This review contains spoilers.
4.1 The Stranger’s Home
In Ripper Street’s finale last series, we were left with our heroes scattered and in quite an array of situations. For Matthew Macfadyen’s Edmund Reid, it was something of a happy one, recovered from his near fatal gunshot wounds and reunited with his daughter to carve out a life together by the sea. Drake (Jerome Flynn) was left in charge of H Division with Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) still in his employ. Susan (MyAnna Buring) languished in Newgate Prison, awaiting her death sentence, due to be carried out after the birth and nursing of her son.
It’s now 1897, a big year for both the history of Great Britain and culturally speaking too. It’s the year of Dracula, Oscar Wilde’s release from prison and, the episode is quick to signal, it is Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year. Ripper Street’s new series opens just before the procession that would pass through six miles of London streets and include troops from all over the British Empire. The show has always made use of its Victorian context with varied results and the changes wrought in the years since we last visited Lehman Street are quickly felt at the opening of the episode.
Inspector Drake now has a very shiny new police station as well as a rather baffling device called a telephone and a micro-reader, the legacy of Reid’s diligent archive collection. There’s a new journalist ready to cause havoc in place of Fred Best who also happens to herald the increasing public role of women in the acerbic Miss Costello. The streets of London are becoming ever more diverse; there’s already unrest in the Jewish population of Whitechapel and now arrivals from elsewhere in the British Empire, chiefly India, are beginning to make themselves known within the establishment.
Unlike last series’ train crash, which kicked off the ongoing narrative for our characters with one big event, the plot threads in this first two-parter are, as with our heroes, somewhat disparate. Drake’s is the most conventional as he is called to the discovery of a dead body at the docks; it’s an Indian man trussed up in chains, washed ashore with his throat slit. Jackson is called to help, faking his usual debauchery to cover up his plans to help Susan gain the inheritance from her father for their son, leaving Drake and Rose in the dark and assuming his worst habits have cemented themselves. Lingering in the background is the case of the Whitechapel Golem, Isaac Bloom, accused of murdering another and also sentenced to hang. Deborah Goren, Edmund Reid’s old friend and associate, requests his help in proving Bloom’s innocence and he finds himself called back to the grim streets of his former occupation.
Ripper Street has largely kept its focus solely on the immediate surroundings of Whitechapel for its previous seasons, exploring how the changing world of the later nineteenth century affected its people on a smaller scale. The decision then, to widen the series’ focus to one involving Queen Victoria herself and the possible corruption of the British Empire from within feels, therefore, like quite an ambitious one. So too is the decision to tackle a particularly sensitive topic pertaining to our contemporary society as well as Ripper Street’s own in the influx of Islam to Britain’s shores. Whitechapel’s chequered history provides a unique locus for these various issues as well as a compelling background to ongoing cases and our characters are each affected by it in turn.
As the episode develops, the focus does narrow down into a more domestic situation, one which carries strong parallels for the main characters. Whether it’s fathers and their children or the need to free themselves from current entrapment, the narratives weave around each other, the larger international unrest bearing down upon the everyday lives of those residing in Whitechapel. That’s a lot to pack into an opening episode, so widening out to a two-parter proves to be a strong move, allowing the various situations and characters to breathe. Even then, there are aspects that feel like a whistle-stop tour of contextual information, something the show has been guilty of in the past, but it’s a sign of its deepening maturity that the episode never feels muddled nor too shallow to resonate.
The racial tensions arriving through the colonial soldiers travelling to Britain for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Procession is one of the key aspects of the opening episode, focused as it is on the murdered Al-Qadir. It also offers a quick and handy guide to the moralities of the new faces in the series such as Drake’s new progressively-minded superior, Augustus Dove (Killian Scott) and Derek Riddell’s Constantine. If Constantine’s insults to Drake don’t turn you against him immediately, his white colonialist tirade against the Risaldar-Major surely will. David Threlfall is simply and creepily magnificent. Matthew Lewis, formerly Neville Longbottom of the Harry Potter franchise, doesn’t get a chance to make much of a mark just yet, but he slots in well to the existing cast, earning a laugh with his early phonetic alphabet attempts.
The old, familiar faces acquit themselves with confidence, slipping back into their characters and their new situations. Jerome Flynn, whose dogged performance as Bennet Drake has often been the unsung hero of the series, is afforded the most screentime in his position as Inspector and continues to exhibit a world-weary charm. Matthew Macfadyen is ever reliable as the stoic Reid reluctantly drawn back into his old life, and seeing them back together with Rothenberg is certainly a thrill. It’s a little disappointing to see Susan fall back on the creepy ally emerging from the shadows yet again. However, given her survival and the efforts made to develop her character in the last series, let’s hope the writers give the wonderful MyAnna Buring something to really get stuck into. And we can all be thankful for forthright Mathilda and her determination to go to Oxford.
As with all series openers, the status quo is somewhat returned by the end with Reid packed up and returned to London, ready to don his crime-fighting bowler hat once again. Susan is hidden at the docks, ready to be a mystery once more and the Queen’s Jubilee passes without incident. It’s a bold opening episode and one that succeeds far more than it falters. Ripper Street is nicely back in business.
Read Becky’s Ripper Street series three reviews, here.
This review was originally posted in January 2016.