I don’t remember how or when exactly I came across the series initially. It must have been sometime last year and somewhere online. But I do remember being instantly intrigued. The premise was promising, and I was eager to see Rupert Penry-Jones in another role. (I liked his performance in ITV’s Persuasion.) But after the first fifteen minutes of the first episode, I had to hit the stop button. I like to think that I’m not squeamish. I can handle the sight of blood, both on the screen as well as in the real world. But Whitechapel was unlike anything that I had previously watched. It wasn’t excessively gory, but it was downright creepy. I watch TV to be assuaged, not stressed, so I dropped it.
But then came last weekend. I was chatting with a friend, who had recently finished the Whitechapel series. Watch it, she said, it’s really good. And I figured, why not. I don’t have anything on the docket, and I really did enjoy the series—all fifteen minutes of it, before I chickened out. So I watched it. And I don’t think I regret it.
The first series opens in modern day London. It is evening, the 31st of August, and two significant events are happening simultaneously. Detective Inspector Joseph Chandler is at dinner with the big boys of Scotland Yard, tuxed up and charming, and at the verge of a promotion. On the other side of town, a community support officer witnesses a woman’s gruesome death. The victim’s throat is slashed, and she is drowning in her own blood. These events come together when Chandler takes up the DI position at Whitechapel, and subsequently the case of the murdered woman—the final stepping stone, he is told, to his big promotion. The case seems straightforward at first—a “simple domestic”—but Chandler soon finds himself over his head. His team, under Detective Sergeant Ray Miles, is anything but the polished men he was expecting to work with. “Has anyone heard of a shower?” he demands angrily one night, when their unruly attitude and slovenly habits become too much for him. On top of that, the investigation is going nowhere. Once warm leads turn up cold, and quick, and forensics have nothing concrete to provide.
Headway is provided, however in the least likely of forms: Edward Buchan, a cozy, tweed-wearing chatty type who, despite his amateur credentials, prides himself on being the foremost expert on Jack the Ripper, the infamous killer that once stalked the streets of Whitechapel two hundred years ago. Buchan offers a theory: the woman’s murder is a copycat kill of the Ripper. The similarities between the two cases are uncanny, he argues, nearly identical, down to the injuries, placement of the bodies, and the dates & times of death. DS Miles irritably writes Buchan off as just one more overeager local fishing for a contemporary connection to Whitechapel’s sordid history. Chandler, on the other hand—partly out of sincerity, partly out of desperation—believes the theory worth pursuing. His suspicions are confirmed when two more murders surface; each, as Buchan predicted, nearly identical to the subsequent canonical victims of the Ripper.
What follows is a desperate cat-and-mouse chase. Armed only with historical records and grit, Chandler and his team race against the clock to prevent history from repeating itself. If the killer is truly a copycat, there will only be three more murders—three more chances to catch him before he disappears, his true identity spirited away like the Ripper.
Although memory has a funny way of altering itself, I do think that the series was as creepy as I remembered it. Again, it’s not so much the bloody bodies that gets me as the atmosphere of the show. Much of it, I think, is product of the Ripper legend. Even now, just thinking about it makes me tense up. There’s also the chilling sound effects (good grief, those shrieks), the horror-esque camera work, and the eerie score. Working together, they make quite the masterful blend of creepiness, which I find discomforting and yet intriguing. Something to boast about, I think, since mystery series are about as plentiful as vampire books in the YA section, and crime, at the end of the day, is a crime is a crime is a crime.
Creepy aside, I also liked the characters. Penry-Jones makes a easily sympathetic DI Chandler, a man whom you only THINK you’ve got figured out when he pulls up at the crime scene in a tux and posh car. A fast-tracker, a “paper policeman.” And maybe he was at first. But the case changes him, and for the better. He no longer cares for the promotion, the glitzy title, the cushy office. All he wants, in the end, is for the murders to stop, for the killer to be caught. “Do you even know [the victims’] names?” he spits at Anderson, when he realizes that the senior officer’s only concern is politics and standing.
Phillip Davis plays a sharp and delightfully crusty DS Miles, whose initial antagonism towards Chandler is anything but unreasonable. He has thirty years’ experience to Chandler’s middling handful, not to mention the post of command for a good long while. To give up the helm, and to someone he deems as totally unworthy, is a hard reality to swallow. But as the series progresses, his begrudging attitude towards Chandler melts by degrees; almost imperceptibly, until the two of them are sitting, dog-tired and unshaven in a Middle Eastern restaurant, and Miles starts talking about his carp, and you realize, this is the beginning of a new Holmes & Watson, and by Jove it’s gonna be awesome.
Steve Pemberton plays the exuberant Edward Buchan, and I really think he should get some sort of award for the performance because he gives Buchan such depth for a side character. While borderline obnoxious at times, and mildly bumbling, Buchan is no dunce, and he is anything but disingenuous.
The remainder of the crew, although minor characters certainly, are equally memorable. DC McCormick is a big goof at heart with an amiable brogue. DC Fitzgerald is unsavory. DC Finlay Mansell is somewhere between Jason Statham’s Handsome Rob and a douchebaggy older brother. Dr. Caroline Llewellyn is team coroner, whose sense of humanity remain refreshingly untouched by her work. Rounding out the line-up is DC Emerson Kent, the baby of the team whose near-instant loyalty to Chandler warmed my heart. One of my favorite moments is when Kent walks into the incident room with a tailored suit, an unspoken deference to the boss’ new dress code, when everyone else sported ties stamped with questionable phrases like, “I Only Fire Blanks.”
To close what has become an unexpectedly long post, I don’t know if I would recommend Whitechapel. It’s definitely a good show, well-made. But it’s also dark, especially this first series. Not to mention, fodder for panic because … well, the Ripper copycat was someone’s neighbor, and OMG HE LIVED IN AN APARTMENT COMPLEX JUST LIKE ANY OTHER JOE HOW SAFE ARE WE REALLY DO WE REALLY KNOW OUR NEIGHBORS. And honestly, all the good stuff that goes on in the show, like the dry, dark humor—”Sir, she was stabbed 39 times. She couldn’t really say.”—can’t scrub away the creepy imagery that I’ve inadvertently retained in my memory, try as I have. I guess it boils down to your own personal constitution and tastes. If you like horror, then go for it. This stuff is right up your alley. Otherwise, tread cautiously. Or skip the first series altogether, and start from the second, which is far more tame.
As for me, I’ll continue to follow the series. I was impressed by the third series, and can’t wait for the fourth one set to come out later this year.
Whitechapel, Series 1 is currently available on Amazon Instant Video and Netflix.
Image credits: screencaps by me