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The Triumph of The Fall

The show’s third season turns male-led serial killer narratives on their head.

Helen Sloan / Netflix

A couple of years ago, as the second season of the popular Netflix/BBC series The Fall was airing in the UK, a criminologist named David Wilson attacked the show in the Daily Mail. His complaint was predictable. “It is brutal misogyny turned into entertainment, murderous cruelty elevated into pleasurable viewing,” Wilson wrote. He called the show “rape porn.” He said it not only glamorized violence but falsely assumed that women are attracted to violent men. In short he leveled at it every criticism that is typically made about serial killer fiction and drama.

It took two years for Allan Cubitt, the show’s creator, to respond, but when he was asked about the article at a recent screening, he became visibly upset. “It’s something I had to talk to my daughter about, who I’m glad to say counseled me very well on why I shouldn’t give it any more thought,” Cubitt reportedly said. “I was very upset by the implications. Because after all, whose fantasy would it be but mine?”

The question of fantasy is a good one here. The Fall is unquestionably fantastical, a dispatch from an alternate reality where the police are both effective and caring. It is the story of a policewoman diligently and carefully pursuing a suspect, pulling out all the stops to see that he meets the full force of justice. But as such, it held within it the seeds of a saga that could, like its close cousin Prime Suspect, plausibly spin out for years. This fall, the third season has been airing in the UK, and all six episodes were released on Netflix over the weekend. Cubitt says though this season will be Jamie Dornan’s last, it might not be the show’s, though nothing is yet set in stone. The show can obviously survive without him. It turns out the serial killer is an interchangeable element of the story. The absolutely essential element is the woman who’s hunting him.

In fact, this season’s conclusion showed that all of the disposable elements in this show are the men, which rather heads off at the pass the criminologist’s claim that the show is misogynistic, up to and including up to Dornan’s frightening but admittedly sexy Paul Spector. In general, on The Fall, men are either stupid, drunk, emotionally lacking or outright predators. Several of them have more than one of these qualities. It is not that Cubitt seems to hate men, not exactly. But they do not interest him as much as the women on the show, and so they get reduced to plot levers.

In that framework the mainstay is DCI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), our stone-faced investigator with a heart of gold. She has miles of elegant silk blouses. Even her muttering way of speaking is magnificent. Everything about her is cool competence, a careful, watchful sort of intelligence. In this she is like a more assertive, aggressive Scully, no longer the sidekick to an inspired, wayward Mulder, but leading her own investigations. The uber-competent woman has a lot of traction in popular culture at the moment, enough so that I found myself wishing that this character could unite with Sarah Lancashire’s in Happy Valley, and Elisabeth Moss’s from Top of the Lake, and perhaps Allison Janney’s from Spy to add a little comic relief, and go on the prowl. They could really put an end to some bad stuff.

Still, Gibson has critics. In the last scene of the second season, we left her covered in Spector’s blood, shouting, “We’re losing him.” Throughout this season, that exclamation is treated as proof that Stella is somehow disturbingly obsessed with her prey. The nature of her “obsession,” if it can indeed be called that, is put into question in this last installment of Spector’s story. Her colleagues and Spector’s defense attorneys believe she acted inappropriately. The show has sometimes seemed unsure about whether it agreed with them. But she nonetheless takes a souvenir of Spector—a note someone else hands him—back to London with her, to pin on a refrigerator. “He that loves not abides in death,” it reads.

But that sort of thing is the only occasional interruption of what The Fall has always been: an inversion of a serial-killer story formula, the one we’ve had at least since Silence of the Lambs. Those books and that film treated Hannibal Lecter as more interesting than Clarice. He had read all the books, spoke in the most elaborate sentences. He was presented to the audience as the person in possession of the whole story. She would only manage to outwit him with great difficulty. This was, almost literally, a patriarchal setup. The serial killer is the father, the teacher, and the investigator a child he both prizes and toys with.

Paul Spector was never a Hannibal Lecter, though he often seemed to want to be. He quoted Nietzsche a lot, especially in the beginning. But, and it was rarely clear whether or not this was Cubitt’s intention, there was a certain hollowness at the core of Spector’s pretensions. Obviously he was a disturbed man, but he was not a particularly bright one, and more than once in his arrogance overplayed his hand. He was not really much of a match, in the end, for Gibson. She was always, clearly, going to win.

Even when he does manage to elude her for a while in this third season, it isn’t for long. Spector claims amnesia about the events of the six years before his arrest, a convenient period which keeps him from being able to speak about any of the crimes he’s accused of. The show never really answers the question of whether or not he actually has this amnesia. Instead, seeing that she’s not about to win on the medical evidence, Gibson handily outsmarts Spector by finding a murder that falls outside the period he says he’s forgotten, and pinning it on him. This prompts Spector to an outburst of rage that dooms him, which was clearly all Gibson was ever looking for.

Even in his final act, which I’m not going to spoil, it’s never clear if it is Gibson or himself that Spector is toying with. Cubitt has often justified the show’s violence by saying that in order to understand a serial killer, we have to see things from his perspective. And from Spector’s perspective, the world is full of dead bodies, artfully arranged, and furtive nighttime movements. The show’s attempt to explain why he’s like this is ultimately clumsy and incomplete: something about his mother, something about an abusive priest. We never quite get the payoff explanation that we have often been promised, which is the one way in which this show actually seems to echo real life. At the end of the day, the bad childhood is rarely quite enough. It does not explain a Manson, a Bundy, or a Paul Spector.

“That’s Disney, this is the real story,” a child says towards the end of The Fall’s finale. It’s a beautiful sentiment, obviously meant to encapsulate the show’s unresolved issues. Even if it’s not quite Disney, there is a fantasy here, an almost-misandrist one in the best possible sense. After all, mostly the viewer stops caring about Spector the moment he disappears from the scene. The person we’ve been following, wondering about through sometimes glacially-paced scenes, through a lot of great businesswear, is Stella. The show seems to know there’s more to say about her, too. With any luck, Cubitt actually get the chance to say it.