‘The Fall’ Is an Audacious Police Procedural

[16 December 2013]

By Jose Solis

Police procedurals are a dime a dozen and throughout the years have become one of the most popular television genres. But for every great one there are at least a dozen others that come and go, leaving no mark behind. In recent years, standalone police procedurals like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its spawns have become an easy ploy unleashed by studios that relish audiences’ attention deficit disorders (who has time to follow plotlines across several episodes?) but have little to contribute in terms of creativity or value outside of entertainment. Therefore, programs like BBC Two’s The Fall should be commended for doing everything “wrong” in terms of pleasing the demands of commercial television.

Set in Northern Ireland, the series follows the case of several connected murders being investigated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland who, when unable to solve the case, recur to the assistance of London’s Metropolitan Police who send Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) to the rescue. In a different show, the issues of gender and country would’ve been the most important matters at play, but in The Fall they are treated in a much more subtle way seeing how Gibson is quite the force to be reckoned with. Seemingly unable to feel or to show any emotion (other than determination) Stella faces a murderer who might just have more in common with her than she ever thought.

Almost immediately, the series gives away who the killer is and in this case it’s Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) an athletic family man who works as a counsellor and murders young professional women by night. We follow his ritualistic behavior as he exercises, then dresses as if going on an expedition, and then stages complex murder scenes which sometimes have him wash the corpse and paint their fingernails. He seems to be playing dolls with the women he kills, and the show is spooky because we have no way of determining how this man also seems to care about similar people in his professional life (Paul is even threatened by the husband of one of his clients). Like the woman trying to catch him, Paul is able to compartmentalize emotions in a disturbing manner which often allows him to display signs of humanity we aren’t used to associating with murderers.

It’s this dichotomy between good and evil and right and wrong, that makes The Fall so addictive to watch (the first season is only five episodes long). Instead of relying on plot twists, writer Allan Cubitt worried about creating characters that would be fascinating to watch even if they weren’t police detectives and murderers. With every line of dialogue thought out to complete a piece of the puzzle in revealing who these people are, Cubitt and director Jakob Verbruggen build a moody piece in which after a while we don’t really worry too much about whether will the case be solved or not (something that haunted recent show The Killing in the opposite way).

Anderson is a pleasure to watch, turning in perhaps her best performance to date. She plays Stella like the ultimate pragmatic, a woman so practical and emotionless we feel almost afraid to want to get to know her. Her character deals with gender issues in ways police procedurals rarely do, “man fucks woman: subject man, verb fucks, object woman” she explains, before turning the table on one of her male colleagues “woman fucks man, woman subject, man object, that’s not so comfortable for you is it?” she asks defiantly.

Stella isn’t worried about teaching through example, she has established an equal role for herself without asking for anyone’s permission. Because we aren’t sure of her motivations (is she striving to build a strong career, does she get pleasure out of her steely behavior?) we see how like the murderer she is. “Do you have any idea of the effect you have on men” asks Assistant Chief Jim Burns (John Lynch) and the truth is she knows, she just doesn’t care.

The Fall also does something extraordinary in the way it depicts Paul. The camera seems obsessed with capturing his beauty, the muscular Dornan (a model who will becomes even more sexualized now that he’s been cast as the lead in Fifty Shades of Grey) works out in front of us and has more shirtless scenes than you can count. When Stella gets a first glimpse of a sketch of someone who looks like Paul she says “Even a multiple murderer can have his share of good qualities or a pretty face.”

While Clarice Starling fell for Dr. Lecter, we know she wasn’t in it for the sex appeal. The Fall’s intention of revealing the dangerous connection between sex and death isn’t only audacious, but also endlessly seductive. 

The only extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/177303-the-fall-series-1/