‘To Be Continued…’
That’s the caption that the fourth season of Ripper Street leaves us with.
In a lesser show, such a brazen indicator that the story is still incomplete would feel frustrating, robbing the season of any satisfying finality.
Thankfully, this season finale does more than enough to justify that ending caption. In fact, that cliffhanger is part and parcel of what makes ‘Edmund Reid Does This’ such an exceptional finale, because it strikes that difficult balance of closing off the season while teeing up the show’s final chapter effortlessly.
At the core of this finale was the Whitechapel Golem, now revealed to be Nathaniel (Jonas Armstrong), Croker’s foster son and the brother of Assistant Commissioner Dove. The Golem seemed like an all-too outlandish and silly concept for the gritty Ripper Street to really explore initially, but ‘Edmund Reid Does This’ does an excellent job of drilling down beneath the folklore and finding the raw, vulnerable humanity beneath.
Nathaniel is a compelling presence because he just about defies categorisation – is he a villain, when his actions are so clearly shown to be the product of impulses created by a traumatic childhood? Is he redeemable, given that he is courteous and even servile towards the people he create an attachment to?
He’s a complex, tragic presence, and his rich characterisation here ensures that he’s a valuable and fleshed out character who is much more than just the mindless brute he could be.
But, of course, the headliner here is the fate of Bennett Drake, who has been a constant presence of this show since its origins. The parallel between Drake and Nathaniel is one that the episode slowly, meticulously teases out, bringing Drake towards Nathaniel’s constant impulsive brutality as his personal and professional lives are destroyed by his own violence.
The two characters are on a collision course from early on, but the episode doesn’t make their mirroring clear until they’re just about to crash, making Drake’s fate a painfully shocking and unpredictable one, logically and smartly set up but in a way that still keeps the sting of that final twist.
And ouch, does it sting. Drake’s death is a brutal one not only on a visceral level, with Nathaniel ripping out his jugular vein with his teeth (someone’s been watching The Walking Dead), but also in terms of his character arc.
Drake has always been a fighter and a soldier at his core, with Jackson’s comments that Drake has constructed a façade around him essentially summing up an attempt to build something to cover what would inevitably emerge, so it’s tough viewing to see the guy succumb to his worst instincts and take apart everything he’s built. It’s even harsher, however, that this spiral and acceptance of his life as the fighter gets him into the one fight he can’t, and ultimately doesn’t want to win – in essence, Drake died being what he tried to avoid for so long.
It’s a difficult tightrope to walk to kill off a major character in such a bleak fashion without it feeling nihilistic or cheaply shocking, but Ripper Street pulls it off by taking the hints of Drake’s personal regression and taking them to their tough, yet natural conclusion.
As things end for the season, it all feels a little Empire Strikes Back for our heroes. They’re out on their own, with their reputation tarnished permanently by the meddling of Dove, having lost a friend brutally yet with Nathaniel still on the loose.
In short, it’s a dark, dark ending to the season – as summed up by the final shot of the heroes hemmed in by oppressive, all-consuming darkness, they’ve definitely had better days.
Season 4 has been another slam dunk of a run for Ripper Street, as it’s refined its ability to tell engaging nuts-and-bolts procedural stories while taking its character drama to ever impressive heights.
This exceptional finale is just another reminder of just how uncompromisingly brilliant this show can be at its best, and just how this show has quietly developed from a shlocky cop procedural to an underrated gem.
With the final season launching on Amazon this month and due to arrive on BBC One in 2017, all signs point to Ripper Street going out with a bang…
Aired at 9pm on Monday 3 October 2016 on BBC Two.
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