This review contains spoilers.
2.2 Am I Not Monstrous?
This week, our Leman Street trio find themselves dealing with the body of a woman, uniquely identified by a tail-like protrusion, and her missing child. The case leads them to the underground freak shows and another encounter with Joseph Merrick aka the Elephant Man (Joseph Drake) whilst Jedediah Shine continues his machinations to frame Reid for Linklater’s death.
Ripper Street has always taken a sort of historical tick box approach to its context, throwing in Marxist quotations and diatribes against prostitution when the needs arise, but never really delved any further into it, dropping it as soon as the plot picked up momentum. In this case, it was theories surrounding eugenics and heredity that were thrown into the mix and largely, they got it quite right (except the term eugenics was coined in Francis Galton’s Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development, not Hereditary Genius). However, rather than being abandoned halfway through, this context actually continued to inform the themes and plot of the episode, right the way through, even if it was never delved into far enough to produce some really interesting character development.
Eugenics was really gaining ground as a method of improving the population around this time, as evidenced in the zoologist and eventual episode villain Dr Corcoran. The episode carefully dances around the more insidious aspects of this brand of thinking, partially I suspect, because many late nineteenth century writers really did think it was a good idea (H.G. Wells for example). Instead, we get a storyline that is decidedly anti-eugenecist thinking as Goode allows his child to live despite the possibility that he may too carry the disease that could cause suffering to his descendants.
This idea of internal suffering also ensured that the episode made some interesting thematic links from the ideas of inherent monstrosity and manifestations of a person’s behaviour. Stella Brooks is considered beautiful by Jackson, because of, rather than despite, her deformity. Likewise, Merrick may be ‘monstrous’ (particularly to the nineteenth century population), but is actually the most honourable character in the episode, dying for his desire to reveal the truth (we’ll be returning to that scene shortly). His monologue about loneliness at the end was beautifully put together from the framing of the wide shot as he ascended the stairs to Joseph Drake’s measured and emotional delivery.
It also made some interesting links between the concept of shame and outward appearances; like Stella who has no shame in her body, Shine continues to swagger about confident in his own abilities. He continues to commit such horrific acts because he doesn’t feel ashamed about doing so. In contrast, a visit to the returning Dr Karl Crabbe (Anton Lesser), revealed Reid, ever the tortured soul, to be wracked with guilt over losing his wife and his actions that caused it. The difference being is that neither of these men betray any outward signs of the monstrosity they feel or know that are within.
Whilst this inclusion of the idea of bodily health was a much stronger use of historical context than we have previously seen, the episode simply didn’t go far enough to really explore those links. It would have been fascinating to see Reid having to deal with his inner torment, rather than speak about it in hushed tones. We may yet get this later in the series, but when so much of this episode was to do with the health of the body and mind, it felt like a missed opportunity, particularly as the episode strongly hinted towards the connection between Reid and Merrick. Parallels are drawn between their shame and isolation, but never then connected or developed.
Likewise, the introduction of Damien Molony to the motley crew as Albert Flight was lacking in lustre. Flight has been given that most well worn of paths; the constable with a lot to prove who must earn the trust of his employees but will naively mess up along the way. As introductions go, it was all fairly serviceable, though the poor constable has done little to endear himself to us just yet and it’s too early to tell where the character is headed, but we can be confident that Molony will bring all he can to the part after his excellent turn in Being Human. Let’s just hope they give him more to do with Susan who continues with rent problems and arguing with Jackson. That’s about it.
The second episode was, despite this, largely a solid effort until the final few scenes that is. Joseph Merrick did indeed die in 1890, but the death was ruled as accidental; in Ripper Street, it is at the hands of Inspector Shine. In a scene that felt quite uncomfortable, given that Merrick was a historical figure, Shine slowly removed the supports that prevent him from asphyxiating, making ill-judged jokes along the way. The scene itself felt unnecessary, serving only to remove Merrick’s testimony and remind us all that Shine is the villain, which we already knew given his continual aggravation throughout. Simply having Merrick pass away before giving his testimony would have been enough to propel the plot without this development, something which felt emotionally manipulative and exploitative given Merrick’s portrayal throughout the episode.
Those final scenes were a shame because up until then, this episode had almost got me convinced that Ripper Street had nearly sorted itself out. And yet, there is still work to be done, but an improvement all the same.
Read Becky’s review of the previous episode, Pure As The Driven, here.
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