Ripper Street continued it excellent second series with another “ripped from the history books” case. “Become Man” touches upon the London matchgirls strike of 1888 a harrowing and to this reviewer, a completely unknown tragic piece of British history.
The episode shifts focus from the Inspector Reid (Matthew MacFayden) and his crew (Jerome Flynn, Adam Rothenberg) and puts it on the character of Long Susan (MyAnna Buring). Susan is the wife of Homer Jackson (Rothenberg), the lover of Reid and the madam of a house of ill repute. She’s been a long-suffering character on the series, and is currently embroiled in a storyline which she’s indebted to a vicious and lustful landlord Dugan (Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrel’s Frank Harper), whom she is trying to free herself from. In “Become Man” she ends up falling in league with with a group of female radicals who have kidnapped three men who were at the center of the opposition of the Matchgirl Strike. The actions of these men lead to the terrible, debilitating physical problems many of them suffer from. Falling in with these women changes Susan’s perspective which is dominated by the men in her life.
This theme of how women were treated during this time period dominates the episode and the usual procedural quality of the episode is pushed to the background. To some this may seem like a fatal mistake — Ripper Street is about the crimes with history used as its backdrop. Yet, this decision to focus on this theme and on the character of Long Susan was another brilliant move on the series’ behalf. It not only fleshes out a character who’s been more of a side character but it also shows this series is not just about blood, guts and bad guys.
The performance by MyAnna Buring sells this creative decision. The character of Long Susan serves as a surrogate for the viewing audience as her experiences and attitudes reflect those watching the series. Like the audience, when Long Susan first encounters the band of women who have committed these kidnappings we view them as mere criminals, thieves and extortionists. Yet, once we see the cruelties inflicted upon them by working in the matchstick factory, we, like Susan, begin to empathize with the women and in the end we end up on their side.
Yet, at the end of the episode, we return to who we are, awaiting the next episode of Ripper Street. Meanwhile, Long Susan is a character that has been ultimately changed forever which now makes her a complete wild card for the rest of the series. Her actions have direct bearing on Jackson and Reid, and it’s going to be intriguing to see how she effects the outcome of the entire second series.
“Become Man,” as an episode, was not as strong as the previous two episodes mainly because the series storyline involving this year’s big bad, Jebediah Shine have been so awesome. This was a minor detour from that story, but it’s a detour that’s highly enjoyed and again, masterfully executed.
All photos credit: Tiger Aspect