1.03- "The King Came Calling"
There’s little worse for a reviewer than reviewing a bad show. What is worse is when you thought a TV series was going to be great, begged your editor to be able to review it, and then found out that the show was really bad. Now you’re stuck watching and writing about something you hate for an entire season, possibly longer. And so seemed to be my fate this season with Ripper Street.
But with last week’s episode, “The King Came Calling,” a ray of hope has appeared.
As I talked about last week, one of the biggest problems with the series thus far is the clumsy way in which it included subplots designed to make the main characters more interesting. Rather than such morsels being woven into the main plot of the episode, they were largely just added with little or no connective tissue whatsoever.
This week’s episode, though, does not make the same mistake. A man drops dead on the streets of Whitechapel from what initially appears to be “King Cholera.” The city is gripped with panic, and Reid and Division H work to determine the reason for the rash of deaths. But rather than throw in disconnected scenes about Reid’s wife Emily (Amanda Hale) or the mystery of Long Susan and Jackson, what we instead get is a fully integrated story: while Long Susan and Jackson only play their proper roles here, she as a commentator on the illness and he as a pathologist driven to find out what’s killing the citizens of London, the narrative about the Reids begins to bear fruit. The “her” that the two have so obliquely referred to turns out to be their dead daughter (little surprise there), explaining not only the reason the mother has turned to religion for comfort but also making Emily’s delusion while suffering from the missing illness relevatory about the love this husband and wife share under their pain.
But the best part of the Emily storyline becomes what it reveals about the larger world in which Ripper Street operates. It’s important to remember that London is not like most big cities in the world today (and in the Victorian era). By the time period depicted in Ripper Street, most very large cities were planned: at some point, the organic sprawl was checked and streets were made regular and perpendicular, important public facilities were built in appropriate places, etc. But London to this day shows strong evidence of its medieval genesis. It is not a single city, but rather small villages that grew outward from their centers until they merged with those around them. Each village had its own flavor, industry, and class system and these linger on even now.
And this class system is something we really begin to see in this episode. Emily’s religious bent has led her to want to help those her husband polices—specifically the women. After seeing the suffering of a streetwalker beaten by her pimp and her unwillingness to take advantage of the charitable groups that might help her (which she rejects because of the religious browbeating and scourge she’d have to endure in exchange for such help), Emily takes it upon herself to create her own charity—one which ministers to such “fallen” women without judgement or cajoling. In order to fund her venture (the Reids appear to have more money than a police inspector would likely earn, but not enough for this), Emily visits the City and the home of a very moral and apparently rich widow to petition her to fund the charity.
This is the first real glance at the world outside Whitechapel and the difference is vast. Clean, airy, upright, but as rude in its own way as the slums, the City is juxtaposed not just in how people live but the value of human life itself. Dozens are dying in Whitechapel of the illness, but the true alarm comes from the fact that the first man who died was from the City and thus rich and of greater importance. While Reid and Division H trace the illness to its origin, Emily sits in the parlor of Flora Gable (Penny Downie) trying to convince her to set up an endowment. The conversation between the two reveals a great deal of the meaning of charity in Victorian England (and today, to a disturbing extent): Gable is horrified by the idea that the primary goal of Emily’s halfway house would not be to make these women assume responsibility for their supposed immorality. To her, saving their souls (through shaming and threats of damnation) is more important than putting a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. Emily, while still embracing her own religious beliefs, becomes as humanist as her husband in understanding that salvation is beside the point if you’re starving to death because you won’t sell the one commodity you have: your sex. She sees the necessity of helping the women deal with the core economic issue and leaving spirituality to work itself out.
This lack of true concern for the actual lives of the less fortunate is reflected (and nicely intertwined) with the investigation of the sickness sweeping the city. Initially, Inspector Ressler (Patrick Baladi) of the City shows little concern for those suffering in Whitechapel. But when five upstanding members of the his own village fall to the disease, he is suddenly motivated to help his fellows from Division H to locate the source of the contagion. And the answer, surprisingly for the series thus far, actually does have a connection (logical but indirect) to Jack the Ripper. For the first time, we’re getting a well-plotted and executed narrative.
But the ray of sunshine, for me, is less about the construction of the plot and more about the possibility that the show will take on the larger social issues of those times and our own. A great deal of the reason that Jack the Ripper was never caught likely had to do with the social class he prayed upon (and may actually have been part of his rationale for the victims he chose). Whitechapel represented, to the rest of the city, a den not just of poverty but vice and filth and sloth. Those people didn’t matter, and luckily, they were largely relegated to their own village, well out of the site of respectable Londoners.
How much difference is there between Victorian Whitechapel/The City and today’s inner cities/suburban gated communities? As this episode of Ripper Street points out, not much. In the previous episode, the series missed the opening to make a strong point about the Fagins and the street urchins who do their dirty work. “The King Came Calling” made me actually looking forward to this week’s episode, in the hope that such opportunities will be used more effectively. The series’ creator has chosen some very fertile ground here. Maybe he’ll allow something great to take root.
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