This is a series I came to late as I had no interest in things related to Jack the Ripper, especially in the wake of the campaign against the ripper museum in London’s East End.
But the series is astounding on so many levels. For a start, it is not about the gruesome killings per se, but the aftermath of them on the police and the community, an aspect little dealt with in news or other media. A police officer struggles to attend the inquest of the latest victim, but tries to flee until he is told by his sergeant that the Ripper is becoming a monster, a myth, terrifying the population. The police need to name him, to make him human, to make his evil stoppable. This is an extraordinary claim, and is very much at the heart of what literature is: the naming of things – it goes back to the creation myths, to Adam naming the beasts, but it is also about all the things that go bump in the night. When we name them we feel safe.
There is so much about the series that is great – the dark alleyways, then suddenly the scene opens up to the huge maritime scenes or views of the East End skyline. The actors are all highly distinctive – unusual faces, to match the unusual storylines. Much attention is given to details, it’s clear a lot has been spent on it, and no sign of CGI.
The writing is often quotable; it has a Shakespearean power that teeters on excess but pulls back just in time. The characters are strong and well written, each with a rich backstory, each haunted by their own ghosts which filter in to their behaviour. Matthew McFadyan plays Edmund Reid, burnt when a ship caught fire and who lost his teenage daughter, yet clings to the belief she is still alive. Jerome Flynn plays Bennet Drake is an ex solder, war hero and bareknuckle fighter, but also the only local. The most complex is the US surgeon/ex Pinkerton/ a man with multiple aliases, on the run, played by Adam Rothenburg who has a number of aliases. He provides the Victorian version of CSI which is often hit and miss. When confounded by an unidentified hallucinogenic drug, he swallows it. As you do. Then starts punching the air and shouting when he realises is’t amphetamine. His wife, Long Susan, played by Myanna Buring, daughter of a millionaire who runs a brothel.
Given the subject matter and the time, the series is violent, but not gratuitously so. Though not leads, there are plenty of strong female characters, and all characters are complex. Reid is nominally the hero, but he betrays his wife, gets drunk and they all break the law. The story lines often challenge the very nature of good and evil. The final series involves tracking down a violent killer, the Golem, who emerges as the victim of a terrifying childhood and mental illness, unusual topics for the time, and a reminder that people who behave badly can themselves be victims.
The final episode of what must be the final series, was brilliantly done. Threads tied off, justice is done, and the survivors are left to deal with the wreckage. There is no attempt at happy endings, though there is hope that some of them will get what they deserve. McFadyan’s Reid in particular is brilliantly done. He is at heart a decent man, a devoted husband and father; he tries so hard to bring order to the chaos of the streets, yet he makes huge mistakes, he betrays and hurts people around him. He begins and ends in the same office, as the rest of the world celebrates the start of the new millennium. He reminds me of Joseph Cotton in The Third Man, having gone through hell, his world completely changed, and yet he is back where he started. Possibly the best and most satisfying endings I’ve ever seen. One of the best tv series ever made, definitely up there with Deadwood and Heimat.