‘Am I Not Monstrous?’
This review contains spoilers!
Before the credits of episode two we see a woman running through the slums of London in labour, in a fine dress but covered in dirt. She gets herself to the hospital, gives birth and then is murdered, and the baby taken from her arms. When Jackson is inspecting her body he reveals that this beautiful girl (Stella) has a secret, a tail like protrusion at her lower back.
This discovery takes them to the underground freak shows. After making enquiries, where there are some great shots in reference to old freak show photography, we find the father of the kidnapped baby is John Goode – man who has a kind of palsy that makes him impervious to pain.
As well as this storyline Reid’s new enemy fellow Sergeant Jedediah Shine is still is trying to frame Reid for Linklater’s death (see last weeks episode). When Shine finds out that the gentle Joseph Merrick (the elephant man) has essential evidence that can be used against him, he threatens him, scaring him out of confessing what he’s seen.
This week sees them exploring the theme of eugenics. In the last series they kept introducing some really strong historical elements and then dropping them without following them in a story strand. This episode completely focuses on the idea of eugenics. The villain in this episode (along with Shine) is the zoologist Dr Corcoran; the man to blame for Stella’s murder and her child’s kidnapping, who turns out to be John Goode’s father. Around this time eugenics was genuinely becoming a theory that people were interested in and a lot of people at the time were taking it pretty seriously as a concept. This storyline however doesn’t acknowledge that and goes with a more acceptable anti-eugenicist plot.
The idea of eugenics and the internal suffering of a mind are echoed throughout the episode. London itself is hiding its monsters inside. When Joseph Merrick ventures into the slums the inhabitants heckle him and bully him through the streets. This episode Reid confesses his monstrous side to the returning Dr Karl Crabbe (a corrupt psychologist from series one who wants a confession from Reid in return for information on the case).
Finally confessing his guilt about his wife and how his affair and lies caused her hysteria whispering: “I offered her one fair hope and deceived her”. We see the obvious evil that harbours itself within Shiner and the confident manner in which he swaggers around, neither Shiner or Reid show on the outside the monsters that dwell within. Merrick is used just as a metaphor throughout this episode, and he delivers a beautiful speech when he stumbles upon Reid and Drake as they try to talk Goode down from throwing himself and his child to their death. The scene is wonderfully shot providing a perfect frame as Merrick struggles up the stairs to deliver his speech. I hope this theme of the mind being cased within a disguise continues throughout this series, as it would be good to see Reid as a more emotional character and delving deeper into the grey area of his personality.
This week also saw the introduction of a new character, Albert Flight, a fish out of water constable used to the more gentile side of London in Bloomsbury. He has to prove himself to the team and by the end of this episode it doesn’t look like it will go well. Once Merrick tells Reid what he witnessed in the last episode, Flight is told to stand watch outside Merrick’s room and the hospital, he inevitably falls asleep and this is when Shine picks his moment to strike.
The second episode explored some pretty interesting plot points and Shiner’s villainy is cemented when he excruciatingly slowly removes the supports that stops Merrick from asphyxiating. Merrick did die in 1890 in real life and it was an accidental death; Ripper Street seems to be playing on these strands of truth to create a richer tapestry of historical content. The episode was a stronger offering but the sub plot of Susan’s problems in the brothel seems to be the focus for next week’s episode. I just hope they deal with that storyline with the same in depth story telling as this one.