Someone’s Burning Witches in ‘Whitechapel’ (S04E01)

Dark powers are stirring in Whitechapel — and DI Joseph Chandler and his team have been chosen.

This is glorious.

Whitechapel has, in its previous three series, always toed the line to the mystic, the Gothic; it has revelled in the connections that Crime Fiction and Horror Fiction share. This series, it has crossed that line, and with applaudable aplomb. There’s a new, decidedly demonic and supernatural dimension to not only the crimes, but to the characters as well.

As each member of the team struggles with their insecurities and fear of their own demons and fallacies, we see torture methods (Peine Forte et Dure) from the 16th and 17th century, when Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General tried to rid England of its witches and killed hundreds of people he accused of using magic. Intercut with what might be flash forwards that allude to mythological symbols and, in Chandler’s case, purgatory or something comparable, this series’ imagery is even more sinister than it’s been before. (It struck me while watching the trailer that there seems to be a particular angelic imagery surrounding Chandler, I will surely come back to this once we’ve seen the scene in question.)

Elements of Horror Fiction are not only the mysterious deaths and the medieval methods of killing, it’s the one question that underlies all Gothic: is it real? Gothic Fiction lives on the binaries, the blurring of boundaries that comes with that, the smudging of distinctions we rely on in order to feel safe. Is it real, is it unreal, is it dead, is it undead, is it of this world, or is it otherworldly? Doubting your own senses, your own mind is one of the most important themes in this genre. How well do you know the world around you — and how well do you know yourself?

The most overtly visualisation of that theme lies in DC Kent. Morgan, in the Series 3 finale, challenged that Emerson might be more of a bad cop than he thinks he is, or lets on. The camera angles and shots the audience sees him in this series certainly answers that question. He’s quick to fly off the handle, has trouble containing his anger, and he seems to enjoy the rage cursing through his veins, there are expressions on his face that say that he’s revelling in it. And then, he sees his own reflection in the road mirror morph into something demonic, deformed, twisted. It frightens him and he tries to shake it, but something tells me he won’t be able to. There’s something hiding just under the surface. Especially with someone as, dare I say it, pretty as Emerson, playing with the contrast of a beautiful exterior and rotten decay on the inside is a delight. He’s still eager to please and clearly seeking Chandler’s approval and friendship, so that’s setting him up for a field of tension in the coming episodes.

The MI6 agent that they’re being pushed to convict of the first murder of a Bulgarian operative warns Chandler that an “entity” he calls the Provocateur has chosen them as his toys. Everything so far, the new Ripper, the Krays, everything that’s driven them to the brink and that has left Chandler unable to bring in one single killer alive, has been engineered by a dark force, something right out of the underworld driving people to do bad things. And since it couldn’t break them before, it’s made itself at home right in their heads. Perhaps Daisy from marketing was right, perhaps the gates of Hell are just ’round the corner from Christchurch. “Who’s the real enemy?” now swiftly becomes, “Is the enemy real?” And to top it off, there are loads of scary old people.

As we can all plainly see, Whitechapel is very male-driven drama. With the exception of Riley, the regular cast doesn’t hold any women, so the addition of Daisy Beaumont as MI6 agent Stella Knight is a very welcome surprise. What I enjoy about her is that she does not bother to hide the marks of her career — assuming that she really is an MI6 agent (honestly, boys, have you ever tried ringing them back?). But even if she’s someone else altogether (and her ability to appear out of nowhere in dark corridors and the strange clack-clack of her hells on the floor when there’s no-one there might certainly suggest that she is), she doesn’t hide the strangulation scars on her neck. They’re a fact of her life, and that’s it. She’s making the men uncomfortable with it, and good on her. Her red satin dress is a bit cliché, perhaps, but then again, that costume choice provides a striking speck of colour in an otherwise particularly drearily lit 45 minutes of television. (It’s official, Whitechapel doesn’t believe in lightbulbs.) I’ll get suspicious if she gets no costume changes at all, though.

Overall, this was a fantastic series opener and a really, really strong returning episode. I can’t wait for next week. Who’s the mysterious killer looking for? What’s it got to do with witch hunts? What do we have to be afraid of in the dark? Who’s that bloke in a trench coat, with a hat, tearing a trail of horror across Whitechapel?

Next: Episode 2.

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5 thoughts on “Someone’s Burning Witches in ‘Whitechapel’ (S04E01)

    1. That’s correct, each series includes three distinct cases à two episodes. That way, there’s more suspense and less danger of a lag — and, of course, a chance to include more aspects and facets of the genre.

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    1. Richard — no, an imdb search tells me that the wife on Ever Decreasing Circles (if you’re thing of the character called Ann Bryce) was played by Penelope Wilton. The woman who got burnt in this episode of Whitechapel was played by Deddie Davies, who wasn’t involved with EDC. Sorry!

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