“In Whitechapel, they die every day”
When low ratings for series 2 of Ripper Street saw the BBC decide to pull the plug on it, it was something of a surprise to hear Amazon Video would be taking it over (this was 2014 after all) in a deal that would see episodes released first for streaming, and then shown on the BBC a few months later. And thank the ripper that they did, for I’d argue that this was the best series yet, the storytelling taking on an epic quality as it shifted the personal lives of its key personnel into the frontline with a series-long arc to extraordinary effect.
And this ambition is none more so evident than in the first episode which crashes a train right in the middle of Whitechapel, reuniting Reid with his erstwhile comrades Drake and Jackson four years on since we last saw them. A catastrophic event in and of itself, killing over 50 people, it also set up new villain Capshaw (the always excellent John Heffernan) and brilliantly complicated the character of Susan, promoting her to a deserved series lead as her keen eye for business, and particularly supporting the women of Whitechapel, throws her up against some hard choices.
My main criticism of Ripper Street last time round was its lack of established female characters and so this foregrounding of Myanna Buring’s stonkingly good Susan, accompanied by the introduction of Louise Brealey’s Dr Frayn (and to a lesser extent, Lydia Wilson’s Mimi – a new love interest for Jackson) went a long way to redressing this imbalance. And as Susan’s story unfurled across the length of the series, I remained impressed at how the writing remained nuanced, keeping an unpredictable energy right up until the tense finale in all its revelatory glory.
Matthew Macfadyen also responded well to the more personal material – his world rocked by a properly jaw-dropping discovery early on and the way in which the ramifications of that play out, not just on himself but on Jerome Flynn’s re-energised Drake was another continuing highlight. And the quality of these stories more than made up for the shift away from examining the social and economic issues of the time in quite so much detail as previously, though the introduction of the new science of fingerprinting was cleverly woven in.
That said, the standout episode for me came in ‘Live Free, Live True’, taking inspiration from the film Albert Nobbs to fashion its own deeply moving story of the lengths some women were forced to take in this unforgiving world. Haydn Gwynne delivers an astonishing performance, supported by a sensitive Emily Taaffe, demonstrating Ripper Street’s ability to switch between the bigger and the smaller picture and its commitment to creating powerfully moving television, thankfully rescued by Amazon. Recommended.