**Written (and lost) somewhere between Halloween and the election of Donald Trump some orange douche bag with no respect for human dignity including his own, here is my review of Season 3 of the BBC’s The Fall–an ultimately flawed, but still powerful show with a way of handling female characters that, given the current political climate, seems more important now than ever. Spoilers for all three seasons follow.**
The Fall,which just dropped its third season on Netflix, is about a serial killer who brutally strangles his female victims. It depicts these murders in every detail from the creepy stalking to the terrible denouement. It pits an icy Gillian Anderson against a terrifying Jamie Dornan, and revels in the sexual chemistry of both. It will give you nightmares if you watch it alone and, at the Atlantic notes, it is the most feminist show on television.
The Fall’s dedication to depicting realistic female characters redeems the show even when the thriller aspect fades–and it certainly fades in the third season, the steam leaking from the narrative like air from a balloon. After two seasons of almost unbearable cat-and-mouse, Gillian Anderson’s DSI Stella Gibson has finally got her man. Serial strangler Paul Spectre (Dornan) has been shot by an angry husband while on a foray to show Gibson where he’s hidden his latest victim. Season two memorably ends with Gibson clutching the fallen Spectre, screaming “We’re losing him!” as he passes out. The show has worked hard to tease Gibson’s ambiguity. Does she hunt Spectre purely for justice or is she more than a little obsessed?
The Fall, it turns out, isn’t interested in explanations – indeed, it delights in showing us how little they matter. While we learn much more about Gibson and Spectre this season, their parts never quite account for the whole. Spectre, for example, was a sexually abused child who may have turned to murder to regain a sense of control. He is also a father of a young daughter with whom he has a shockingly normal relationship. Gibson, we suspect, might also have been molested: she is haunted by the memory of her father and leery of granting men physical control. But is seems she’s only traumatized because her father died when she was young. Her (sometimes visceral) mistrust of men remains a mystery.
Again and again The Fall reminds us that no one can be pigeonholed. It’s less intent on solving things than revealing the endless nuances of human experience. It is particularly good at depicting women as they actually function in real life. Save for one logic-defying teenager (Aisling Franciosi) there are few cliched females here. In particular, the show excels at showing women at work–women getting things done in a chaotic world. This is true not only of Anderson’s Gibson, but of any number of side characters the show pauses to explore. In the first season, a female emergency dispatcher assists another woman who has just stumbled upon her sister’s strangled body. The dispatcher guides the other woman through a series of practical steps (secure the house, check for vitals) and conveys a sincere sense of empathy. As the sequence ends we stay with the dispatcher as she finishes the call and picks up another. (“999-What’s your emergency?”) We realize, with a shock, how some heroes spend their days.
In season three, a female nurse assigned to Spectre provides us with a similar portrait. Though she knows Spectre to be the Glasgow Strangler, she masters her fright and provides him with impartial, professional care. These are interactions not much seen on television–certainly not without some tacked-on resolution or “deeper meaning.” When later the nurse seems to befriend Spectre (who now claims he is unable to remember his crimes) we have the sense that she hopes, rather than believes, in his goodness. Her relationship with him could have easily turned to cliche (will she be his next victim? Will she discover an important clue?) but the show takes a more realistic approach. Never stating whether she buys Spectre’s amnesia or not, the nurse sees him through recovery–and then goes back to work.
These portraits and side trips, rounding out characters and allowing women–as Gibson quips–to escape classification as either angels or whores, are a lot of what makes The Fall interesting but we, of course, are here for Anderson and Dornan. Sadly, while both remain electrifying in their roles–Gibson’s icy reserve vs. Spectre’s simmering, black-eyed misogyny–The Fall does them no favors with its killer-with-amnesia plot twist. Where in the past two seasons the pair have circled each other, their taunts and counter-taunts coalescing in a tense face-to-face interrogation, they’re now separated by hospital walls. Spectre engages in endless interviews with doctors and lawyers with no inkling provided as to whether or not he’s lying. Gibson, not buying it, tries to build her case against him, which provides several portraits of the fallout (the eponymous Fall?) from Spectre’s actions. This puts Anderson at the center of several moving scenes in which she relentlessly encourages and comforts a series of shattered women. Perhaps, we come to think, it isn’t mistrust of men that drives her, but rather a belief in sisterhood.
This is all to the good, but without any concrete antagonism, the show’s main narrative tension evaporates. Side plots involving Spectre’s sleazy lawyer go nowhere, as do myriad other plot-lines that have dangled throughout the series. Apparently, the whole Glasgow bureau is under investigation for misconduct, but no one watching the show is there for bureaucratic reprimands. What we want to know is that Spectre will pay–but in the end, even this turns ambiguous.
Gibson finally gets a meeting with the “can-he-or-can’t-he remember?” Spectre, her hard work and keen insight slicing open his disguise. He remembers everything, of course. Anything else, Gibson tells him, is just “a performance.” There is a glorious, electrifying moment when a no-bullshit Gibson dares Spectre to take responsibility for his crimes–and a last minute explosion of violence that momentarily jolts the show back to life–but then things subside to a disappointing crawl as Spectre evades justice by hanging himself. This seems to go completely against his M.O.–and Gibson later regards his body with disappointment. But this is The Fall, so it’s hard to tell: is she devastated or relieved? There’s no hashing out of themes, no final showdown–and the ambiguity, at last, becomes the show’s Achilles heel. Spectre and Gibson have always been mysteries but we leave them hardly more illuminated than when we first met. In a way, this is a fitting ending–but with nothing definite to cling to, the show ultimately falls flat.