Whitechapel (2009-13) is a series that chimes with some of my key interests, comprising as it does a speculative crime drama with a flawed lead character who struggles with a mental health condition. Sadly, it was cancelled last year after a fourth series that heightened its supernatural element via a run of stories peppered with horrific visions and unsettling implications that its characters and their East London location were embroiled in a longstanding battle between good and evil. As such, it is yet another series to portray shades of Millennium (1996-99).
Back in its second series, the show followed its first year’s impactful tale of a modern day Jack the Ripper with a storyline featuring a slew of murderous crimes that appeared to indicate that the Kray twins were posthumously terrorising London’s streets. Rooted a little less in the fantastical, the series instead immersed itself in the very real dangers of the gangland underworld.
Aside from its hook in featuring updated versions and reflections of such infamous criminals, Whitechapel‘s choice of protagonist is interesting and unexpected. Detective Inspector Joseph Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) is an unlikely choice to lead his district: a fastidious, privileged and well-connected character quite at odds with the working-class detectives under his command, and notable his Detective Sergeant, Ray Miles (Philip Davis). Much of the black humour that threads its way through the series comes from their relationship as it slowly evolves from contempt towards one of mutual respect, and Penry-Jones and Davis are superbly cast and as excellent as always in its portrayal. Early in this second part of a three-part story, as it becomes evident that direct descendants of the original Krays are responsible for a spree of horrific murders, they have a brief exchange that both references how this case has gotten under the skin of the hardened detective sergeant and also typifies the banter that the two characters enjoy with one another:
The fact that this development in the case leads to the involvement of the Organised Crime Division—a real institution—allows for a neat pun of acronyms that makes its way onscreen, given that DI Chandler also suffers with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
OCD is a condition to which many people feel they can relate, given how common minor obsessions and compulsions can be in our daily routines. But for sufferers of OCD these obsessions are so strong, and the accompanying compulsions intricate and repetitive to such a degree that they severely disrupt the sufferer’s day-to-day life. Obsessive thought processes lead to anxiety, which in turn leads to compulsive behaviours that offer some temporary relief from those anxieties. But then the thoughts and anxiety return, and so the cycle continues.
DI Chandler clearly maintains an extremely stressful job, and therefore is not an acute OCD sufferer. The audience is, however, privy on a number of occasions to his obsession over personal cleanliness, and he is often to be seen rubbing his temples in an attempt to calm his anxiety. In this episode, he is also extremely defensive when DS Miles comes into his office to find him separating his drawing pins by colour and counting them obsessively:
This dialogue is authentic in as much as Chandler frames his behaviour as being “a bit OCD”, in the way that many people do about their own minor behavioural compulsions. But is this helpful? In one sense, OCD is a condition that people can often recognise hints of in themselves—even if only privately so—and perhaps that helps to normalise the condition. Indeed, a diagnosis will usually be subcategorised as anything from mild through moderate to severe. Yet, on the other hand, perhaps that very normalisation also serves to understate how crippling it can be at the far end of the scale, and glosses over the serious nature of some of its potential causes: abuse, trauma, depression or some other biological factor. Nevertheless, I don’t balk at people describing themselves as “a bit OCD”—as I am sure I have done myself on occasion—as much as I would at someone claiming to be “a bit bipolar”, for example. That’s in a whole other league.
DI Chandler’s OCD is, however, more than just a character quirk. There is a suggestion that it informs his eye for detail in the course of his job, but this is never overplayed and the condition is never put forward as granting him a special ability. (If a comparison to Monk (2002-09) suggests itself at this juncture, then this is something I will explore on this blog at a future date.) And significantly, towards the episode’s climax, it plays a crucial—and potentially catastrophic—role in a sequence where the Detective Inspector has set up a meeting with one of the Kray twins at an East End pub. His anxiety levels extremely high given the violent threats these all-new Kray twins have already made towards him, and trying desperately to leave his office, he pauses to switch the lights on and off several times. He then takes a few steps away from his office before being compelled to return, and repeating the process. Furious at himself for being locked into this compulsive cycle, he finally summons the mental strength to smash the light fixture so he can go on his way.
It is an arresting moment that serves to heighten the dramatic tension yet further, and seems apt in terms of the level of stress that DI Chandler is under at the time. The scene’s resolution doesn’t quite ring true, but nevertheless it is a memorable example of a mental health condition being conveyed dramatically with losing sight of a measure of authenticity.
Given its strengths, it pains me a little to have to write about Whitechapel in the past tense, and I can’t help but feel that the television landscape is a little poorer for its cancellation. If given at times to fanciful and illogical leaps in plot, it was an always bold series on the brink of revealing its master plan, and also offered a painfully honest representation of a condition that is often misunderstood and underestimated. For those in the UK, do yourselves a favour and check it out on DVD or via re-runs on ITV Encore, or alternatively watch it on Amazon Prime in either the UK or the US.