You’ll Fall for The Fall (I Did!)
By Robert Herold
I admit it, I’m in love with the BBC series The Fall; it does give me pause, however, to realize that so much of the show concerns dysfunctional love. The show succeeds on numerous levels: The writing is particularly smart, the acting first-rate, and the setting, Belfast, Northern Ireland, lends another textural layer to this gritty drama. The show concerns serial killer Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan (who also stars in Fifty Shades of Gray), and the efforts to stop him by the Belfast police, headed by Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (a role written for Gillian Anderson). The show is currently available in the U.S. on Netflix. Incidentally, it’s odd that both this, Happy Valley, and other BBC shows are being billed in America as “Netflix original series.”
The show’s creator, writer of all the episodes, and director of season two, Allan Cubitt, does a number of interesting things with this series. To begin with, he reveals the perpetrator within the first few minutes of the first episode; nevertheless, the show manages to be very suspenseful. The tension comes, in part, from not only making the victims seem like real people, but also making the perpetrator seem real. The former serves to increase the poignancy of the tragedy faced by the victims and their families (something often lacking in crime dramas and whodunnits). The latter shows the incredible banality of evil and the thin line between it and normalcy. How far are we from such dysfunction? Where will he/we go next?
Another facet of this show is that Cubitt does an amazing job exploring the psychopathology of Spector (a great name!), and often does the same for many of the other characters as well. He regularly mirrors behaviors between Spector and Gibson, e.g., alternating shots of the two of them exercising, the fact that they both keep journals, the compartmentalizing of their lives, and the willingness of both to use people to further their aims.
Cubitt takes us for an uncomfortable but mesmerizing ride, as we explore these characters’ dysfunctions: Serial killer Spector has a philosophical world-view justifying pain and murder. An unrepentant pedophile priest defends himself in a prison interview room. Gibson declares that the fundamental nature of the world is female, and that men are essentially birth defects. A talented rebellious teen thinks she is in control while being manipulated and warped. These things make your skin crawl. And yet, the seeming ice queen, Gibson, is capable of kindness and virtue, as is Spector. Spector isn’t a monster, he’s a father, a husband, a grief counselor, a son, but he is also an addict to his misogynistic and violent compulsions, with terrible consequences.
The Fall is Gillian Anderson’s best work for television since the X-files, which explains why she became a producer in the second season. She knows a good thing when she sees it! Cubitt said in a recent interview for Collider.com that he wrote several episodes then approached Anderson with the project. He was gratified that she accepted. Cubitt seems to have the touch – he did the same thing with Helen Mirren. After she finished the first season of Prime Suspect and announced there would be no others, he wrote a four hour piece that convinced her to do Prime Suspect Two. Cubitt stated that on several projects when he didn’t have a voice in casting decisions, or when desired people were not available or willing, this could really “scupper things completely.”
Belfast is another component to the success of The Fall. “The Troubles” (the protracted period of Protestant/Catholic violence) hangs like an ominous backdrop to the story, even though it doesn’t directly bear on it. We do see a wall memorializing fallen officers, many from that period. Since much of the tension in the series comes from not knowing what will happen next, the setting adds to this. Cubitt wrote in a 2013 piece for The Guardian Newspaper, that he feels place is a key element to a story. We see tidy upscale neighborhoods and others that are rough-and tumble working class — some denizens of the latter create a subplot, which eventually collides with the main. (The killer resides in a tidy neighborhood.) It is interesting to note that real Belfast has never faced a serial killer like Spector. Hopefully, that will continue.
Cubitt is currently in negotiations with the BBC for a third season. If there is any justice in a dysfunctional world, he will be given the green light. In sum, The Fall is an outstanding series, deserving of a wide audience in the States. Don’t let this one Fall off your radar!