorian in its phrasing and delivery, that I swirl it around in my mind like a sommelier tasting wine.
What’s not to like? Well, the female characters.
Emily Reid’s relationship with her husband has grown strained, and their infrequent interactions are marked with painful formality. Emily spends her time at church or working to help the prostitutes of Whitechapel get out of the life. I did admire her insistence that the women should not be preached to or asked to repent. She thinks her husband works too much, and she frets about how dangerous his work is–all very understandable, but still a tired trope.
You might think one charitable woman is enough, but we get a second: Deborah Goren, who runs a Jewish orphanage with tireless kindness. Even when she acquiesces to Inspector Reid’s improper attentions, I get the sense that this was only another expression of her nurturing personality. Honestly, I have no idea what is going on in her head, and in no time, she’s nobly telling Reid to go home and talk to his wife.
On the other hand, we have Sally Hart, known as Long Sally, the madam of a high-class brothel and an erstwhile partner in crime to Captain Jackson. She’s tart-tongued, smart, all pursed lips and sharp elbows, and there’s not much else to her. Though we learn that she and Captain Jackson were once lovers, the two lack chemistry, probably because she doesn’t seem like a real person.
Rose Erskine, in Long Sally’s employ at the beginning of the series, is sweet and decidedly lacking in street smarts, given her hardscrabble background and profession. At first she thinks that maybe a wealthy client will help her become a stage actress; later, when a wealthy rancher from Argentina decides at once he wants to marry her, she brooks no suspicions, and so of course requires rescuing. Rose is essentially an adorable woman-child, and this plot isn’t very interesting, since an earlier episode involves rescuing a former prostitute who is even sweeter and more helpless.
At least Long Sally and other prostitutes help with Rose’s rescue. And in one episode, we do meet a newly widowed, bitter, and talented female engineer, which makes a pleasant change.
You might argue that the show only reflects the narrow options for women in that society, but as Inspector Reid would say, that doesn’t wash. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler and Henry James’s Isabel Archer, both created around the same time depicted in Ripper Street, are much less stereotyped than the women characters on the show, whose writers have the benefit of living in the twenty-first century. And honestly, though I would prefer more variety, I probably wouldn’t mind having two benefactresses and two prostitutes so much if their personalities were more interesting.
Will I stop watching Ripper Street? Hell, no. I love this show. Although the relationship between Captain Jackson and Long Sally lacks spark, the loyalties and tensions between the three male leads provide great emotional drama. I have plenty of practice at enjoying entertainment that doesn’t include any multi-dimensional female characters. I can always hope these improve with time, or some more intriguing ladies show up in the future.