Whitechapel series 4 episode 1 review

Review Becky Lea
4 Sep 2013 - 22:00

Whitechapel takes a leaf from Dennis Wheatley's book in this week's occult-related mystery. Here's Becky's review of the series 4 opener...

Never for the faint of heart, Whitechapel kickstarted the new series in suitably grisly fashion as a homeless man was slowly crushed to death by an anonymous assailant. Meanwhile, DI Joe Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) and DS Ray Miles (Phil Davis) are celebrating the book launch of their colleague Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton) before being called away to investigate the latest mysterious murder.

The opening scenes were deftly handled, flitting between the Whitechapel team at Buchan’s book launch to the slow, torturous death of this episode’s mysterious corpse, swiftly re-establishing the show’s unflinching attention to murderous detail. Despite being filmed mostly in shadow, the killing of Alexander Zukanov (David Gant) was possibly one of the series’ most memorable for just how affecting it was. It was almost as if you could feel every new stone weighing down on the victim’s body, thanks in no small part to director Jon East for never cutting away at the key moments. If you didn’t wince throughout that entire scene, you are made of sterner stuff than I.

Altogether less horrific, the book launch scenes quickly reminded the audience of the central dynamics of the show, particularly those of the characters. Penry-Jones, Davis and Pemberton have a great chemistry and the moments of levity in their interactions often prevent Whitechapel from becoming too bleak and depressing. It also serves to remind us and inform existing viewers about their tics and obsessions; Chandler’s OCD is still plaguing him though he is making clear efforts to cope with it, whilst Miles continues to look after him, still determined to set him up on a date.

Buchan meanwhile gets the episode’s funniest moment after discovering mildew on the walls in his archives, fretting and treating it with just as much revulsion as he would a killer. Buchan is still quite a tragic figure of loneliness despite the camaraderie and this scene, whilst funny, also comes with its fair share of pathos. The mildew threatens his ‘children’, the files over which he pores to source out murderous parallels, and they are, to him, the only constant comfort he has.

Whitechapel has flirted with the supernatural before, but it is the first foray into Dennis Wheatley-esque occult horror with the murder methods of choice and if the cutaways shots between scenes are anything to go by. Hints that the murder may be occult-related appear throughout the episode from the mysterious symbols scratched underneath a windowsill to Buchan’s references to Whitechapel’s rumoured "gates of hell". It creates an uneasy atmosphere, particularly as most of the action takes place in dim, yellow-tinted lighting that automatically makes shadows look menacing.

The episode employs a variety of other techniques to build this unsettling tension throughout, slowing down the pace to torturous levels whilst building in a couple of horror cliches without overusing them. There’s nothing worse than a creepy old lady uttering prophetic sentences, but the sound design was also excellent in this capacity; developments in the investigation were accompanied by a buzzing noise that contrasted sharply with the soft piano that is usually employed.

There’s also was the hissing for the slowly escaping gas, hinting at the possible method of demise for poor Dorothy Cade, whilst also teasing us with a potential explosion. Alas, it was not to be for the killer had something all the more horrific for Dorothy in mind, burning her slowly at the stake and establishing witchcraft as the connection between the two murders.

It appears the killer is on a very literal witch-hunt, rampaging through Whitechapel’s elderly population, or at least those who seem to be connected to the infamous poison-tipped umbrella murder of real-life Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov. The combination of espionage and witchcraft works particularly well as both deal with individuals supposedly working to undermine a community whilst hiding in plain sight.

However, the inclusion of the MI6 agent feels rather forced. Her every appearance is accompanied by a musical score that doesn’t know whether it wants to be jovial or menacing, much like the MI6 agent herself. It may be that this jarring effect was fully intentional, but it seems an odd decision given the way in which the rest of the episode is remarkable for the meticulous way in which it keeps the tension ramped up.

Thankfully, it’s the only flaw in what was otherwise an intriguing opening episode, combining the usual historical precedent with a supernatural flair that once again sets the new series of Whitechapel apart from that which has gone before.

Read more of Becky's writing at Assorted Buffery.

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