Constant Changes Hurt the Goods in Whitechapel Seasons 3 and 4
by Kristin Battestella
After two three-part seasons, the spooky British procedural Whitechapel changes formats with its 2012 Third and subsequent Fourth Seasons – varying in success with six episodes of two-part cases each as obsessive compulsive Inspector Joe Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones), crusty Detective Sergeant Ray Miles (Phil Davies), and their constables face copycat killers and bizarre suspects alongside possibly evil and ultimately supernatural crimes that test their stiff upper lip mettle.
Whitechapel waxes on its Jack the Ripper past, copycat deduction, and historical cases setting precedents for new crimes even as it restarts as an X-Files creepy investigations wannabe with spooky altars, talk of the devil come to town, and weird neighbors fearing the night. Humbled witnesses, unhappy customers, and dead tailors interrupt wedding parties and family bemusements while forensics, CCTV evidence, and police questioning piece together limps and murder weapon clues. Why was a historical clothier obsessed with modern security technology? Our constables doubt their methodology, drinking and confiding their fears as they grow superstitious thanks to canvasing oddities, a goofy suspect afraid of bright light, and a killer who seemingly disappears into thin air. Cops aren't supposed to believe in magic or monsters, but bloody footprints go nowhere amid prisoner escapes and more deaths. This killer wants to teach a lesson in humility to the snobby survivors and hysterical crowds, but quirky profiling leads to hidden horrors and scary revelations to top off the case. Of course, cranky constables don't really know what to do with a baby much less a mangy fox and bloody appendages. Separated torsos, dismembered bodies dumped in the Thames, no heads – the bodily clues are there, but there's no crime scene and only a wild animal witness. DNA suggests poison – historically a women's weapon – so do they suspect a couple? Stakeouts allow for both humor and time to get to know our characters, after all, how many cops does it take to catch a fox? Smelly abandoned houses begat maze-like booby traps, newspaper pyres, and petrified corpses, but the hoarding and homemade elixirs reveal rare aphrodisiacs, imitation Spanish Fly, beetles, and anthropology evidence. Calligraphy clues, fetishes, unrequited love, and killer personalities come down to bar fights, indecent assaults, and chases, for our undercover team doesn't blend in very well at the edgy night club. By Episode Five, it's a full moon, creepy masks, killer point of view, and an escapee from a mental hospital returning to his former Whitechapel haunts – complete with his doctor Alistair Petrie (The Night Manager) insisting he's the most terrifying patient ever just like Halloween. This bogeyman – pronounced in the British way of course – scares witnesses, poses corpses, and leaves the cell phone in the body's mouth. Parking garage attacks provide chilling violence as the woman plays dead and hopes the killer leaves. It's one thing if a little girl says it's the bogeyman, but what about when an adult victim describes the same? Flashlights, vintage cameras, film reels, and visits to the original murder house lead to haunted whispers, phantom sounds, and spooked constables researching fairy tales and unexplained phenomena. Our therapist victim asks questions, too, helping our detectives see a different angle while the doctors speculate on how a person can die of fright. Great character dynamics and personal moments accent the creepy – they see the victims at night, can't forget them, and learn to live with the gory details. Slits throats, obsessions with silence, and Lon Chaney's London After Midnight drive our killer to slice and dice before standoffs, mouths sewn shut, fatal pantomime, and bloody graffiti – literally.
While Season One of Whitechapel had a fun Jack the Ripper plot, the Kray Twins were less exciting in Year Two, so Whitechapel had to change its format by focusing on local spooky cases. However, it's too contrived that there is always a similar historical case when such tenuous ties aren't necessary to raise the stakes and the series needs to move beyond copycat connections. Rather than using the characterizations and quirky strengths, each of these stories has a bizarre red herring in the first half. Sure police have dead ends and wrong turns, but Whitechapel showcases something eerie in lieu of the real case found in the second part. When the camera lingers too long on a seemingly innocuous person, it's easy to peg him as the killer, yet it's inevitably frustrating when there's always an unfulfilling technicality to catching the bad guy. After all the historical deducting and spooky false starts, the twists to end a case are often rushed with little resolution on what happens next. Despite unique aspects, the crimes are often hollow and formulaic, and none of these stories needed to be two-part shows. Is Whitechapel about solving the creepy cases or the offbeat detectives overcoming their personal and professional demons? It can be both, but the bemusing also negates the attempted scary and every case reboots this mixed focus. The subtle sinister seeds were always there, but outright jokes about the gates of hell being beneath Whitechapel open Season Four as ominous old ladies, pet rats, and torture begat crushed to death murders. Abandoned houses and back alley attacks escalate to an exploding briefcase and possible espionage thanks to carved symbols, mysterious files, and a poison umbrella. These cobblestone streets aren't safe amid old agent vendettas and bums worried about pixies, talismans, and turning coats inside out to avoid a bewitching. Sassy ladies in red and red tape technicalities hamper police interrogations alongside ransacked offices, delicate diplomacy, and hotel surveillance. So called witches are strung up in the snow with bonfires, stonings, slides on persecution history, and charred remains. The police don't believe in witchcraft or whispers of evil among them causing their notorious cases, but the killer does and some of our boys are spooked by the black cats, bodies dropped on cars, and salt water in the lungs to make the drownings slower. Notes found in the stomach during an autopsy, rituals, and abductions acerbate the paranoia. Maybe there's supposed to be a bigger spy picture, but Whitechapel again plays like a different show with two cases at once – wry humor versus frazzled fears and witches jarring with the facts. Rational explanations against demon in the building possibilities are ramped up too quickly rather than letting the paranormal bizarre deduction happen organically – like in the stinky apartment with the long dead body under the electric blanket keeping warm. Ewwww!
Human skin is also left on display during a creepy art exhibit – a hasty flayed while alive chop job lacking in surgical finesse. Russian tattoos, birthmarks, and cadavers as art unnerve the team amid phantom footsteps at the station and medical examiners trying to put the face back on the skull. There's still some trying too much forced spooky adding hot air, for the butcher shops, cleavers, and a victim mistakenly getting in to bed while the killer is already under the sheets is chilling enough. Demented classical music ironically accents the scissors – not the best tool for cutting skin – as the detectives push their desks aside to map out attacks on the precinct floor. Plastic sheeting, chainsaws, killer slicing, and bodies without faces coming ashore are even more disturbing when our clean obsessed constable is unable to wash. Snakes shedding skin, leathery masks, and recoiling dental attacks return to previous crimes haunting the victims alongside great character moments and costly missteps that threaten one of our own. There's no need for superfluous effects when the scares and suspense cut close to home thanks to factory machinery, chases, vats, and a warped sense of poetic justice. Then again, Whitechapel's finest fail at a zombie survival team building competition, but they have no problem with a half eaten body in the sewer, dangling entrails, and precision removal of the liver and pancreas. Here in its final case, Whitechapel finally gets the funny and macabre balance right thanks to killer souvenirs, cryptozoologists, and brains in jars making everyone jumpy. Disused underground tunnel maps lead to a house of horrors as the weird suspects get out of the way early in favor of wounds that won't heal – mentally or physically. Chases caught on video escalate toward more chilling attacks, frightening bathrooms, evil gangs, and bigger missing organs while crimes on Sunday near churches provide religious connotations. Upstanding charitable citizens are being murdered, perhaps sacrificed, and the ominous goings on have the constables on edge – literally. Some of Whitechapel's finest moments come with scared people in bouts of self reflection amid the hooded, shadowed figures and deliciously twisted tasties in the oven. So the suspect has tasted human flesh once! Meat hooks, seasonings, and society clubs mix with cults, ritual banquets, and devilish influences as the psychic messages, sabotage, and reasons for the spooky come full circle. Have all these cases been connected? Why did Whitechapel waste so much time with a back and forth lack of focus when it could have been like this all along?
Inspector Joe Chandler cleans his detectives' desks at night and loathes dripping faucets, but Rupert Penry-Jones' obsessive compulsive constable doesn't have much time for women – especially when her messy, slovenly place is too much to handle. He's particular and it's easier to live alone despite therapy and snapping a rubber band worn on his wrist to control his urges. When a baby throw ups over his shoulder, his team know he would be appalled and agree not to tell him. Chandler screams when there's no water in the bathroom to wash off blood and gets a basin in his office, drinking and repeatedly putting on new shirts after every grubby crime scene. He's reluctant to use mediums or charms even as evil hints mount thanks to the tragic reasons behind his compulsion, but his outside the box attention to detail also aides his deduction. The cleanliness may be an excuse to to go shirtless and each case now provides a potential love interest, but Whitechapel also resets Chandler as some sort of angelic avenger late in Year Four when we barely got any of the good versus evil stakes. Detective Sergeant Ray Miles wonders if he's past it, but Phil Davis' copper is as crusty as ever with his gruff methods and tough love caring about his constables. Impromptu therapy sessions help him express his fears over losing his bite as the sarge insists he still has a place in the chain of command. Miles, however, learns to keep an open mind – trying to set up Chandler and telling a downtrodden witness not to hide her talent. When it comes to a case, he'll take any luck, even contacting a psychic despite Chandler's calling such charlatans affront to real detective work. He hates hospitals because of the smell – and thinks Chandler must love the disinfectant – but his street smart hunches help pull the team's different strengths together. Miles calms his Inspector by viewing his OCD not as a disability but a useful gift, and when supernatural oddities overwhelm the station, Miles returns to his religious roots to confront the evil cause. Steve Pemberton as former Ripperologist Edward Buchan, on the other hand, is relegated to the dusty archive in the police basement as their official researcher. Fortunately, it's a treasure trove of history – until there is mildew near the boxes and Buchan must find the damp source. He's reluctant to use a computer and tells Ed Gein stories, but Whitechapel doesn't always know what to do with his studying the historical files help. He's grateful to Chandler for taking him on, but when he fails to see the details right in front of him, Buchan fees guilty, not sleeping and seeking therapy. It's tough for him to accept that people die in this line of work and he goes out on a limb researching solo for critical information that puts him at risk. Buchan is more traumatized by the experience then he admits, retreating further into his killer case histories until Miles of all people, defends him from the incident room teasing.
Sam Stockman's Emerson Kent, however, is always so jealous! His hero worship devotion to Chandler makes him suspicious of all the women who cross their path, and Kent deliberately interferes when his twin sister dates Mansell. He thinks he deserves getting punched in the subsequent dust up, but Chandler insists he ice the swelling, cover it up, and look professional. Kent gets upset if he lets the Inspector down, so he provides interesting perspectives on a case, canvases when no one else will, and becomes a better detective if only to be like Chandler. By contrast, D.C. Mansell is married one minute, cheating, and on his second divorce the next, and Ben Bishop's toughie drinks at the station and fights in the incident room. He cleans up somewhat when dating Kent's twin sister, but Mansell laughs over office crushes – meddling and sending emails but calling it matchmaking when told what a jerk he's being. Eventually even Chandler calls him out for his messy desk, not being on top of paperwork, and putting victims at risk with his laziness. At times, Mansell is somewhat useless, cracking a code after the case has been solved or left behind at the station. Even when he behaves, doesn't lie or step out, he doesn't feel good enough, and Mansell flips out over a break up – going to the rooftop and contemplating his worth in one of Whitechapel's finest character moments. Hannah Walter's (This is England) Constable Megan Riley joins Whitechapel for Series Three and Four, a lady friendly with the other cops' wives who's not afraid to tell Mansell when he's talking out his ass. Riley won't get her hand checked when it's cut up on the case though – the boys can't get soft or sentimental and neither will she even if the late hours away from her family are upsetting. She does her diligence, canvasing and questions witnesses and getting in on the chases. Riley chats with the boys when she's worried about them, insisting they all support each other – no one bears the blame for their case victims – but Buchan mistakes her comforts for something more. She gently tells him her husband, however, might object if she thought of him that way. Although Riley admits at times she feels safer behind her desk then on the case, Claire Rushbrook as Doctor Llewellyn remains the sensible voice of reason with forensic facts, a morbid wit, and an assistant she calls Igor. She notices when the detectives are being curt and pissy, claiming to spare them the gory details but still providing plenty of gross analysis. Llewellyn is pregnant again in Year Four – walking the long way around to get into the sewer for a body when she can't fit into the manhole. It's fun when we get to see her and Riley together, too, for the medical examiner says she forgets that the living flinch.
Those twitchy, forever annoying, strobe scene transitions, however, serve no purpose and Whitechapel is noticeably better when the flashy interludes are reduced. Rather than paralleling the sensational crimes, the montage overlays stray into re-enactment parody with skulls and horrors that have nothing to do with the morose at hand. Mirrors and reverse angles add better suspense, and choice editing splices accent the obsessive compulsive detail, organized objects, and controlled symmetry. Although the flickering electric, absence of support personnel, and paranormal oozing at times lay on too much notice me ominous, the subtle shadow and lighting schemes suggest a sinister touch. Gory crime scenes and old school splatter contrast bright outdoor filming, police tents, and forensics gear. Photography flashes and zooms are not aesthetics for the audience but part of the investigation while file folders, whiteboards, and projectors invoke the procedural. Whitechapel's weird shaky cam credits change with every story, lacking cohesion and giving license to the show's constantly in flux format. If viewers can look past the uneven historical crime realism versus supernatural explanation mixed vision, Whitechapel provides fine characterizations, intriguing details, quirky humor, and spooky atmosphere for fans of the cast and audiences looking for a different kind of police drama.