1.02- "In My Protection"
As suggested last week, Ripper Street isn’t really about Jack the Ripper. According to creator Richard Warlow, "The whole idea for us setting out on this journey was to really try and actually discard Jack the Ripper, at least in terms of wondering after who he was and trying to catch him…What we wanted to do really was to tell stories about the streets down which he walked and committed his crimes in the wake of those terrible murders and how it affected the community and, most importantly, the police that tried and failed to catch him."
Leaving aside the question of how smart it is to evoke the name of someone so murderously iconic as Jack the Ripper only to dispense with him out of hand, another remains: what is Ripper Street about? As Warlow suggests, the series does focus on the neighborhood Jack prowled. But this focus is, simply put, anything but.
Despite the episodic structure of the show (this week’s episode was about a young man condemned to death for the murder of the neighborhood’s toymaker, for instance), it appears that there are some longer-lasting subplots. One revolves around Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfayden) and his wife. They have evidently experienced some loss (lots of talk about a “her” being gone) and while his wife has turned to religion as a result—and wishes he would as well—Reid is a “freethinker,” an atheist, and these different lifeviews, and maybe the loss itself, have led to an estrangement which Reid is eager to heal.
A second one has to do with the American pathologist Cpt. Homer Jackson who, in addition to a past that includes having worked for the brutally effective Pinkerton’s, is also hiding out from some past misstep, one which seems to include Long Susan (MyAnna Buring) who apparently emigrated from the United States with him. It’s all tied up with a ring he’s willing to risk a great deal to get back (after gambling it away, profligate that he is). Oh, and he’s banging one of Long Susan’s girls on the side.
Another subplot is more closely tied to the recent Ripper attacks. Those who live in Whitechapel created a neighborhood watch of sorts…one that did not disappear when the Ripper did. Whitechapel being Whitechapel, those in the neighborhood watch are, as Reid points out, only better than Jack by degrees, and thus their continued activity is a danger to the actual policing that Division H is responsible for.
There is also the question of what Reid thinks his role in Whitechapel actually is. He’s your typical cop hero, in that he uses what would have been seen as unusual methods and he’s not above telling his superiors at Division H when they are out of line. However, faced with the mother of the condemned boy in this week’s episode who attacks him of just washing his hands of the boy’s impending doom, he informs her and the boy’s lawyer that “My job is just to deliver,” and arguing the equivalent of the actual question of guilt being “above (his) pay grade.” We must assume that there’s some explanation coming for such callousness from the one who’s supposed to be the sensitive soul and thinker in Division H.
All of that, along with the actual main plot of each episode and some additional smaller subplots—including an interesting one on criminality among the young urchins in Whitechapel that goes nowhere– is gleaned from only the first two episodes.
Can you pack all that into 84 minutes of episodic television and have it work? Yes. Assuming you have some of the very best writers on staff, and actors capable of saying a great deal without speaking. Because to pull all that off, you need to weave it pretty seamlessly into the main plotline and anything you can’t fit in has to be left to the actors to convey. Law & Order’s creator Dick Wolf always talked about how the show was about the cases, not the detectives, and yet we learned a great deal about most of the regulars, in very short but rich moments. Unfortunately, Ripper Street’s bench just isn’t all that deep (even compared to that of the quite formulaic L&O franchise).. The creator is the primary writer for three-quarters of the episodes in the first season, with two other series to his name (Waking the Dead, which was okay, and Mistresses, which was less so), and his other writers have even less experience.
Thus, in Ripper Street, these subplots are handled in the most ham-handed of ways. There is little weaving of these finer strands into the larger tapestry. Instead, we deal with each of these (save the ones very directly tied to policing) in large chunks: Reid ducks home to change his clothes and gets into a long but cryptic talk with his wife. Jackson spends almost a quarter of “In My Protection” dealing with the issue of the lost ring, and while it does play a small part in the actual main story, the way it’s done comes off as exactly what it is: an attempt to be seen as clever. Even if you’ve managed to keep your disbelief suspended up til this point, the sheer amount of coincidence necessary to make this subplot work will bring it all crashing down.
These often huge and wholly unnecessary passages are obviously intended to make us invest in the series’s characters. The problem is, they disrupt the focus of the primary story and shift us around so much thematically and physically that it’s difficult to keep up and even more difficult to care. There is no focus, and in the end, it’s hard to tell whether Warlow is trying to emulate ER, LA Law, etc. (where the cases are mostly incidental and serve primarily to reveal the nature of the characters), Criminal Minds (where we get only very small character doses along with meatier crime stories) or something in between.
The first season is already more than half over in the UK, and the BBC has already renewed the series for a second season. Based on what we’ve seen so far here in the US, it’s hard to imagine why. It could be that the series vastly improves in the next few episodes, but my money is on them knowing there’s only so far one Stephen Moffatt can stretch. And at this poi
nt, I’m wondering if it would take anything less to fix what’s wrong with Ripper Street.
Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her often too-lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers