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Television Review: The Fall

The Fall – Seasons 1 & 2 (BBC; 2013-2014)

For whatever reason, on television in Britain, the murder mystery and police/crimes procedural genres are able to encompass and express a greater variety of meanings, themes, and sociopolitical implications than their American TV equivalents. U.S. entries into the genre – especially from the endemic, formulaic glut of CSIs and NCISs and Law and Orders – are generally prisms for a fevered nightmare vision of crime and unreserved enthusiasm for morally unambiguous punishment (often of an extra-legal, state-mandated vigilantist sort) redolent of right-wing American fantasies.

But British television, especially the BBC (although also its more conservative private competitor ITV), can often employ the genre’s conventions to explore and comment upon a wider range of ideas. Perhaps the historical overlap between British playwriting and teleplays has opened a conduit of greater literary depth that is tapped by the best (and even some of the less-best) TV dramas, which tend to be more tightly-structured and on shorter runs than their American equivalents (a prestige cable narrative like True Detective is an obvious exception). Or perhaps the genre itself simply has a different profile in Britain, where it has a deeper and richer literary tradition (although, ironically, its key early texts followed the example of an American, Edgar Allen Poe).

Whatever the sources of this breadth, you can see it across notable British genre television: the sashaying wit of Sherlock, the bruised local whodunit of Broadchurch, and the historical recreation/commentary on social dynamics of period shows like Ripper Street, The Bletchley Circle, or, heck, even Downton Abbey (though procedural it is not). But evoking a wide range of ideas need not hamper the entertainment value or even the sensationalist frisson of the murder mystery genre. All of this very much self-evident in The Fall, one of the best iterations of the form in recent broadcast history.

Set in contemporary Belfast, Northern Ireland, The Fall focuses on the contest of minds and wills between a focused and self-assured female inspector (Gillian Anderson) and a meticulous, double-life-maintaining serial killer of women (Jamie Dornan). The series, written by Allan Cubitt and directed by Cubitt and Jakob Verbruggen, builds towards the two opposing characters’ final confrontation as nemeses but also presents their fascination with each other as supra-professional, with a quality of romantic interest if not intense psychological desire. This latter suggestion unsettles (if not undermines) the dominant feminist overtones of the series in its closing movement.

Anderson’s Stella Gibson, a visiting Detective Superintendent from London’s Metropolitan Police, is in Belfast to conduct a review of the local force’s investigation into the high-profile murder of the wife of a local business scion. Her mission soon expands to leading a larger inquest into the case when she connects it with other similar murders of professional women, as well as to battling against the patriarchal assumptions of this provincial locale’s policing which hound her at every turn.

Stella Gibson knows what she wants and what is required to do her job right, and treats bull-headed males that stand chauvinistically in her way with the cool contempt that they richly merit. Soon after arriving, she has a one-night stand with a hunky, younger Detective Sergeant (Ben Peel). When he is later killed and revealed to be married with kids, her male colleague investigating the case makes sexist insinuations that she efficiently bats away; why shouldn’t she have pleasure on her off-time (besides the obvious thorny professional questions, which are ignored)? She also negotiates her interactions with the PSNI’s Assistant Chief Constable (and her former lover) Jim Burns (John Lynch) with skill and subtle condescension. She’s on his turf and must tread lightly to obtain his cooperation, but he’s an unimaginative and weak-willed bureaucrat and glad-hander more concerned with public image and the politics of department funding than with shepherding along effective investigative policing.

More than any other outlet, Stella’s feminism is expressed in her moral position vis-à-vis the predatory crimes of her nemesis, the serial strangler, sociopath, married father of two, and grief counselor Paul Spector. Dornan, soon to have his career either blown up huge, ruined, or both by a lead role in 50 Shades of Grey, makes a strong, fiercely creepy impression as Spector, with his inscrutable gaze, nighttime stalking habits, and semi-simian strolling walk. He loves his young daughter Olivia (Sarah Beattie) with a fondness that mirrors the intensity of the perversion that drives him to strangle women and then meticulously arrange them in poses of pacified idealization.

What Stella (and therefore The Fall) refuses to lose sight of when it comes to Paul Spector is the smug, self-important misogynistic assumptions that underscore his litany of crimes. This type of generic narrative has a tendency (especially when told in an American context, but not exclusively then) to underplay the social and behavioural implications of violence against women even while exploiting that violence for sensationalist shock effect or to establish a given text’s artistic “seriousness”. The manner in which the arbitrary application of patriarchal force and sexualized violence by men against female victims terrorizes women everywhere and proscribes their agency and security is buried from the get-go (the common feminist truism is quoted in one episode: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them”). The resolution of this essential tension is customarily subsumed by the protective male application of justice on behalf of “damsels in distress”, frequently through the use of violence that is coded as righteous in opposition to the violation of the killer’s acts.

The Fall constructs Stella’s efforts to identify Spector as the killer and bring him to justice as a struggle against patriarchy, but it’s hardly that simple or unproblematic. To expound upon precisly why requires a discussion of the series’ “ending”, and so an uncharacteristic spoiler alert is in order at this point.

The second season finale features a showcase conversation between Stella and Spector in custody in which the latter confesses to his crimes in full but stubbornly resists and challenges the former’s position of power and authority; both actors look into the camera (and therefore at us) while offering clear-cut diagnoses of each other’s behaviour and motivations, and what might have been the climactic resolution of a lesser story merely heightens the tension of this one. Following this scene, Stella has some pillow talk with her latest Detective Sergeant lover, Anderson (Colin Morgan). Having already acknowledged Anderson’s general physical resemblance to Spector in the course of interrogations, the DS wonders if she thought he resembled Spector in other ways. Anderson admits that Spector is a fascinating figure, for all of his inhuman monstrosity, but Stella, who in an earlier episode contradicted a stark labelling of Spector as a monster by Burns, offers a blunt feminist assessment of Spector as a horrid being unworthy of “fascination”.

Spector is taken to the woods outside Belfast in the closing sequence to lead police to his final victim, a former lover that he abducted and imprisoned for suggesting him to the police as a suspect. There, cuffed to Anderson as a minder at Stella’s insistence, he and Anderson are both shot by a Shankill Road thug who Spector made an enemy of in his predatory activities (it happens moments after Spector mentions to Anderson that something is clearly going on between him and Stella). Stella rushes to the cuffed, injured pair, and chooses to cradle the head of her enemy Spector, not her lover Anderson. It’s a final image of corporeal intimacy between The Fall‘s two contending leads, and it suggests not so subtly that behind Stella Gibson’s overt identity as a righteous feminist avenger lies a deep and disavowed desire and attraction for a figure that represents everything that repulses her and drives her sense of justice. It’s a problematic twist to the feminist politics of the show that ends the narrative (we assume; Dornan at least has hinted at future seasons) on a note of contradictory, complexity, and uncertainty that demonstrates how the murder mystery police procedural genre can malleably expand its boundaries of signification.

Categories: Reviews, Television
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  1. February 14, 2016 at 4:38 pm

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