22 November 2017

"...This Sad Havoc"

David Edgerley Gates

East London, the 1890's. Whitechapel is still scarred by Jack the Ripper's terrors, and the men who police her streets are haunted, too. The late Victorian, a time and place of huge instabilities, that masquerades as a somehow immutable and granite-solid social and political norm, with its seething discontents just barely contained.

Ripper Street. A period series that's run five seasons. You'd think this ground had been pretty well ploughed and harvested by now, but not so. Sharp writing, animated characters, a terrific cast, and solid production values. This is the kind of thing the BBC does incredibly well when they bring their A-game. Downton Abbey as cop shop.


Matthew Macfadyen as Reid
Inspector Edmund Reid, commander of H Division, holds down the center, but Reid is nowhere near as foursquare as he first appears. His sergeant, Bennet Drake, later himself promoted to inspector, is likewise morally compromised. And the American surgeon, Homer Jackson, a former Pinkerton's man, may well be a fugitive living under another name. The whorehouse madam, Long Susan Hart, of suspect origins, also in flight. Lastly, the Yard's eminence grise, Chief Inspector Abberline, at one time lead detective on the Ripper case, who never caught his man.


Jerome Flynn as Drake
It's a charged dynamic, and it keeps shifting. The orbits erratic, the gravitational influences uncertain, as each major player moves their own boundaries. Drake, for example, is a bare-knuckles guy, what the Irish call a hard boy, but it's his softness that leads him astray. Reid is a self-righteous bastard, and trips on skirts because he sets the bar so high. (He carries the enormous guilt of blaming himself for his daughter's death.) All of this, and more, the scenery not a backdrop, but an ecosystem, a laboratory, a Petri dish that cultures infection. The medium is a character. Social position is destiny, capital is corrupt, brute strength is master.


Adam Rothenberg as Jackson
This is noir well before the term gained currency, and the interior darkness a dread that isn't named. The broken men who 'copper' these sooty tenements and narrow cobbles are honorable if not always honest - least of all with themselves - but they fear the deadening of their own hearts. The 'abyss,' Reid calls it. "Is it ourselves?" he wonders to Sgt. Drake, and Drake has no ready answer.


MyAnna Buring as Susan Hart
Bennet Drake, over time, comes to seem the most conflicted of the characters. Not that all of them don't have their individual weaknesses and ambiguities, but at first glance, Drake presents the fewest doubts and afflictions. He's muscle. He doesn't philosophize. Reid is supposed to be the brains. More often than not, though, it's Drake who shows the greater wisdom, and even restraint. They have a careful balance. Reid doesn't always know when to hold his tongue. Drake speaks less, and reveals more.


Clive Russell as Abberline
A mystery surrounds the two Americans, the surgeon Jackson and the businesswoman Susan Hart, but what they seek in London is reinvention. This might be counterintuitive, in a place so stratified by class, but in fact it gives them an advantage, because they can choose to erase the past. It's no disqualification, for an American. After all, they arrived from the New World. Others, however, are trapped. Whitechapel is both opportunity and quicksand, each of them a lure. There are masks, of convenience, of propriety, there is nakedness, of both flesh and ambition. There are predators and victims. The faint of heart don't prosper. "I would spare you," Bennet Drake tells the whore Rose, "from this sad havoc." But the knight of deliverance is no proof against calamity.

Ripper Street isn't allegory. It's flesh and blood, and plenty of it - full frontal gore, by and large - vivid and convincing. And this visible despair is always grounded in the iron courtesies and awkward frictions of class, a comedy of manners, you might say. Black comedy, and bad manners. An overcast of melancholy. A pinch of solitude. And the historical ironies, thrown into relief. It's an age of wonders, of industry and invention, the coming of a new century, but the dislocations of that new century are unlike anything we could have imagined beforehand. From this remove, Ripper Street foreshadows our loss, the end of innocence.

5 comments:

janice law said...

Sounds interesting. Makes me wonder what literature would have done without the gaslight era- it remains literary gold.

Art Taylor said...

I've not seen this show, but definitely adding it to my to-watch list now! Thanks for the recommendation.

Elizabeth said...

Cool! I see it's on Netflix, 5 seasons.

Leigh Lundin said...

Intriguing review of a series I was unaware of and, David, damn fine writing yourself.

Eve Fisher said...

I'll check it out!