It All Begins with a Curse: ‘Whitechapel’ (S04E02)

Previously on Whitechapel: Episode 1.

The theory is that the killer hunts people who practise forms of magic and who believe that their powers are real. Turns out, it’s sort exactly like that, and sort of really not. Meanwhile, the hauntings don’t stop.

The episode starts off in the same place as the series opener left off: Miles is having the living daylights scared out of him by a ghost or three, and the suspect in the cells is having fits and seizures after drawing more of those symbols. Buchan associates it with marks designed to protect from witchcraft, but, really, it’s marks that the vagrants use to signal each other where people are kind.

Such kindness, he finds in Chandler, who arrests him for wasting police time — giving him a place to sleep. And again, there’s a killer on the loose who’s not got long to live, further fuelling the fire of Chandler’s insecurity about bringing a murderer in alive and actually getting to put them on trial. Not only that, but the rubber band he got from Morgan breaks, and he doesn’t want another one, which will leave him without a viable coping mechanism. Again, Miles is his first confidant and best friend, letting him sit the drowning crime scene out. That’s the beauty of Miles: he accepts Joe for who he is, OCD and all, and he accommodates his needs with a patience and understanding that warms audiences’ hearts — but he also tries to help Joe by getting him to look a little further, by trying to make him see that maybe his limitations aren’t as set in stone as he thinks they are. In the end, it’s Chandler’s decision, obviously, but Miles just floats a balloon every now and then. Not because he thinks Joe is incapable, but because he wants him to be happy. It’s a fine line he’s toeing there, sometimes, but he does it well.

Of course the next victim’s cats are named Morgana and Lilith… and then comes the dog. I’m filing this episode under, “Will you please stop hurting the pets?!”

While Mansell’s mysterious calls continue, the way Louise Ivers (the creepy old lady at Buchan’s book launch who talked to every member of the team) influenced Riley becomes clear as well: her family. Being a woman, she’s under more pressure of getting family and career sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. Having to disappoint her kids visibly tears at her, but I think she also enjoys working with this squad too much to give it up. But then, Wingfield nearly drops on top of her. Buchan does his best to cheer her up, bless him. Miles is battling the demons of getting older and feeling like he’s losing the respect of the younger members of the team — Mansell’s asswipe attitude doesn’t help, does it? Kent, in the meantime, is driven nuts by the thought of Mansell dating his sister, Emma; and with good reason. With Mansell’s track record, I wouldn’t want him anywhere near my sister, either. The interviews that the actors have given in the ITV press pack suggest that this will go down a different road… The demonic reflections, however, continue.

Fortunately, the cat lady could give them a hint as to the next victim — and that’s when the tables turn and the team start looking for another explanation and realise they had it backwards. The cruelty of the witch hunts was that anyone, absolutely anyone could be accused, just as Chandler says. Anyone who’s looked at anyone else wrong, women who incited the jealousy of husbands’ wives, or women who precisely rejected those husbands’ advances, people who used natural remedies to cure diseases, anyone with a funny nose. And now, someone insane is hunting down witches on the search for the one who cursed him, and everyone’s just naming someone in the hopes of not being killed. It’s how the Witchfinder General worked. The witchfinder then finds whatever he wants to find — an heirloom, a cat, in this case, a… is it a third nipple or just a birthmark, I can’t really tell in that light, but it’s there on Nick’s chest, and that condemns him. The killer, it turns out, used to be a baker, John Washington, who suffers from Ergot poisoning, leaving him delusional. After his family had been struck by tragedy, his grief, coupled with the illness, turned itself into the delusion that a curse had been laid upon him by a witch. But was it really a delusion..?

Although they can save Nick, Chandler and Miles come too late for Washington, leaving Chandler convinced that he failed. When the water from the tap turns black, it’s reached Joe as well, though not for good. They’re all affected by it now, except for Ed.  But Ed has made a discovery: something has made itself at home in the station. Something lurking in the shadows… something about 5’7” and bald. The Agent Provocateur, I assume.

This was a great conclusion to the first case, and a great incentive to keep watching to see the mystery unfold. I love the way they’re going with this, I enjoy Ed’s extended forays into the historical dimension of these killings, and I hope to see more. The underlying question is going to be whether something’s real or unreal, fact or hallucination invoked by fear. As a viewer, that gets you right in the gut, because it tickles that part of the id that flirts with the possibility of the occult. It also gives us invaluable insight into the characters, their fears and values. In the end, Horror Fiction inevitably deals with our own psyche. The individual became the focal point of Romantic and Gothic literature, and it’s reflected in this narrative.  Gothic fiction elicits reading and/or viewing pleasure by destabilising the boundaries between what we’re comfortable with and what grosses us out, the known and the Uncanny (a term coined by Sigmund Freud, actually). The Uncanny is everything that isn’t where it belongs, where we need it to be to feel safe. Locked in a cupboard, locked into folklore stories that can’t harm us. But now, the Uncanny, the scary, has come alive, and it’s right there, in Whitechapel.

Next: Episode 3.