I don’t generally make time out for homegrown (British) series these days, as they are too frequently starved of inspiration and/or good writing. Why bother coming up with something original (and sweating over it) when you can just copy your American cousins? But The Fall was recommended to me, so I dutifully watched the first four episodes on BBC iPlayer. And they were, with some misgivings, gripping viewing. Then came the fifth, and realisation dawned that this series was actually wrought from a place of empty, cynical manipulation rather than an attempt to come up with a fresh angle on a tried and tested subgenre.
Allan Cubitt’s premise isn’t so far removed from the greatest of recent screen detectives, Cracker. Insightful individual working with the police is on the trail of a serial killer, whom we see throughout. Some mystery is offered, but the key ingredients revolve around the idiosyncracies of our hero/heroine and encouraging us to relate to, or at least understand, the killer in some way. Cubitt scores in the latter of these areas, but is considerably less successful in the former.
Jamie Dornan’s handsome psycho Paul Spector is the series’ main calling card. A young family man and bereavement counsellor, he leads a dual life as a strangler of women. And he is feeding a growing habit. Dornan’s performance is a strong one, and Cubitt repeatedly succeeds at pulling off the old Hitchcock trick of making us fear that the murderer will be caught. The fourth episode is particularly strong in this regard, and also the most stomach-churning in content.
There have been entirely legitimate debates about the depiction of violence against women in the wake of the series. Obviously, if you’re going to watch a series about a serial killer (since they are invariably male and prey on women), you’re likely to be forearmed regarding its content. And, in general, it seemed that this was appropriately uncomfortable viewing without the writer revelling in the most extreme situations he could think of (unlike the second season of Luther, which was wall-to-wall with that kind of plotting).
As such, I didn’t feel it was being gratuitous until the end of the run; the discovery that the resolution isn’t a resolution, it’s actually carrot dangling permanently out of reach, is a cheat. If the author chooses not to provide catharsis, he needs to at least leave the viewer with something of substance to mull over. But the final episode suggests a house of cards of inconsistencies and poor plotting (and dialogue); the police ought to have been able to wrap things up in another twenty minutes or so. It’s a shameless ploy in the worst sense; all the shocking moments depicted are just a game on the part of the writer after all, designed to prod the viewer to come back for more. There’s no moral dimension or insight, as in the scripts Jimmy McGovern wrote for Cracker.
By the “finale” (an inappropriate description if ever there was one) even Dornan is suffering under the weight of the increasingly rote dialogue and plotting. “We’re very alike”, he tells Gillian Anderson’s DSI. Yes, Cubitt actually went there.
Given the liberal forensic evidence, the lengthy voice recording, the video camera footage, his daughter’s artwork and the facial composite (a particularly credulity-stretching convenience, that a friend of Archie Panjabi’s forensic pathologist should have had an encounter with Dornan at university), you wonder that Dornan and family ever made it onto the ferry bound for Scotland. And a surviving victim has just woken up. Fitz certainly wouldn’t have needed two seasons to find him.
Which brings me to the problem of our protagonist. DSI Stella Gibson isn’t very well conceived. There’s little to really mark her out as a deductive maestro; her flourishes are almost entirely reactive, and she spends much of her time duelling with her boss and colleagues over the inherent sexism in the system. To that end, making her distinct by having her display a penchant for one-night stands isn’t particularly inspired. One might even argue it’s reductively sexist in itself (the only way to conceive of an independent, forthright woman is to show her being independent and forthright sexually). Add to that her emotional frostiness and you wonder if Cubitt hasn’t borrowed liberally from the Danish/Swiss The Bridge (aspergic beauty who likes a good shag is also a demon detective).
Anderson’s a much better actress than Sofia Helin, which is fortunate as the only thing that really singles out DSI Gibson is that Gillian lends her far more gravitas than there is on the page. In the first few episodes I thought Gibson’s tendency to reticence was an interesting character beat but, by the finale, when she’s on the phone to Spector liberally indulging in hyperbole (did she actually repeatedly goad him with “You fucked up”?) any aspiration towards depth has evaporated.
This crucial scene is appallingly written, wearing the series’ purported themes as a badge (as long as Gibson speechifies about “age old violence against women” it presumably lets Cubitt off the hook for revelling in it). The back and forth between Spector and Gibson is overwritten and turgid, allowing a Spector a Hannibal Lecter-like self-awareness of his motivation and the erudition to discuss it (“Art gives the chaos of the World an order that doesn’t exist” – come again?) while the best Gibson can come up with is “Is that really why you called me, to expound some half-baked philosophy?”
The cast are all very good; I should mention Bronagh Waugh as Spector’s wife, an unrewarding and reactive part performed with nuance. John Lynch, like Anderson, adds more texture to his irresolute boss than the writing deserves; a fellow officer even exclaims, “You’re weak!” in the fifth episode, as if we the viewers can’t be trusted to work it out for ourselves.
I have no idea where the secondary plotline regarding police corruption is going, if it’s going anywhere, and if it links in any way to our personable maniac. It’s rather random if it doesn’t (what, it’s just filler?) and further makes the case that the series has little respect for its audience. It’s curious that this series has staggered so badly; a scene early in the run has a victim’s sister engaged on the phone to a police call centre while help is on the way. It’s an excellent sequence, particularly the way in which the operator connects with the next caller in the line without pause once officers have arrived. The “big” telephone conversation between Gibson and Spector is so clumsy and facile that I don’t hold out much hope for a dramatic pay-off when he’s finally taken into custody. Perhaps they should call Fitz in.