I’ve always found the British Victorian era (1837-1901) fascinating. It is the time when the world sped towards industrialization, and we get glimpses of the origins of many of the things that are commonplace now. Ripper Street captures the atmosphere of this period – dirty, chaotic, constrained and fixated on rule of law.
In last night’s episode, a toymaker’s murder leads to an interesting look at the meaning of justice. A vigilante mob brings the police a boy who they claim murdered the toymaker. This is a well-organized mob, though, that actually thinks it is the hand of justice. The mob leaders have even gone to the extra step of securing sworn declarations of witnesses who saw the boy leaving the alley where the toymaker’s body was found. Inspector Reid is not convinced the boy is guilty, but is powerless against a swift and merciless judicial system. A judge decides to make an example of the boy and sentences him to death. There is a sense that the court system is like a steam train barreling ahead, uninterested in preserving truth or fairness. There is also a sense that the have-nots are treated differently by this system, and that those in power have little compassion for the lower classes.
Reid brings in Captain Jackson to conduct an autopsy of the toymaker. Reid offers him a white-tiled room, outfitted with the best equipment for conducting autopsies. It is a bright spot injected into this dirty, claustrophobic environment, which is ironic considering its purpose. Captain Jackson is reluctant, but is ultimately won over by his own curiosity. His character is the most interesting when he is serious and fixated on solving a mystery. The roguish Captain Jackson is less interesting and more cliché. Hopefully, as he settles into this new role, he will be able to leave behind the opium dens and card tables.
Mixed in with the investigation into the toymaker’s murder is Captain Jackson’s loss of a ring at gambling tables run by a street thug. For reasons not fully known, the ring is significant and Captain Jackson and Long Susan, the local madam, set out to retrieve it. The ring belonged to someone named Matthew Judge, and it appears that Captain Jackson and Long Susan may have had something to do with Judge’s death. Assuming he is dead. I find this aspect of the story less than intriguing. Rather than creating some elaborate back story, the writers should keep their focus on the here and now. Judging from Reid’s conversation with Captain Jackson at the close of the episode, it appears that this story may end before it starts, which would be a wise choice. It would be interesting, though, if the Pinkertons came to London at some point.
I am looking forward to seeing more development of the relationship between Reid and his newly pious wife. It is typical in crime narratives that the lawman sacrifices personal relationships for the greater good. Reid seems to genuinely love his wife, and it would be a shame if he lost her. At the end when it is revealed that they have suffered a loss, most likely of a child, it is easy to see why both are struggling emotionally. It was a touching scene and a storyline that should give Reid more depth as a character.
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