This review contains spoilers.
2.1 Pure as the Driven
Throwing us right back into the action with a man falling out of a window and impaling his leg upon a cast-iron fence, Ripper Street announced its return to the world with some characteristic folksy music and a handy round of fisticuffs. Whitechapel may no longer be in the grip of Jack the Ripper, but it is still all a bit chaotic. The impaled man turns out to be a police officer with connections to the Chinese population currently residing in East London where something nefarious is occurring, naturally. Reid (Matthew MacFadyen), Drake (Jerome Flynn) and Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) swiftly find themselves ‘chasing the dragon’ (literally in Jackson’s case) into Chinatown where they discover a powerful new opiate is about to hit the streets of Whitechapel.
Ripper Street doesn’t waste too much time getting us reacquainted with our trio of hat-sporting heroes and rather than any lengthy exposition, we get the three engaged in a brawl at the police station. It quickly established the dynamic with a couple of quickfire exchanges between the three characters to settle everyone back in. The chemistry between the three leads was always the highlight of the first series so it’s good to see that none of it has been lost in the interim months. This works in the episode’s favour as the over-arching plot is largely predictable from the start, though the fast pace ensures you get to the sign-posted twists quickly.
Similarly, it took no time at all to establish the individual characters’ situations. Reid gets moral dilemmas, Jackson’s struggle with drugs is still evident, Drake is faced with the truth of an old friend and Long Susan (MyAnna Buring) gets… rent problems. That’s it. If there was anything consistently awful about the first series of Ripper Street then it was the treatment of the female characters. If they weren’t being beaten up, sexually assaulted or murdered, then they were laden with trite plots centred on lolling about in various states of undress and waiting to be rescued by our heroes. It looks set to continue here with each chief female character either absent or only briefly on screen to lend support to the menfolk. Susan gets her afore-mentioned rent worries while even the impressively-monikered Blush Pang (Kunjue Li), initially the chief suspect, is swiftly revealed to be working in partnership with her lover.
What makes this even more frustrating is that Ripper Street has actually sorted out some of the other problems that featured in the first series, demonstrating that those behind the camera are keen for it to develop. The rather odd mash-up of modern English language with some more archaic turns of phrase continues but largely, it works quite well. Though it is still dependent on the competency of the actor delivering it, the dialogue flows a lot better than in earlier episodes where it felt like sentences were re-ordered just to hammer home that you were in Victorian London. There is still the odd clanger that massively jars, like Reid shouting “I know not, I seek her also!” whilst Wong King-Fai (Aaron Ly) was strangling poor Drake. Not really the moment in which to take your time in revealing similar motivations to the man about to kill your sergeant.
That being said, there were plenty of positives too; the Dickensian feel to the series was also there once more, manifested almost entirely in Jedediah Shine (the wonderful Joseph Mawle), a man who could have wandered into the pages of Bleak House without anyone noticing. Mawle’s performance was all you could wish for from a moustache-twirling Victorian villain and it was easily the highlight of the episode, though the transparency of the character did make the upcoming twist more than a little obvious. That being said, it has thrown down the gauntlet for Reid as Shine was set up swiftly as his nemesis, his opposite in everything from ethics to choice of tartan.
Also, the action sequences are really quite something in this episode and Tom Shankland’s direction allows the choreography space to breath. The opening brawl was largely just that, a scrap between people of all fighting abilities. Following that, the episode’s subject matter allowed for some quality hand-to-hand combat whenever Wong King-Fai was involved. The final fight sequence, the ‘surely-it’s-a-foregone-conclusion-but-maybe-not’ between Wong and Shine, built the tension well and kept the focus on the two actors rather than succumbing to the traditional fast-cut method of conveying danger, even if the outcome wasn’t a massive surprise.
It also excelled in the quieter moments like the final scene between Shine and the unflappable Reid who looked quite, well, flapped. Reid is a character founded on following the letter of the law and meting out justice to those who deserve it. However, a fair amount of grey area seems to be sneaking in to the way in which he deals with perpetrators. Not only was he seen gleefully getting stuck in to the violence of the brawl in the station, but the arrest of Blush Pang wasn’t for any crime in particular, it was for any that he could think of. When Shine declares him to be ‘pure as the driven’, it isn’t so much an observation as a challenge to see how far Reid can be pushed into this new way of thinking. Corruption is rife in many aspects of this world and it seems Reid will no longer be immune.
A decent, if predictable, start then for this series of Ripper Street. It feels much more together as a show, though some of the more major niggles from the first series remain.
Read our review of the series one finale, What Use Our Work?, here.
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