Amazon Prime TV review: Ripper Street Season 3 (Episode 1 and 2)
James R | On 13, Nov 2014
Ripper Street Season 3 begins on BBC One on Friday 31st July 2015. The whole of Season 3 is available to watch uncut on Amazon Prime Instant Video. This review contains very mild spoilers.
“It is a battle that has no end, but is worth the blood.”
That was Detective Inspector Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) to his sidekick, Drake (Jerome Flynn), in Season 1 of Ripper Street. Set in 1880s Whitechapel, the show saw the newly appointed Reid attempting to lead the police force out of the shadow of Jack the Ripper. He was well-intentioned, incorruptible, progressive in his scientific methods of investigation. A good egg. In a hat.
Then, halfway through a second season, the BBC decided to cancel the whole thing. For fans, it was a premature end to one of the best TV dramas around – certainly the TV drama with the best hats. For others, it was an end to just another violent, testosterone-driven series, one with limited female characters, unsubtle dialogue and a taste for Ripper history that landed too closely to other shows – although it did have very nice hats.
Now, though, Amazon Prime Instant Video has stepped in to resurrect the programme for a third season. And, judging by the first two episodes, it proves the fans right. It certainly gives them everything they want – and more, thanks to Amazon’s “uncut” version of the show, which will be edited down for broadcast on the BBC at some point next year.
We begin four years after the events of Ripper Street Season 2 – a break that gives ample room for backstory to reward former viewers, but also means newcomers can pick it up straight off.
All of our characters have gone their own ways. Drake has moved to Manchester and worked his way back up through the policing ranks from the bottom rung, this time without relying on his fists. Reid, meanwhile, has retreated into his own den of case histories, a loner assembling a library of felonies and felons.
But it’s not all serious faces and filing: Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) has lapsed back into his playboy days, one eye on his next bottle and the other on his next girl. It’s undeniably fun to see the doctor back in bachelor mode once more, right down to the slurring confidence and impressive moustache.
The same is true of the rest of the cast, all of whom settle back into their roles effortlessly. Macfadyen is increasingly brooding, while Flynn’s face has never been more expressive; here, he returns to London to take over H division, just as his former love, Rose (Charlene McKenna), journeys back to perform on stage, an encounter that visibly wounds the recently promoted Inspector. Flynn looks at her with dumbfounded surprise, before pain wells up from somewhere underneath his facial hair. Given more free rein than in Game of Thrones, his expressions are like watching crepe paper caught in a draught; never stationary and always mesmerising. And, of course, topped by rather fetching headwear. (If you’ve never seen Ripper Street, four words to sum up why it’s worth watching: Bronn in a hat.)
The trio are forced back together in the wake of a catastrophic train accident, which wrecks Whitechapel in typically graphic detail – the people paying the bills might have changed, but Ripper Street’s production design is as meticulous and immersive as ever. It’s an epic start to the new season, which makes Amazon’s intentions clear: they don’t just want to bring the series back; they want to make it better.
Granted, the same old faults are still there. Ripper Street remains a bloke-centric zone, while the period speech (despite being refreshingly different to other shows) is often extremely on-the-nose. The violence is, if anything, even nastier. But creator Richard Warlow has fixed the biggest weakness of the show: the women. And then some.
Sherlock’s Louise Brealey – an extremely promising addition – joins the talented line-up as Dr. Amelia Frayn, who works for Obsidian Estates, a business venture owned by none other than Long Susan (MyAnna Buring). Buring and McKenna have always done sterling work as Ripper Street’s two lead women, often active agents in their own plots and never not engaging, but they frequently felt restricted, or defined, by their stock social roles; a brothel manager and a good-hearted prostitute. Here, though, they’re liberated to become far more complex.
Rose, who has now had her dreams of stardom come true, is presumably all set for a riches-to-rags fall. Susan, meanwhile, has left behind her brothel days to lead a social movement that is rapidly spreading across London – a group with seemingly limitless money to fund its growth. But she soon faces the problem of what to do to keep the coffers full; a moral dilemma made even more provocative by the introduction of her delightfully slippery solicitor. Together, they navigate the waters between crime and charity, the same murky beat that the series – and its lead detective – has trodden so successfully for years. Three seasons in and the enjoyable crime procedural plotting is still present and correct, complete with intimidating debt collectors, secret underground prisons and a memorable train-loving villain, but the substance stems from that character-wrangling tension. Do ends justify means? Is a life of womanising worth it? Can old flames be rekindled?
Reid, though, isn’t exempt from the soul-searching pie. Just as Drake starts to steal the show, our old protagonist gets the biggest slice of all; the double helping of a locomotive disaster taking children’s lives contrasted with his haunted longing for his own missing daughter to reappear. As a figure from his past threatens to return, Reid’s own demons are wrought into an alarming arc by a spooky eye-witness, who rewrites his long-standing role of justice-dealing angel into a being of fiery hatred. That uncontrollable underside of Macfadyen’s steely copper has been glimpsed before in Season 2 and it’s one that Warlow doesn’t so much lift up to examine as slam it into a wall repeatedly and pore over the red bits left behind.
“The abyss isn’t within us or without us,” Reid tells Drake in one of his more sombre moments, when discussing the state of London and humanity. “We are the abyss.”
It’s the polar opposite of his mantra in Season 1 – and as Rein stalks the streets of Whitechapel, his long coat fading into the darkness of the back streets, that transformation is as stunning as it is thrilling. A show about good men – and good women – in a never-ending fight against the bad, it’s hard to imagine things getting bleaker, but it looks like they might. Nonetheless, this is one battle definitely worth the blood.
Ripper Street is back. And whether you’re a fan of the first two seasons or not, this is without a doubt the best it’s ever been. And we’re not just talking about the hats.
You can watch Ripper Street Season 3 online in the UK on Amazon Prime Instant Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. Or, if you want unlimited free delivery in the UK, as part of a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership. Seasons 1 and 2 of Ripper Street are available too.