(And Why It’s a Good Show for Writers)
If you don’t know what The Fall is, it’s a BBC/RTE (Irish) series available on Netflix. It’s basically the classic cat-mouse game of police versus serial killer. Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Flynn, is a Detective Superintendent for the Metropolitan police out of London. She’s sent to Ireland to help solve the mystery of the murders of several dark-haired, successful young women in the city.
**Warning: spoilers ahead for the first two seasons**
When I started The Fall, I wasn’t super sure how I’d feel about DSI Gibson. I’m not always a big fan of stories featuring female protagonists, in particular female detectives. It’s hard for me to articulate why exactly I feel this way: I don’t like the girly-girl detectives who are written off as too soft or too emotional to do their jobs, but neither am I a fan of women who act like men but without the penis. All too often, writers don’t get the female-in-traditionally-male-roles right.
So back to Stella Gibson. I personally haven’t seen any character quite like her. She’s stoic, reserved, keeps her emotions well hidden, and yet still exudes the power and authority of a capable leader. She’s not a male in female clothing, but rather a complicated female who does exhibit some male traits, but she’s unashamed, and in fact calls them for what they are.
Take, for example, when DSI Gibson seduces a young, married detective by inviting him up to her hotel room. She has sex with him, but when, the next day, that same detective is shot and killed in the street by an unknown assailant, Gibson must confess her indiscretion. She knows, as a woman, what that will bring down upon her. And she also knows what the revelation will potentially do to her credibility as a detective. And yet, she does it anyway.
You could ask yourself if the role of DSI Gibson were a man, would the reactions have been the same? It’s the age-old hypocritical maxim: when a man sleeps with a woman, he’s just being a man; when a woman sleeps with a man, she’s a slut.
Further into the series, Gibson asks for a younger, good-looking man to be a part of her team. Her colleague looks at her for a long moment, an unanswered question lingering in the air. It’s not even that DSI Gibson is seducing men. It’s the fact that she’s older, she’s in a position of power and authority, and she’s unashamed of her actions. It emasculates men, which makes the fact that she’s after a man killing successful women all the more intriguing.
Which brings us around to our serial killer.
Paul Specter is as stoic and reserved as his police counterpart, and yet he has the one thing DSI Gibson does not: a family. And therein lies the ultimate villainy present in The Fall. Paul Specter is a father, a bereavement counselor, and every man we pass on the street. To the outside world, he’s normal in all senses of the word.
Except for the fact that he uses his evenings to stalk and kill young women.
He even has a proto-typical relationship with the babysitter, which also begs the question: is his unresolved lust the reason he’s killing, or is she just another pawn in his twisted game?
The babysitter looks very similar to the women Specter has killed, and yet the show keeps us guessing as to whether or not she’s the trigger that unleashed the beast. And when she suspects that maybe Paul isn’t who he claims to be, Paul takes her under his wing, playing her infatuation to his advantage.
At last, near the end of the season two, we start to get a glimpse of Specter’s inner workings (interesting side note: we don’t get that same glimpse into DSI Gibson, as you might expect). Specter lays out his manifesto to the babysitter, and it fits in brilliantly with everything we’ve learned about him so far.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise (and yet it sorta does) that Specter takes pleasure in other people’s pain. He says, “Happiness in others is an affront to our misery” and when the babysitter protests that she doesn’t take pleasure in others’ pain, Specter points out that, yes, she does.
How would she feel if her pretty friend were doused in acid, got fat, or had something horrible happen to her?
If you’re honest with yourself, how would that make you feel?
In this simple scene, The Fall goes from a television show about the evil out there, to a television show about the evil within all of us.
This manifesto makes his career as a bereavement counselor all the more perfect: One of the very things that makes this character so scary (and realistic) is the fact that he’s a work-a-day kind of guy…and yet, his very career speaks directly to his disorder. It’s what they tell writers all the time: your character’s life needs to have evolved organically from the very core of their being.
Once the detective and the villain are thrust together, things get even better. Specter uses Gibson’s weakness, her history, and her vulnerabilities against her. He (as all great villains do) tells her that she’s just like him: they’re both looking for empowerment, they both despise the opposite gender, and in a way, they’ve both been hiding their true selves from the world.
However, things get complicated in a more traditional way when Gibson sleeps with the young, good-looking detective she brought onto the case. This occurs shortly after Specter strips her of her power by calling out her weaknesses, her daddy-obsession, her similarity to him.
The next morning, the young detective asks her flat out about why she said he was similar to Specter. She of course deflects but then, at the very end of season two, Specter and the young detective are shot.
And who does Gibson run to first?
You guessed it: Paul Specter.
As a writer, The Fall is a great study in how to shake things up within a genre while still remaining true to its expectations. It’s a fantastic study in psychology, in how to write a well-rounded female character, and a villain who’s both evil and yet justifiably so (even if only within his mind). I’ve not yet completed the entire series arc, but I’m already blown away by the deftness and skill of the writers.
(If you’re interested in more about villains, check out my blog on the villainy of Shakespeare’s Iago here).