Dark, difficult television, 'The Fall' implicates viewers in the sadism it depicts

Gillian Anderson is very beautiful. It shouldn’t matter, but, in a show where Anderson plays a senior police officer leading an investigation into a serial murderer whose defining trait is scopophilia, it does. The camera loves Anderson, even more so as she has aged — the sharp stroke of her cheekbones, the firm set of her mouth — and perhaps only a woman with beauty so austere could play this role, on this show, in which so many female characters are made to submit to the gaze of a killer. Anderson never yields. She is an outstanding camera actor: there is always more happening behind her eyes than the shot warrants, and she keeps it there, behind her eyes, just out of your reach.

In The Fall, Anderson plays Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, seconded from London’s Metropolitan Police to Belfast to review a murder investigation, which, she quickly realises, is linked to other killings. Irish actor John Lynch (In The Name of the Father, Angel Baby) plays Gibson’s police superior and former lover, while Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife) has a strong supporting role as a forensic pathologist who is both Gibson’s friend and her intellectual peer. The killer, Paul Spector, is played by Jamie Dornan, a former Calvin Klein model whose own considerable beauty has been subdued — he looks unremarkable, when he’s not busy strangling women in their beds.

The Fall is dark, difficult television. Over the past few years we’ve had a glut of dark, difficult television shows with female leads — hello, Scandinavia — but The Fall goes further than most in implicating viewers in the sadism it depicts. We know almost from the opening scene of the first episode who the killer is: husband, father and bereavement counsellor by day, psychopath by night. For two seasons we have been watching him, and, now, watching him being watched as the police finally narrow in. During the first season Spector murdered several women; during the second season he has, possibly, murdered none. I have found myself wishing that he would murder again, if only so that another crime might prove his downfall — and then it has dawned on me what I have been wishing for. This bloodlust is the unspoken motor of most crime drama, but The Fall makes me very aware of it.

There is little real violence on screen, but much implied; what we don’t see is what haunts us. What we do see is relentlessly cruel. Paul Spector — we are meant to hear the pun on spectre — takes pleasure in the breach of intimacies, in possessing what he has no right to. The Fall presents voyeurism both as a mode of entertainment and as a transgression, but I am not sure, in the end, that the show is not part of the problem it diagnoses. The title is an oblique reference to TS Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’, which we glimpse in Spector’s diary — but it also points, like an enormous flashing neon arrow, to the doctrine of original sin, for which women are held eternally to blame. Are the show’s female victims guilty to begin with, and do we like to see them punished?

Spector is a gothic character — very Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde — and The Fall is a gothic show. I keep watching for Anderson, whose own career — from The X Files (1993–2002), through Bleak House (2005) to this role — has been a gradual refinement of a kind of gothic feminism. Her characters are not afraid of their own darkness. They forge wills of steel out of what might be seen as soft, feminine wounds. The Fall, with one episode left to run, might yet make Stella Gibson into a victim. If it does, then she — along with all the other distressed and dead women in this show — will have fought her hardest against it. 

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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