"Satisfying the male desire": BBC's "The Fall" may be our sharpest commentary on the culture of violence against women

It's a moody serial-killer story that is less invested in the cat-and-mouse chase than in who is doing the chasing

Published January 25, 2015 8:30PM (EST)

Gillian Anderson in "The Fall"      (BBC Two)
Gillian Anderson in "The Fall" (BBC Two)

“The Fall,” a BBC Two and Netflix coproduction, was just released for American audiences on Netflix’s streaming platform. Whereas Britishers watched the series one episode at a time, week to week, Americans have always received “The Fall” in big gulps—first, five episodes from the first season, and now six from the second season.

It might be the ideal way to watch the show. “The Fall” is a moody, deliberate story of a serial killer, less invested in the cat-and-mouse chase than in studying the characters doing the chasing. The full story of “The Fall,” first episode to 11th, has spanned the time frame of just a few weeks—meaning that the six episodes of the second season, airing weekly, span more time for the viewers than they do for the characters. Where other shows take on a case each week—from discovery to investigation to trial, in a quick 42 minutes—“The Fall” has been focused on the same criminal for more than 11 meditative hours.

It’s a choice that sets “The Fall” apart—one that leads to the series’ celebrated deconstructions and inversions, its subtle dismantling and rearranging. “The Fall” is not a crime drama like other crime dramas, but it uses what the viewer expects of crime dramas to its advantage—creating, as a result, a story that has much more resonance than an average crime drama. The lacunae of “The Fall”—found in long scenes that unflinchingly portray the entirety of an interrogation, or tracking shots that capture not just a crime scene but the details of the work of the people whose job it is to clean up a crime scene—is where the unsettling implications of the show are born.

A body is not just a body—it was a person with a story, and after death it is an object that must be handled and then discarded. And a murder is not just the moment of criminal act--it’s the lead-up to the event, the psyche that is driven to kill, the painstaking efforts taken to not get caught. “The Fall” doesn’t rush anything—not the horrible murders of its serial killer, Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan, or the long moments it takes to discover forensic evidence while wearing purple latex gloves and a protective suit. Every death is mourned, on-screen; showrunner Allan Cubitt captures the horror felt by loved ones and places them on equal footing as both the detached politics of the investigators and the twisted pleasure of the serial killer. It’s all life and death in the state, where bureaucracies both usher you into life and then see you out of it.

Crime is such an old standard for not just television, but stories of any kind—so much so that the detectives working the case and the ins and outs of investigation are familiar to most consumers of pop culture, whether you got it from Agatha Christie or “Law and Order: SVU.” “The Fall” relies on its viewer knowing the standards of the form, because as it tells its story, it consistently, deliberately complicates that form. Spector, for example, is not relegated merely to the role of “monster,” as is often the case with a depraved serial killer—from the opening episode, his apparently innocent family life has been intertwined with his stalking, torture and murder.

And the investigator at the story’s heart is a singular, powerful woman. Stella Gibson is a hero for the history books. She comes to Belfast from England to review the police department’s proceedings, and stays when she discovers two murders appear to be linked. She lives out of a hotel room—the Hilton, to be exact, room 208. She is a profoundly functional person, whether reviewing notes while packing for her trip or organizing a manhunt as a newcomer to the city. She’s contained, but not emotionless; firm, but difficult to dismiss as “bitchy.” In the world of crime dramas—where women are almost always the victims, the prizes or the sidekicks—she is a total anomaly. As my colleague Laura Miller pointed out to me, “The Fall” inverts the typical storytelling of the murder mystery—instead of the killer being mysterious and difficult to identify, it’s Stella, the investigator, who is ultimately the show’s enigma. Her motives are difficult to determine; her desires are only expressed in fits and starts. Meanwhile, the men around her are “hysterical”—swept up in their feelings and finding it difficult to check them, whether that’s Spector the murderer; Jim Burns, Stella’s boss and erstwhile lover; or the men she has quick one-night stands with on her hotel sheets.

In Gillian Anderson’s hands, Stella is both deeply humane and almost preternaturally reserved; there isn’t a cathartic moment where Stella loses control, as we sometimes expect actresses to do to get awards nominations. Instead it seems like we’re introduced to her character well after she’s had her fits of Sturm und Drang. When Stella talks about what makes Spector a man or a monster—when she rebuffs a man’s advances or explains the lay of a land to a witness—she speaks with a wisdom that reveals some exhaustion with the world as well as an acceptance of its indignities. In one moment, after fending off an attack from a drunken man wanting to sleep with her, she posits that being male is a “birth defect”; in another, she repeats the canard often attributed to Margaret Atwood: Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them. British drama has a way of just coming out and saying what its fans want to hear, which is sometimes detrimental to the story. But Stella is a woman who investigates the horrible crimes committed against women on a regular basis, crimes motivated by a widespread, culturally permitted hatred of women. In this world where, both in real life and on screen, there are far too many dead girls, her views make a frightening amount of sense.

In a Washington Post interview, Anderson addressed Stella’s feelings, saying that while she does not necessarily share her character’s views, she understands them. “The sex trade would not exist if it wasn’t satisfying the male desire. And the stories I heard through research for that are unfathomable,” she said. “Those things go on. Those things happen in our own back yards every single day. And that’s not necessarily violent, but that is an element of male behavior that you do not see reproduced in female behavior. The opposite does not exist.”

The knowledge of that imbalance weighs heavily on Stella throughout the series—Anderson’s Stella never laughs, rarely smiles, and moves slowly, as if under a great burden. But she’s not despairing. Because—crucially—she still loves men.

The season 2 finale—which, if the show doesn’t get renewed, is “The Fall’s" series finale—is an astounding episode of television, both polarizing and arresting. It brings Stella and Paul face to face in an interrogation scene that seems to last for hours. Paul accuses her of many things, but mostly, he accuses her of hating men. Of wanting to rid the world of men. Of only caring about dead women. He points to her spinsterhood, to her apparent obsession with her father, as proof of his judgments. Stella’s response is impassive; it’s left to you to determine whether or not his remarks got under her skin.

But then Stella remains in the room as Paul speaks to his daughter Olivia, trying to explain to her that he’s going to prison without quite saying that. And in that scene, Cubitt shows us not just Olivia’s innocence and the few scraps of humanity left in Paul, but the range of emotions passing across Stella’s face. It’s pain, and devastation, and recognition. The rest she’s been able to bear, perhaps because she knew there was something she could do about it. (Even as she shed tears over Rose Stagg’s kidnapping tape, for example, she was calculating how to use it against Spector.) With Olivia, she’s raw. And it made me think—a theory without much corroboration except my own certainty—that Stella recognizes this moment because Stella was created by a man much like Paul Spector, a man who was both a monster and a man, who then went away to prison because he hurt too many women, even though he didn’t hurt the little girl that she used to be. In Olivia, Stella’s seeing another iteration of herself, who might go forth in the world to catch another Paul. And there is nothing triumphant or just about that. It’s just awful—a terrible cycle, a struggle between two forces in opposition to each other who have found ways to love each other, in spite of that.

“The Fall” is a show that can be continually discussed—studded with performances, especially Anderson’s, that can be infinitely analyzed. It raises unsettling questions about how women live in the world, and what there is to be done in the face of violence against women at the hands of men who are fathers, sons and brothers themselves. Its title is deliberately hard to interpret: The fall from what, to what? Who is falling, and why? On some level, you can interpret it as Paul Spector’s fall, from serial killer to prisoner. On another, though, it’s a comment on the relationship between men and women. Adam and Eve had the garden of Eden; the rest of us have merely the fall from grace.

By Sonia Saraiya

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Allan Cubitt Bbc Bbc Two Gillian Anderson Jamie Dornan The Fall