Ripper Street series 4 episode 2 review: Some Conscience Lost

The newly bureaucratic policing system - and lots of deaths - are providing difficult challenges for Edmund in Ripper Street this week...

This review contains spoilers.

4.2 Some Conscience Lost

If Edmund Reid thought his transition back to his old life at Lehman Street was going to be an easy one, he was sadly mistaken, as he discovers in the opening to Some Conscience Lost. After a boy dies in his arms and a distraught woman tries to claim the boy as her son, Reid finds himself battling the newly bureaucratic policing system as well as his former sergeant, Drake, who wants him to investigate a spate of victims having their right hands chopped off in Whitechapel. Drake is too busy trying to track down the murderer of a Salvation Army captain to worry about either, whilst Jackson is maintaining his drunken pretence of grieving for the still-very-alive Susan, now sheltered down at the docks with Croker.

It’s an episode exploring all kinds of displacement, from Reid’s inability to fit in well with the new operations of Lehman Street, the wanderings of Leda Starling, Susan’s hideaway, Rose’s tricksy relationship with adopted son Connor, through to the missing boys of the Union Workhouse. Each strand of the story follows a similar path as the person in question struggles in their present situation through a specific trial, before they find some kind of acceptance by the end. Some are perhaps more uneasy than others, but the various outcomes prove the new series’ commitment to strong character work.

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The structure of the episode is a little reminiscent of a Buffy episode, The Zeppo, in which Xander is followed by the audience, redundant in the main, barely-seen battle of the episode that involves the rest of the characters and muddling through his own mystery whilst dealing with his own feelings of inadequacy. In Some Conscience Lost, the murder that would usually form the main A-plot, that of the Salvation Army captain, is seen only in brief. Instead, we follow the displaced Reid, chancing upon a dying boy with Matilda (which in turn reminded me of Jo’s death in Dickens’ Bleak House) and finding him determined to solve the mystery of how this boy ran away from a seemingly ideal workhouse. Of course, the two cases turn out to have something of a connection and it’s Reid who pieces it all together, proving his instincts are still in place, even if he hasn’t learnt how to manage the system just yet.

Macfadyen has always been adept at conveying a myriad of emotions with one look, and he gives Reid a physical uneasiness through much of the episode. The blocking of the early scenes with him and everyone else is particularly clever, positioning him on the outside looking in. In particular, the moment in which Drake dismisses him and Reid looks on as Jackson delivers autopsy findings to the new Head of Lehman Street. Even an interrogation scene has him looming out of the shadows as if he doesn’t quite belong there anymore. It’s a simple but effective technique that shifts Reid to the sidelines, unable to cope with the new bureaucracy espoused by Matthew Lewis’ efficient sergeant nor with the idea that he can no longer give orders and have them immediately followed.

Using the background of the Salvation Army, its growth in the late nineteenth century and the opposition it faced from the Skeleton Army is perhaps one of the best uses of historical context the series has yet brought us. It’s simply woven into the story and the episode resists the urge to reel off a load of exposition to explain that antagonism, whereas in the past, a whole scene would usually have been devoted to describing it at length. Here, we see merely snippets of it, enough to sketch in the history required, using it as an underlying parallel to Cornelius Wilde’s obsession with the “deserving poor” and killing off the sick in order to balance his books. At the heart of it all is a desire to clean up Whitechapel, seemingly the locus of so much change in Victorian London, but the need to do it properly, without judgement, is the trap that Wilde falls into.

The episode also takes the time to see Susan get used to her new surroundings in the docks, by working her way into the schemes of Croker and his business management. The scene in which she takes control of the negotiations with a little background knowledge and a whole lot of mettle is a great one. MyAnna Buring and David Threlfall have a nicely unsettling chemistry together and the shot of them both leaning in to offer their deal is neat way of establishing that new synchronicity between them. It also helps that you have two strong actors in one scene, as capable of commanding your attention with a look as they are with a deftly delivered speech.

It’s another excellent offering and the decision to place Reid’s initial struggle to fit back into his home allows the episode to do some really strong character work. Dealing with the fallout from last week’s series opener, Some Conscience Lost is a clever look at the way in which good intentions can indeed pave the way to something hellish, but can also be a strong force for change in both Ripper Street’s characters and in their corner of London.

Read Becky’s review of the previous episode, The Stranger’s Home, here.

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This review was originally posted in January 2016.