When a street girl, Mary, goes to Currie, a backstreet pharmacist, for an abortion, the potion he gives her almost kills her. Someone then kills the pharmacist, and stuff his money down his throat – the girl’s boyfriend perhaps, or her father, who works as a builder for Obsidian Tenements?
Reid seeks out Dr Frayn for advice on the murder of the abortionist, and she rails against the illegality of contraception and safe abortion. She has a sponsor, Dr Rolle (Peter McDonald), who is a member of the Malthusian League – not a clique of evil supervillains, but a society dedicated to spreading the availability of contraception and abortion. They have a clinic in Holland, and Frayn wants to set one up in London, but Susan rejects the illegal scheme.
Reid and Drake bring in the pharmacist’s assistant, and bully out of him the location of the pharmacist’s surgeon colleagues. Mary, meanwhile, is getting closer to death, and her boyfriend takes her to Susan’s clinic.
What Reid and Drake find at the supposed backstreet abortion clinic astonishes them; it’s an expensive, well-appointed surgery with modern medical equipment, records, and a safe. So what has actually been going on there? The safe and some unlabelled chemicals are taken to Jackson, who reveals that the dead pharmacist’s wounds contain Portland cement – so was he killed by a builder?
Drake goes to investigate building sites while Reid is distracted by his soppy daughter Mathilda, who he finally realises deserves his undivided attention.
Though Frayn saves Mary’s life, she won’t be able to have children; but even her father turning up and attacking her boyfriend with a crutch won’t induce her to name the abortionists. Is she somehow proteecting some secret of her father’s?
Susan tackles her contractor, who has trebled his charges on the ‘affordable housing’ to ensure his own profit; she swears that she will become as ruthless as Capshaw in her dealings with him, and with the help of Rose she concocts a plan to blackmail him, presenting him and his cronies with evidence of his whoring in the middle of his gentlemen’s club.
Her plan’s a success, but afterwards she is confronted by journalist Fred Best, who is still investigating her industrialist father Theodore Swift. Swift has mysteriously disappeared – is this connected with the theft of his bearer bonds? Incidentally, Best’s New York Times reveals that it’s July 30th, 1894.
Jackson blows open the abortionists’ safe and finds sundry medical records; they document a series of experiments, but by who, and to what end? An invoice from Holland is found – is Dr Rolle implicated?
Reid questions Mary’s father Tait, who turns out to be not her father at all, and in fact not even a man; blow me, it’s Haydn Gwynne in drag, putting on a gruff voice. (Thanks for the spoiler in the cast list, Radio Times!)
Tait is in fact the assumed identity of a woman, Sarah Elizabeth James, who has taken the role of a man to avoid the hardships of life as a woman. She admits to killing pharmacist Currie for what he did to Mary, and is taken off to the gallows in a tearful parting with Mary.
Frayn goes to restate her case for the abortion clinic to Susan, and finds a more sympathetic reception, since Susan has realised she is pregnant – presumably after Jackson’s romantic humping in an alleyway the other week.
PC Grace tracks the invoice from Holland to Frayn’s clinic. She is just about to start abortion procedures under Rolle, but she discovers that he is in fact sterilising his patients; so it turns out the Malthusian League are supervillains after all, a bunch of eugenicist madmen out to control the population without their consent.
Drake learns a heavy lesson and tells Rose that he wants to marry her but will never control her; Jackson similarly confronts Susan, and gets her fingerprints, but is interrupted when her missing father Theodore Swift turns up.
Now, Dr Frayn being a sort of Marie Stopes character, it was inevitable that Ripper Street would eventually tackle the knotty subject of women’s reproductive rights, a subject as controversial now as it was then.
But just for good measure, this episode also presents umpteen other examples of women caged by convention and sexism; Susan trapped by her past, Mathilda by her overprotective father, Mary by her boyfriend’s untramelled lust, ‘Tait’ by society’s expectations of women generally, Rolle’s victims by his indifference to their human rights.
With two more seasons already confirmed to have been commissioned by Amazon, and some intriguing leaks about casting already out there, let’s hope that next week’s finale wraps up the Obsidian plot (and possibly the career of Reid?) in a satisfactory way, and with a bit more of Ripper Street’s customary blood and thunder.