UK TV review: Ripper Street Season 5 (spoilers)
Ivan Radford | On 26, Jul 2017
Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Ripper Street Season 5? Read our spoiler-free review here.
“All who kill must be punished.” Those are the words of Long Susan in Ripper Street’s fifth and final season. It’s a powerful affirmation of the moral sense of justice that lies at the centre of Richard Warlow’s series – a morality that has been increasingly tested in its closing seasons. It’s no coincidence that the person to be reminding us is Long Susan (MyAnna Buring), lover of Captain Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), mother to their child, and schemer who caused the fateful train crash of Season 3. By declaring the universal truth that governs Warlow’s streets of period London, she’s not only helping to usher in the show’s closure, but also sentencing herself to certain death.
Death has been in the air ever since Season 3, when Amazon resurrected the BBC show from cancellation and turned it into one of the best modern British dramas around. Embracing longer arcs with more flexible running times, Amazon’ incarnation of Ripper Street took our characters to new, surprising, shocking places, from Inspector Reid’s (Matthew Macfadyen) burst of violence in retaliation for his daughter to Long Susan’s own villainous streak. It also embraced darkness to even greater extremes: Season 4’s finale saw Drake (Jerome Flynn) chomped to death in Whitehall’s network of alleys and tunnels, a bitey, flame-lit showdown that rivalled Game of Thrones’ fifth season for heartbreaking cliffhangers.
Season 5 of Ripper Street goes one step further still, turning the whole six-episode arc into one long quest for vengeance, as Reid goes on the run with Jackson and Long Susan. All three become vigilantes to take down Dove (Killian Scott), the odious police chief, who is covering up the killings by his murder-munching brother, Nathaniel (Jonas Armstrong). But what makes Ripper Street’s fifth run so riveting is not the way it races to that eventual bringing of justice, but the fact that it’s confident enough to take the time to savour these final hours we have with our core trio. (The absence of Drake is made more bearable by the fact that the gaping hole left by him fuels the whole narrative.)
Jackson, who once was the rogue pretending to be a hero, has fully redeemed himself as a medic and a father: he’s become the man-with-a-plan who breaks Reid out of prison in the season’s second half, just as he sprung Susan from the gallows in Season 4. It’s telling the most gripping moments come in the closing episode, when events climax not in a shootout, but in the simple scientific examination of a dead body, undertaken by Reid and Jackson in a closed room; Ripper Street’s ability to conjure up epic emotional stakes remains driven by characters not set pieces, and it’s all the better for it.
There’s time, too, to make sure that its supporting characters are fleshed out fully – a generosity that Warlow combines with the return of familiar faces to give the Ripperverse a sense of scale as well as empathy. Lydia Wilson shines throughout as Mimi, the Captain’s former flame, who could have provided merely the hideout for our outlaws (the gorgeous abandoned theatre in London’s East End), but instead emerges as a moral compass for Reid and Susan, plus a tough-but-firm cookie who represents London’s spirit of resilience.
The return of Jebediah Shine, meanwhile, brings a wonderful dose of conflict to the season’s middle third, one that actor Joseph Mawle devours with relish. Dying slowly of a brain tumour – which is only overcome, it seems, by his seething hatred of Reid and desire to take him down – he’s the kind of spitting, hissing villain for whom the word “dastardly” was invented. (His arrest of Reid, which mostly involves him beating him to a pulp in the street, is horrifying to witness.) Even his turnaround from political puppet to keeper of the law, though, when he learns the truth above Dove, makes the show’s ultimate resolution that bit more cathartic.
But best of all is Jonas Armstrong as Nathaniel, who whisks us away into his own world in Episode 3 and 4, as he hides out in a country cottage – and makes friends with a nearby family. These moments, which a lesser show could easily not have included at all, give an unexpected depth to our killer; Armstrong’s tragic performance is note-perfect, managing to be vulnerable and naive to the point of erupting into homicidal anger, only happy when he’s trying to befriend a young boy at a fish market or please his older brother. There aren’t many shows that would give him such remarkable breathing space – or allow him the moving moments of atonement with Long Susan, as they both end up going to gallows together, praying with regret for some kind of comfort.
That, of course, only makes Scott’s silky smooth Dove all the more despicable. The show does a wonderful job of letting his corruption seep through Lehman St, with Matthew Lewis’ Drummond turning against Reid, despite his romance with his daughter, Mathilda (Anna Burnett). Drummond and Dove’s exchanges (and Drummond’s decision to turn Reid in by tricking him into thinking Mathilda has lit a candle in her window asking him to visit) allow the actor formerly known as Neville Longbottom to show off his range and inner turmoil, but also remind us just how righteous and noble Reid was – before he fell.
The decision to finally unmask Dove before the opening credits have rolled in Episode 6, then, might seem like a hasty one, but that deliberately low-key prologue (Scarlet Fever links Dove to the corpse of Nathaniel’s young friend) only opens up room for the rest of the hour to take us back to those days of Reid’s reign. Flashbacks to London’s Jack the Ripper era give us a glimpse of Reid in his prime – when he first met up with both the drunkard Jackson and the fists-first-questions-later Drake. It’s a delight to see Jerome Flynn again on screen playing Bennett, and the fan service is more than justified: the three blokes’ chemistry is as charming as it ever was.
Their proto-reunion is capped off by Clive Russell’s reprisal of his role as Abberline, both in flashback and in the present day. The lead investigator on the Ripper case, he’s a grizzled old hand to whom Whitechapel turns, after Dove sullies the reputation of the boys in blue – and it’s he who quietly nudges Reid away from public shame and arrest to atoning by becoming Chief Inspector once again. That bookending of the narrative with Russell’s likeable gravitas is the perfect antidote to Mawle’s vicious Shine, although even his fatherly balm can’t soothe Reid’s wounds.
Macfadyen’s miserable protagonist has always been at the very heart of Ripper Street, a man tethered to and defined by his work. And so he stays, as Jackson heads off to America with his boy. He stays, as Drummond and Mathilda move away to make their own life. Drummond looks back and asks Edmund to visit. “He won’t. He can’t,” says Mathilda, before getting into their carriage.
And it’s true: the last moments of Season 5 see Reid haunted by his memories of Jack the Ripper. He’s a walking embodiment of the ghosts wandering London’s streets, to the point where he becomes that crazed man shouting in a music hall, appalled as they sing the song of Jack’s final victim, Mary Jane Kelly. Even Mimi, who remains a stalwart presence in London’s nightlife, says she cannot bring herself to love a man who never smiles. Heck, he doesn’t even really wear his hat anymore.
It’s testament to Macfadyen that he can do misery without becoming melodramatic or misanthropic, and Season 5’s finale is a touching reminder of just how good he is. The result is a graceful, elegant conclusion to a show that has only gotten better and better – one that’s made all the more satisfying by the fact that Amazon has ended the show properly, letting Warlow tell the stories he wanted to tell when it was cancelled, without overstaying his welcome. Despite the deliberately downbeat closing shot of Edmund at his desk, it’s oddly fitting that he should only really find some semblance of peace in police work. “All who kill must be punished,” Long Susan tells Nathaniel, before they go to hang. Those are the words that Ripper Street lives by – a life that Reid will continue, long after the end credits have rolled.
Season 5 of Ripper Street is available on BBC iPlayer, with Episode 3 available until 2nd August and subsequent episodes removed weekly. It is also available to watch online in full on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. Seasons 1 to 4 are also available.