Not Very Good
By Lili Loofbourow
[Warning: spoilers of Seasons 1 and 2 of The Fall ahead.]
The Fall could have been a terrific show — a combination of Top of the Lake with Netflix Original Happy Valley, which also features a tormented female detective and a damaged, incredibly good-looking killer. It had great ingredients. It has a fantastic cast (Gillian Anderson! Archie Panjabi!), a promising premise, an admirably feminist project. But it’s not a terrific show (in my opinion—others disagree!). It looks great on paper, but the final product struck me as confused, unclear, and — worst of all — kind of boring.
I’m not alone: Elizabeth Angell called it “a tragic misuse/waste of great resources (talent and sartorial)” and having stuck it through to the end and finished Season 2, I couldn’t agree more. The Fall’s an odd beast, slow and slack and strangely unmotivated. At its worst, it combines a tendency in the writing to strenuously withhold action — Gillian Anderson’s character Stella Gibson is given so little to say or do in the first few episodes that she barely earns our interest — with a tendency in the direction to overcompensate via visual doublings so heavy-handed you flinch. Take, for example, a sequence in which Jamie Dornan’s character Paul Spector arranges a victim on the bed while DSI Gibson lies on a bed having casual sex with a man who will be dead the next day. The juxtaposition announces itself as meaningful while yielding little more than the insight, now practically a cliché, that there are parallels between cops and robbers. Yes, yes, the cop in question is a woman. Yes, the innovation is that the cop in question is a woman — but that the show considers this a revelation worth underlining reminds me of the gentleman who told me he was attending an “Anti-Corruption Conference.” “You’d be surprised. I’ve seen corruption everywhere, in the private sector as well as the public,” he said, sure he was blowing my mind.
Even the killer’s name — Spector — is a reflection of the cop’s job: inspector. Get it? GET IT?! They’re different but the same, each functioning as both spectator and spectacle! Take another instance: as the serial killer murders someone, the camera cuts to his unsuspecting pregnant wife nursing an ailing infant in a neonatal ward. It almost felt like a game: how many symbols of innocence can we get into one scene?
If the direction is annoyingly heavy-handed in some cases, it’s disconcertingly unmotivated in others, sometimes dwelling on particular shots to no apparent purpose, as when it shows us Jamie Dornan’s character Paul Spector being escorted to the police car in slow motion for just an extraordinarily long time. It’s not a climactic scene: they’ve known where he was for ages. It’s not interesting to look at — Dornan just stares blankly the entire time — but the camera invites, almost begs us to find something in the scene worth lingering on. This is true, in a different way, of Gibson: I think we’re supposed to be moved by (or at least interested in) her diary and the disclosures she’s forced into making by submitting it as evidence — it lays out everything we see her repressing with armored discipline. Unfortunately, this is quite literally telling rather than showing: that both the murderer and the detective are avid diarists becomes a shortcut, a way of signaling that they have some sort of interiority without letting much of it slip onscreen.
There’s also a basic conflict between mission and method. “Laying pipe” is how TV writers refer to necessary but obvious exposition in the early stages of a show, and The Fall is guilty of heavy-handedly “laying feminism” in its dialogue while still — as Batya Ungar-Sargon points out in her review of the (much superior) Happy Valley — cinematically eroticizing the abuse of female victims. As Elizabeth Angell puts it, “there’s something clunky about the way it wants to Perform Feminism.” The show tells us that men are bothered by women who casually fuck men, it tells us there’s a virgin/vamp dichotomy in society. It tells us that male monstrosity isn’t monstrosity at all, but exists on a spectrum that includes hapless lovestruck officers of the law. It informs us that women can be unfeeling, that murderers can be empathetic, that men often mistake misogyny for art. True, all perfectly true, but the presentation is very After School Special.
In a classic case of do as I say, not as I do, then, the show lectures us on the evils of female objectification while showing us an assortment of almost indistinguishable women murdered onscreen, and invites us to dwell on their barely-concealed posteriors as we consider the horrors of institutionalized misogyny. The theoretical justification for this choice is the same for every such scene: it’s meant to show us the particular flavor of the serial killer’s fantasy. To which I reply: HMMM. This is my reaction, too, to Spector’s daughter drawing herself as pregnant — and to this becoming a key clue. It feels like a creepy shortcut, similar to when the daughter in True Detective who magically intuits the gang rapes and recreates one with Barbie dolls. Kids notice things. They don’t notice things in quite that way. (Here, again, Happy Valley and Top of the Lake did it better.)
However! The show adds a layer of interest by allowing Rose to be the one exception — the “Original” victim whose murder Spector keeps trying to imaginatively recreate — by granting her some face time, and by interrupting her tearful pleas to ask us (in the form of an accusatory Paul Spector) why we’re watching this awful footage. It’s an odd move, but one that puts its offensive suggestion — that female speech (rather than female death) is the true pornography — in the voice of the murderer.
In her review of Happy Valley, Batya Ungar-Sargon notes that director Sally Wainwright “magically transformed the genre, decoupling the violence against women from the suspense that keeps us watching, without sacrificing … gripping absorption.” She’s right. The Fall wanted to pull off something similar, I think, but it fell short. My sense is that The Fall wanted to formally experiment with a genre that thrives on female corpses, and wanted to do so through a feminist lens. It wanted to decouple suspense from the revelation of the killer, and reorient the crime drama so that its suspense was psychological, a whydunnit rather than whodunit (sort of like Absalom, Absalom, but without Quentin or Sutpen).
The trouble is that the two leads aren’t textured or compelling enough to sustain the experiment. Despite Paul Spector’s literary allusions, the suspense goes slack. A Twitter acquaintance said it took her three hours to finish the Season 2 finale because she kept getting up to do something else. My partner decided to shave while watching it. I passed three levels of Candy Crush Soda. There’s something pleasingly perverse about a tedious crime drama — a thriller about nothing? — but I don’t think that’s what the creators were going for.
(I think The Fall also wanted to say something — though I’m not sure what — about bureaucracy and the way media structures the dance between murderer and police: press conferences got a lot of airtime, more than they needed given the tangible effects they produce.)
Still, it’s kind of an interesting failure! Anderson got to do much more in the second season, and the show has plenty of promising angles. If Paul Spector’s wife had been written as ever so slightly smarter, for instance, the relationship between his identity as Family Man with blondes and Murderer with brunettes could have crystallized — via a confrontation — into something slightly less schematic. The domestic abuse subplot could have developed; instead, it authorized a series of magical coincidences that led to Spector’s death at the hands of his abusive male client — a strange conclusion that addresses few of the problems the show seemed interested in investigating. Then there’s the thematic insistence on resemblance. That could have produced insight, or an insight into “doubling,” which Stella Gibson mentions as a strategy both she and Paul Spector use; instead, the number of doppelgängers risked pushing the show into farce, what with Gibson’s new boy-toy resembling Spector and Gibson styling a female officer like Spector’s victims and none of it adding up to much.
It’s too bad, but it’s also okay! There are plenty of shows with awesome female detectives — some of them great, some of them just fun. Off the top of my head I’m thinking of Fargo, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, Happy Valley, and Top of the Lake. The meanest thing I can say about The Fall is that it risks being to female-centric procedurals what Season 1 of True Detective was to its genre: formally ambitious, stylized, promising, but in the end, disappointingly sloppy and — sly allusions to Eliot and Chambers notwithstanding — less coy than incoherent.