The Fall: A Frustrating Season Still Highlights Gillian Anderson's Brilliant Character Work

J.M. Suarez
Gillian Anderson shines in season three of The Fall.

Season three of The Fall may not have lived up to the previous two seasons, but it remains a largely absorbing series.

The Fall

Cast: Gillian Anderson, Jamie Dornan, John Lynch, Aisling Franciosi, Niamh McGrady, Bronagh Waugh, Sarah Beattie, Valene Kane, Colin Morgan, Krister Henriksson, David Beattie
Subtitle: Season 3
Network: BBC/Netflix
Stella: He's in hospital. He's incapacitated. And yet he's still infecting the lives of every person he comes into contact with. Everyone who fucking crosses his path. He's a contagion.

The third season of The Fall picks up immediately where season two ended. It’s a chaotic opening to the season -- Paul (Jamie Dornan) and DS Anderson (Colin Morgan) have been shot, Rose Stagg (Valene Kane) is en route to the hospital after being found barely alive, and Stella (Gillian Anderson) is holding it all together as head of the investigation team -- but it's also an apt introduction to the season.

Where past seasons have focused on Stella and Paul in somewhat equal measure, season three feels as if it's much more about Paul. A great deal of time in the season is spent on Paul's recovery from his injuries, both in hospital and in a psychiatric facility, the Foyle Clinic, particularly as he awakes from a coma with long-term memory loss. Unfortunately, in putting Paul at the fore for larger parts of this season’s arc, the season falters and at times drags.

It's never completely clear whether Paul is faking his amnesia, but as the season goes on, it matters less and less. Although he says he's unable to remember the events of the past six years, coincidentally overlapping with the time period in which he's already confessed to multiple murders, DS Anderson and PC Dani Ferrington (Niamh McGrady) are able to link him to a 2002 murder, therefore upending any potential sympathy for a seemingly reformed Paul.

It's while Paul is in the Foyle Clinic that the details of the 2002 murder are laid out, and also linked to his time in a boys' home; at that point, he finally dispenses with any attempts to show a more subdued version of himself. His time in therapy with Dr. Larson (Krister Henriksson) slowly revealed the origins and beginnings of his life as a sexual predator.

Unfortunately, after so much time spent seeing Paul act out as such, his backstory feels less interesting and more like an attempt to create some compassion for a wholly unsympathetic character. It could be argued that the same was done in previous seasons by focusing on Paul's relationship with his daughter, Olivia (Sarah Beattie), although his relationship with his son, Liam (David Beattie) was almost nonexistent, but Stella has always maintained that Paul is dangerous, calculating, and never to be underestimated.

In focusing so little on his family life, Paul becomes even more of a monster and, again, parts of the season lag because of it. The reduced focus on his wife, Sally Ann (Bronagh Waugh), was a particular failing, as her inability to cope with the revelations about Paul clearly have a tragic rippling effect. Stella's impassioned plea to spare Sally Ann an accessory charge after she's already suffered so much leads nowhere in a roomful of men intent on making her an example. Stella's the only one who understands the cumulative effect of all that Sally Ann's been through, but it's only after Sally Ann's desperate actions that Jim (John Lynch) realizes the extent of all she's endured. These continued fundamental misunderstandings and dismissals are an ongoing theme of the series. Stella's attempts to convey the dangers of violent men to other men are never given full weight, yet she's proven right over and over again.

The season ends in the same chaotic way it began, with Paul attacking Stella, then Dr. Larson, killing fellow Foyle Clinic patient, Bailey (Conor MacNeill), and then hanging himself. It's a frustrating end to a frustrating season. Part of that frustration comes from the fact that Paul's continued violence and manipulations allow him to end things on his terms. He doesn't have to go to trial and he doesn't have to face his daughter. More than Paul's actions, however, Stella's inability to marshal the resources of the police in the ways she wants (mainly because the men in charge don't allow her to) is especially maddening.

The great appeal of a series like The Fall is in its characterizations, and there’s no more compelling character that Stella Gibson. Her feminist views are overt and unapologetic; she's unintimidated in the best way because she's so capable. She's also uninterested in the power games men play, and calls them out repeatedly on their double standards. Anderson plays Stella with the same kind of steely backbone that made her Dana Scully such a feminist role model, while also visibly empathizing with and advocating for the female victims in the show.

Season three of The Fall may not have lived up to the previous two seasons, but it remains a largely absorbing series. The possibility of a season four exists, but hasn't been confirmed. Whether or not it continues, Anderson has inhabited a truly memorable character in Stella Gibson, and The Fall has highlighted the many minefields women navigate in everyday life.


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