Just when I think it’s impossible to love British pop culture any more, those wily Brits give me something new to cherish. I’m speaking, of course, of Ripper Street, the new drama now airing on BBC America. Set in the East End of London in 1889 during the aftermath of the infamous Jack The Ripper murders, Ripper Street is rife with potential. After watching the pilot, I couldn’t help but wonder why it’s taken so long to put such a show together. The setting and period in history comes already fully emotionally charged and offers a wealth of possibilities.
The show centers around Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) of the notorious H-Division – the police precinct responsible for keeping order in the district of Whitechapel in London. Whitechapel itself is unstable, its citizens still reeling from the gruesome murders of Jack The Ripper, whose identity remains unknown. Ripper Street picks up sometime in 1889, mere months after what would be the last of Jack The Ripper’s murders and the residents of Whitechapel are still terrified and many in the police force eager to pin any number of crimes on him despite evidence to the contrary, such is their paranoia of his return. Inspector Reid, fortunately, is dedicated to uncovering the truth behind every crime and very little seems to escape his keen powers of perception. He’s sort of a less eccentric (and much sexier) Sherlock Holmes. His partner is Sgt. Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn) but there’s no comparing him to Watson. Drake is a loyal sidekick and clever enough in his own right but he seems more Reid’s muscle than anything else. And together, they are much seedier than Sherlock and Watson ever were. In the show’s pilot, we see them moonlighting in an underground boxing ring with Reid organizing and Drake skillfully fighting. And they certainly aren’t in it for love of the sport; they discreetly and conspiratorially throw fights without batting an eye.
The American surgeon Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) completes their triangle and while he is a physician, his character is less than professional. He’s hiding out in a brothel with a woman whose relationship to him remains unclear (are they siblings? former lovers? accomplices to some past crime?) and reluctantly allows Reid to deputize him to aid in investigations, much to his lady’s dismay. Long Susan (MyAnna Buring) is mistress of the brothel in which Jackson resides and her role grows with each episode but even now – five weeks in – her history with Jackson is largely unknown.
Matthew Macfadyen shines as Reid, a man dedicated to rooting out truth as well as justice but who is far from a one-note good guy. His sad and lonely wife, Emily (Amanda Hale), alludes to the death of their young daughter, to which Reid replies that he cannot mourn her, though he will not explain why. The right side of his neck and shoulder are covered in scars from an apparent burn and again, we receive no explanation to their origin; these details are nothing more than brief glimpses of Reid’s dark side. Which isn’t nearly as obvious as Captain Jackson’s, whose obscure past makes for amusing asides and intricate plot complications. The cast consistently gives superb performances and the gritty Guy Ritchie-style of shooting adds to the tension. The sense of fear and near-panic that permeates each episode is practically a character in itself, exacerbated by the local media’s eagerness to sensationalize every crime.
Real-life Reid, Drake and Jackson never solved the case of Jack The Ripper so I don’t expect much resolution there. But whatever closure the series may find, I am certain it will at least make for one entertaining ride.