Fans of Ripper Street breathed a huge sigh of relief as it was revealed this week that the beloved series will see a third series on Amazon after being cancelled by BBC. The series, which currently airs every Saturday night on BBC America, is definitely worthy of an extended life, as evidenced by tonight’s brilliant episode, “Am I Not Monstrous?”
The Elephant Man, eugenics, freak shows, a new cast member and a continuing conspiracy fill up the sophomore episode of Ripper Street’s second series. At first glance this might seem like an absurd and cluttered premise, but the execution of all of these disparate story lines is near flawless.
“Am I Not Monstrous?” begins with a young woman about to give birth stumbling into the hospital in Whitechapel. She gives birth to a son and within a few hours turns up dead and her baby abducted. Inspector Reid (Matthew MacFayden), Sgt. Drake (Jerome Flynn) and Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) are called into investigate and discover the young woman…had a tail. They dive into the underground world of freak shows to discover that a “man who feels no pain” John Goode (Tom Brooke) might be the father of the child. He flees the detectives’ clutches. He remains the key to solving the crime as Jackson realizes the young man’s interest in the theory of eugenics might be the key to the whole affair. Reid turns to Joseph Merrick (Joseph Drake) AKA The Elephant Man for clues as he spent time in the freak show world. Merrick is initially no help as the vile Jeddiah Shine (Joseph Mawle) has intimidated The Elephant Man by threatening to murder him if Merrick reveals to the police that it was Shine who killed off the informant Linklater last episode. With the help of an overly-eager yet green new detective named Flight (Damien Molony), Reid determines that eugenics has somehow damaged Goode’s mind and they look to the local authority on the subject as the possible answer to the abduction.
That was a lot right?
If put in lesser hands this episode would’ve been an absolute mess. Yet, the direction of Tom Shankland steers the episode through treacherous waters of excess, melodrama and over-complication. He tells this story in a straightforward way, no frills, just the facts. That’s what’s so good about Ripper Street, it reflects the nature of it’s characters…it’s striving for a conclusion, a resolution to the case at hand. There’s no gaga, no side stories that derail an episode.
The episode also does something quite unique — it allows for its suspects to have great acting moments. In the climax of the episode, Goode and his father, (who outside of this episode will have no long-term impact on Ripper Street), are given there time to really shine, to give heartfelt and compelling performances. They aren’t caricatures that give your generic monologue that neatly explains their motives — there’s real, gut wrenching emotion here. The show also allows Joseph Drake to really hit it out of the park Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man. Drake takes what could be a complete cartoon of a character (due to the heavy prosthetics) and makes his so sympathetic, so heartbreaking.
Yet, he’s not the best character in the episode. That honor goes to this season’s “big bad” Det. Insp. Jedediah Shine. On the surface Shine is Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York — his resemblance to Daniel Day-Lewis’ amazing villain is uncanny. Yet, go beyond the appearance and discover just how evil, devious and absolutely brilliant Shine is. He’s on par, intellectually with Reid, and physically with Drake — two things that are hard for any character to match. He’s also got the perception of being a hero cop (truth be told he is a top inspector), which thwarts any initial accusations Reid can make. The guy’s got cache, gravitas if you will. It’s going to take more than Reid’s theories to take him down. Shine’s scenes with Merrick are absolutely terrifying. Shine is so quiet, yet menacing, you feel uncomfortable watching him threaten a defenseless man. Jeddiah Shine might be one of the best characters Ripper Street has had in its in two seasons.
We said it last week and we’ll say it again — Ripper Street is must-watch. On a night when TV is just flat-out terrible, you should be treating yourself to this masterful crime drama.
All photos credit: Tiger Aspect