1.04- The Good of This City
One of my initial complaints about Ripper Street was that, like Jack himself, the series seemed to want to do away with women. In the first episode, the woman with the most screen-time spent much of it on a slab and we learned little of her. As we move forward through the series, we have three established female characters on Ripper Street and this week’s episode “The Good of this City” is very much about a woman, so obviously they’ve corrected their oversight, right?
Not really. Women are still at best marginal on the BBC show. At worst, well…
Some might be tempted to argue that in depicting a culture in which women were marginal in public life, it only makes sense that it would also be that way in the fiction. But history does not bear this out, even in relation to this time period. The Whitechapel murders are bracketed by Émile Zola’s Le Rêve (1888) and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), both stories about young women of limited means and the traps into which such women can fall. Nor were these works simply about women. Fifty years earlier had seen the publishing of the novels of the Brontë sisters, and thirty years before that, Jane Austen was writing of the trials and tribulations of women of the disappearing country gentry.
But even if there had never been such novels or female writers, there is really no reason why we would need to keep the women of the Victorian period out of sight, and Ripper Street does not fall into this trap. The show includes Emily Reid, wife to the protagonist, Edmund Reid; Long Susan, owner of a local brothel and assumed lover of Capt. Jackson; and Rose Erskine (Charlene McKenna), one of Long Susan’s girls who is much admired by both Jackson and Reid’s right-hand man, Sgt. Bennet Drake. If it seems that I’m talking about these women only in how they relate to the men on the show, that’s because that’s largely what Ripper Street does with them. While each have played some part in the first three episodes, it is clear that they serve primarily as adjuncts to the male characters, illuminating the dark corners of the male psyche.
So I was excited that this week was going to focus on a (living) female character, even if she wasn’t one of our recurring female roles.
Young Lucy Eames (Emma Rigby) stumbles into Long Susan’s house of ill repute and asks if she might return there to work. When Susan turns her away, Lucy leaves and she is next seen by Police Constable Dick Hobbs (Jonathan Barnwell) wandering the streets bathed in blood. Reid’s team goes to the slum where Lucy and her children live to find her mother shot and the local rent-collector with his throat slit. While the children are placed with a local woman, Lucy’s mental condition is obviously fragile and she is taken to a sanitarium and put under the care of Dr. Crabbe (Anton Lesser). Reid and his men investigate the site of the murder but are told by councilman Stanley J. Bone (Paul McGann) that the tenement is to be demolished in order to make way for the building of what will eventually be the Tube. The police resort to working with sleazy journalist Fred Best (David Dawson) to try to determine why a rent collector would be in the building hours before it is set to be demolished and to clear Lucy’s name. In the end, it turns out that while Susan believed that Lucy left her employ years ago and found a better life, the young girl instead had gone off in search for a cure to her epilepsy, stumbled into the hands of an unethical doctor, and was given as a slave to Bone, to whom she bore children.
Let’s leave aside the way the episode elides the issue of Victorian women of dubious morality being confined to mental hospitals (Ripper Street again misses a golden opportunity). This episode is sharply focused on what has happened (and may still happen) to another version of our regular characters (and prostitutes), Long Susan and Rose. Surely, if there’s a time to dig into the female point of view on the show this is it, right? What a great set-up to allow the women forced into such a life to talk about its horrors and their ways of coping with it.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen. Rather than Susan or Rose being allowed to address the issue, Reid turns on Susan, accusing her of caring about nothing but money (and thus turning Lucy away both times for being pregnant). When it is revealed that Susan actually cared a great deal for the girl and followed her to try to help her, Reid is made aware of his mistake but fails to see any need to make amends. Susan’s only comment on the realities of being a prostitute is that her girls are kept safe by her management (almost certainly not the actual state of affairs for Victorian whores), while Rose is not allowed to express an opinion at all on the subject.
But this is Lucy’s story and Lucy’s future that is being decided, so surely she is allowed a voice and the chance to tell her tale.
Wrong again. While epilepsy at the time was thought of as a mental illness in Victorian England, the episode makes it clear that the doctor to whose care Lucy is given at the hospital knows how to successfully treat the condition, and epilepsy in and of itself–even untreated–doesn’t impair those who suffer from it 24 hours a day. Despite this and the fact that Lucy has likely seen horrors enough to make the murders less shocking than they might be to a contemporary audience, she is rendered mute for the vast majority of the episode, presumably due to these issues. Not only have the writers denied her the ability to tell us how easily a woman might be made a slave in the middle of modern London, but she is so severely affected that she cannot offer the detectives any information to help them find her victimizers. She is silent and seen as hysteri
cal. Much as she would have been were she a real woman in 1880’s Whitechapel.
Instead, the men speak for her, and the terrors she has experienced remain largely abstract—as they would to men who cannot truly understand and empathize with the plight of a woman with no resources but her beauty and no protection but the dubious security of a man who takes his payment for such services out in trade. Reid and the others seem eager to do right by her, and yet never attempt to enquire as to her wishes about her own future. Even the camera work emphasizes how divorced we are from her experience of what has and is happening to her. In the one scene where things appear to be being shot from her point of view, she is about to be lobotomized (symbolic much?) in order to keep her quiet (again with the symbolism) about the man who owned her. We see the long sharp icepick-like tool moving closer and closer to us as we are put in her position. At least we now have this moment of connection with her…her terror at what’s about to happen.
Until the camera reverses and reveals that she’s heavily drugged, looking at the ceiling, and apparently unaware of what’s about to happen. Her perception is both incorrect and unimportant to the story, evidently.
Only at the very end does she speak, when she confronts, at the moment of his greatest professional triumph, the man who enslaved her. Unfortunately, when she does, the words that come out of her mouth hardly seem her own. She, like the men around her, speaks in generalities about his treatment of her, “The tongue you speak with is forked…You had me as your slave, denied our children, had my mother murdered, and you would have sent me to a living hell had it not been for this inspector here. You are no man, but a beast who has risen from deep in the earth in which you dig into.” This poetic recounting of her travails, likely hours or perhaps a few days after she is rescued from the sanitarium, fails to jive with the emotional reality of what she’s been through or her education or station in life. She is merely the mouthpiece of the show’s condemnation of men like Bone.
Not that this was a bad episode in and of itself. The story is solid and the approach to telling these tales is becoming more sophisticated. Still, the series seems unwilling to grapple in a meaningful way with the rich subjects it mines. This continues to be a disappointment in a series which, in many other ways, continues to improve.
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