The Fall made its debut on Netflix today. All five episodes are available for streaming there.
Debuting its full, five-episode first season only a few days after 15 new Arrested Development installments appeared, Netflix isn’t doing many favors to The Fall, which already aired earlier this month on BBC Two. Then again, the idea of “programming” is still new to the service, so it’s perhaps best to think less about the close proximity of each release and more about the content of this latest stateside import. Those looking for a pulse-pounding look at the investigation into a serial killer stalking the streets of Belfast will be sorely disappointed. But those looking for an atmospheric, brooding, slow-paced psychological study will find many rewards.
But to be sure: This sucker is slow-paced. The first two hours make Rectify look like Scandal. The fact that all five episodes are available for immediate consumption may provide an easier path toward wading through the initial two installments; on the other hand, the sheer volume of other content on Netflix might also give a viewer tens of thousands of reasons to watch anything else but another minute of this show. There’s a central spine of a story here to which everything adheres, but pulling that story into focus takes a lot of time, and I would easily understand why someone might stop before things start getting good.
It’s important to understand up front that this isn’t a “whodunit,” but rather a “whydunit.” The Fall reveals the identity of the killer within the first few minutes of the first episode. If you don’t want to know anything about the identity of this killer, it’s probably best to stop reading right now. But rest assured, to identify who it is here doesn’t really spoil The Fall in any meaningful sense. Who this killer is matters only insomuch as it gives the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) someone to track. But in reality, The Fall is about duality, or “doubling,” as Gillian Anderson’s Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson terms it at one point late in the fifth installment.
After working her way through several British-made costume dramas, the erstwhile Agent Scully makes her post-X-Files debut as a series lead in The Fall, which has already been renewed for a second season. The series doesn’t just explore the distance between how Gibson and others present themselves to the public and how they expose themselves in private—The Fall also uses doubling as a primary storytelling technique, often depicting the lives of Gibson and Paul Spector (played by Once Upon A Time’s Jamie Dornan) as parallel paths slowing bending towards one another. This doubling technique deploys compare/contrast analysis that, at times, feels horrifically academic. But over the course of five hours, the technique eventually turns into something close to poetry, as the series figures out ways to make each story less an underline of the other but more of an echo, one increasingly loud in the ears of the respective parties.
Rolled into both stories is an examination of violence inflicted upon women, both physically and psychically. Spector’s killer targets professional women that possess similar physical characteristics but also certain social status. To its credit, The Fall doesn’t reduce Spector’s drive to ritualistically kill these women into a single, easily definable reason. He maintains journals in the attic of his home that suggest a morbid variation on Griffin And Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence. He poses women after their deaths, but only after bathing them and painting their nails. His overly empathetic nature links him in some ways to Hannibal’s Will Graham, but whereas Graham can understand the psychology of serial killers, Spector seems to thrive on the pain and anguish he inspires in his female victims.
Gibson’s gender/sexuality is omnipresent yet rarely explicitly commented upon. Information is departed in terms of glances, body language, and eye contact more than verbalization. But that simply makes those moments in which the subtext becomes text all the more powerful. There’s a moment in the third hour in which Gibson turns the tables on a colleague investigating her intimate relationship with another officer that’s bracing because it’s honest and it points out the duplicitous ways people embrace morally gray behavior onscreen and off. “That’s what really bothers you, isn’t it? The one-night stand,” she calmly notes. “‘Man fucks woman.’ Subject: man. Verb: fucks. Object: woman. That’s okay. ‘Woman fucks man.’ Subject: woman. Verb: fucks. Object: man. That’s not so comfortable for you, is it?” The things she does in order to succeed (or simply exist) within the violent world she travels are colored by her gender. The Fall understands this, and brings this uncomfortable dichotomy to the surface. Gibson isn’t a female antihero. She’s a human with recognizable strengths and frailties. She’s confronting her colleague and the audience at the same time.
Unfortunately, the reason for this line of inquiry leads to one of the series’ weakest elements, a secondary story that has nothing to do with the serial killer but rather the nature of corruption within PSNI that involves drugs, prostitution, dirty cops, and another half-dozen issues seemingly wedged in to give the show more depth. Regrettably, this storyline has the opposite effect, drawing focus away from a tightly-drawn psychological study that could easily have sustained the overall five-hour running time. To be sure, elements from this secondary plot intersect at points with the primary one. But they don’t do so in ways that illuminate the other. Rather, they messily pile up and clutter what could have been an otherwise clean, albeit harrowing, investigation into what makes Gibson and Spector tick.
It hardly derails the show as a whole, but does represent the weakest part of the season overall. Time spent on this storyline might have been better spent on Archie Panjabi’s pathologist, who aids Gibson in her investigation. Any scene involving Anderson and Panjabi leaps off the screen, even if the majority of their screentime is spent focused on the investigation rather than their personal demons. Sadly, Panjabi only gets a handful of scenes in this series, so fans of The Good Wife should brace for that unfortunate reality.
The Fall excels when exploring the fears people have of showing their true selves to anyone, and falters when trying to be a complex crime drama. A show like The Wire balanced the personal and professional with equal aplomb, since it understood the latter inherently flowed from the former. Gibson’s pursuit of Spector is less about the mechanics of catching him and more about the process of understanding him. Getting inside his head means confronting the less savory aspects of her own. But as The Fall suggests, these two are far from the only ones afraid to gaze inwards. "No one knows what’s going on in another’s mind,” says Gibson at one point. “And life would be intolerable if we did." For people both in and out of this show, the view can be just too scary sometimes.
- Far be it for anyone to suggest how you watch these episodes, but I can’t imagine binge-watching will actually aid your enjoyment. It’s a dark show that occasionally moves at the approximate speed of continental drift. Neither of those things are inherently bad, but they might make a five-hour marathon something of a slog. Then again, you’re all still watching the Bluths at this point, aren’t you?
- Given that this show is set in Northern Ireland, it’s curious how Belfast politics rarely get more than a passing mention here.
- Spector’s profession might draw eye rolls, but it feeds into the way he can reasonably keep his family in the dark about his extracurricular activities. Likewise, his wife’s role as a neonatal nurse has some unexpectedly poignant resonances with the central storytelling.
- There isn’t much in the way of visual flourish here, but there are some nifty shots tracking the activity inside the Spector household and an overall feeling of grime in each frame.
- The less said about Spector’s conflicted, confusing relationship with his underage babysitter, the better. I understand why it’s there, but it didn’t make me like a single second of it all the same.
- There’s an interesting relationship between Gibson and Niamh McGrady’s Constable Danielle Ferrington that feels like it could be its own show. In fact, giving McGrady and Panjabi increased roles in the second season would benefit the show immensely. The way Anderson plays off both of these women suggests constantly shifting depths of meaning, manipulation, and magnetism.