Ripper Street and the Western Genre

When it comes to western television, I’m most interested in series that fall under the category of post-western: television shows that take the Western out of the 19th-century American West and locate it in different places and sometimes different time periods.

The AMC series The Walking Dead literally takes place in contemporary Georgia, but we are metaphorically in a frontier situation brought about by the zombie apocalypse, which has caused civilization to collapse and humanity to return to a state of nature. (See earlier posts, “Two Guys Walk into a Bar . . . .” and “Wrapping Up The Walking Dead.”)

The F/X series Justified places the western and its Stetson-wearing hero U. S. Marshal Raylan Givens in contemporary Kentucky, where the metaphorical state of frontier lawlessness has been brought about by local drug dealers and crime families hidden away in the Kentucky hills and worsened by incursions of organized crime from the metropolis of Detroit. (See, for example, the blog post Justified: Season Two Begins.) Breaking Bad similarly uses a contemporary setting for its story of  and outlaw chemistry-teacher-turned meth kingpin, but actually locates its story in the American West, New Mexico.

One of the most interesting post-westerns at the moment is Ripper Street, a joint production of BBC One and BBC America. Ripper Street is particularly interesting to consider as a western in large part because its setting comes nowhere near the American West (or America). A collaborative British/American production, Ripper Street fashions a deliberately British/American hybrid drama by setting the drama in nineteenth-century Whitechapel. The Jack the Ripper murders are in the recent past, but their effects are felt throughout the series. But it’s not Jack the Ripper, really, that dominates the series—it’s the setting of Whitechapel presented as a kind of frontier town. One character describes the East End of London as Frederick Jackson Turner did the frontier, as a “safety valve” destination for civilized London’s excess population: in this case, the immigrants, homeless, criminals, prostitutes, and addicts.

With plenty of mud, blood, and violence, Ripper Street combines the sensibilities of the series Deadwood with those of the British costume drama. With its focus on a police station in 1889, with its central character Detective Inspector Reid, played by Matthew McFadden, and its fascination with the early days of the medical post-mortem, you might think of Ripper Street as combining Deadwood, Downton Abbey, and C. S. I. And for those of us who miss the creative cursing of Deadwood, it’s quite a thrill to hear one Ripper Street character call another “A low murdering false son of a bitch cocksucker.” The allusions to Deadwood are quite clear and deliberate.

The television post-western  signals its genre roots through visual signs and other allusions to western conventions (e.g. Raylan’s hat in Justified). Ripper Street’s most obvious western allusion is the character Homer Jackson (American actor Adam Rothenberg), an American in London, who is the Al Swearingen of the series, operating a brothel with his wife and partner Susan. As we discover, not only does Jackson have medical skills, which he employs as a kind of freelance coroner, but he is a former Pinkerton agent—a staple character type of the dime novel western.

In the most clearly western episode of the series, “A Man of My Company,” a group of Pinkertons arrive in London as bodyguards for a wealthy American investor. In the group is Frank Goodnight, who has a grudge with Jackson. The Americans do what Americans do in British drama: bring crateloads of guns with them, ignore the rule of law, beat up women, torture journalists, and engage in kidnapping, murder, and general brutality. The climax of the episode is a showdown in the center of a city street between Jackson and Goodnight. As is typical of the hybridization of the series, the gunfight plays out in ways that suggest both a European-style duel and a western showdown.

Given the popularity of the western in the golden age of television, almost all television programming in America since the 1970s is in a sense post-western. What is unique about the contemporary shows that I categorize as post-western is that they very clearly, even obviously, draw our attention to their roots in the genre western.

Season Two of Ripper Street is currently airing on BBC One and is scheduled to air on BBC America in 2014. The first season of Ripper Street is currently available on DVD for American audiences.

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