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Review: Ripper Street

BBC America’s ‘Dramaville’ brings warmed-over helpings of British television to US shores for those who haven’t caught it on the Internet already, and Ripper Street is reheated Ripper, so it seems like a reasonable combination. The crime drama opens in Whitechapel six months after the infamous Ripper murders, when everyone was still on edge after the brutality of 1888, and many wondered if the Ripper had truly gone, or simply taken a break…

While several episodes aired in Britain over the course of December, the first episode, opening with a murder that seems suspiciously similar to those executed by Saucy Jack himself, came to the US on 19 January. As Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Mcfadyen) and his colleague Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn) investigated, along with the help of gang-pressed ex-Pinkerson and former US Army surgeon Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), they quickly put together the pieces of a puzzle: a woman strangled, and then mutilated in an attempt to conceal the true cause of death.

The show is tapping into the desire for period dramas that’s been gripping audiences on both sides of the pond (lavish frocks, check, ornately decorated house of pleasure, check), but it’s got a sharper edge to it, as seen in Copper as well; Ripper Street satisfies the taste for dirt and grime that some viewers seem to be expressing. They don’t just want to see pretty drawing rooms and long camera angles on sweeping lawns and sparkling crystal; they want to roll around in the dirt and come away with their hands dirty.

Ripper Street is about the seedy side of one of London’s most horrific districts, during a particular horrific era. If you could imagine an example of inhumanity and depravity, it probably took place in this desperately impoverished region of a brutal city in an era when industrialisation was on the rise and members of the lower classes were viewed as disposable machines, not human beings. Thus it seems fitting that the plot of ‘I Need Light’ revolves around a Lord who strangles women for snuff films.

Oh yes. ‘I Need Light’ is about the nascent pornography industry, and what it lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up for enthusiasm. The episode plays with early attempts in cinematic pornography in a plot that astutely nails the first and most profitable use of almost every technology ever developed. As soon as the camera was invented, people were briskly shooting naked pictures of plump girls with strategically-placed fans, and when the concept of moving pictures came into fruition, so too did moving films.

‘I Need Light’ played on other ideas I’ve seen come up repeatedly in narratives about the Ripper and the surrounding events. In many of these instances, there’s a high level of sexuality introduced, through the sex workers who were Jack’s victims, and of course ubiquitous in the Whitechapel of the era. The Ripper killings suddenly become about sex and sensuality, rather than about misogyny and violence against women working in the sex industries. In a way, they are almost so stylised and sexualised that brutal death itself becomes sexy.

We see how the main villain, depicted as utterly depraved, has become utterly corrupted by power and dissolution, another theme we commonly see in discussions of the Ripper’s crimes. Many have suggested that the Ripper may have been educated, given the knowledge of anatomy demonstrated at some of the murder sites, though numerous trades also provide an excellent knowledge of human anatomy, including grave robbing and butchering, neither of which require extensive medical training. Or high class status.

It’s intriguing that modern reinterpretations of the Ripper story often envision him as a wealthy, powerful member of the aristocracy corrupted by too much boredom, which led to too much time with sex workers. While popular thought associates violent crime with ‘low class elements’ or ‘dirty rabble,’ people seem eager to believe that one of the most famous serial killers of all time was truly in a league of his own; I cannot help but wonder if people believe he would have been caught if he was of a lower class status, or if part of the Ripper mythology is his class status, that imagining him as a tradesman somehow dilutes the mystique.

After all, in a world where the Ripper was a Lord or well-heeled doctor, there’s something a little bit romantic and mysterious about all those cut-up bodies of lower-class women, right? Whereas if he’s just a dirty tradesman offing hookers, there’s no magic there; he’s just another low-class degenerate doing exactly what you’d expect his kind to do. What, in fact, most of the Victorians expected the lower class rabble to do; they genuinely believed that residents of regions like Whitechapel required external intervention from middle class and wealthy saviours to protect them from their own savage tendencies.

Ultimately, though, at the end of this episode, I was brought back to the beginning. The episode opens with a slumming tour of Whitechapel, led by a stout bearded man followed by a row of gaggling do-gooders who ooh and aah at the things they see before stumbling upon the victim’s body. In a way, the slumming tour reminded me of my own experience as a viewer, looking into Whitechapel as an outsider and being titillated by it, viewing it as entertainment.

While I am obviously looking into the past, and a specifically sensationalised and packaged view of the past, rather than slumming through modern-day incarnations of Whitechapel, I still find it fascinating that viewers are clamouring for more dirt, more suffering, and more brutality in their historical dramas. Perhaps we really are only truly entertained by seeing people at their worst, which would explain why reality television is so wildly popular, why people have such a passion for disaster porn and poverty porn, why development porn builds empires like those created by Nicholas Kristof.

Suffering: The new escapism?