Generally speaking, I don’t recommend staying up late at night by oneself to watch a television show about a serial killer. Unless that show is “The Fall.”
“The Fall” is a BBC show with one five-episode season under its belt — barely a blip, by American television standards — and a second due in 2015. The first series aired last year and is available on Netflix; I’d had it recommended to me often (in large part because of its leading actress) but didn’t feel up for an intense thriller until recently. And hot damn if it wasn’t worth it.
“The Fall” is unlike any other serial killer show in that it is unabashedly, whole-heartedly feminist — a difficult theme to pull off when the premise is about the brutal murder of women. When lesser shows, like “SVU”, attempt to make feminist hay out of violence against women, the result is often preachy, predictable, and cliched. Not so “The Fall.”
This is largely due to the show’s central character, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (portrayed by none other than Ms. Agent Scully herself, Gillian Anderson). Gibson transcends all the common narrative stereotypes about women: she’s sexual but not manipulative, she’s compassionate but efficient, she’s feminine but self-assured and painstakingly honest; she’s not only “powerful”, but also fully empowered. She is not a woman with much self-doubt, but her forthrightness is not presented as villainy or bitchiness — rather, it is integral to her moral compass. Moreover, and perhaps more radical still, Gibson is not the only woman on the case. Archie Panjabi plays the Belfast medical examiner (the show is set in Northern Ireland; Gibson is English, reviewing the case on behalf of the Metropolitan Police), and the rapport between the two characters and the two actresses is, if you’ll pardon the pun, arresting. There are also a handful of female junior officers, including one who impresses Gibson with her honesty and dedication and becomes her assistant. That this officer is also gay is incidental (although some — such as the reviewer of the New York Times — have difficulty understanding as much: the critic attributed the character’s devotion to her job and admiration for Gibson to “being in love,” which is a grotesque condescension).
The killer himself also makes feminist arguments. The show is not a conventional whodunit — we know from the outset who is committing the crimes — and we see the murderer in his daily life, where he is not a monster but a husband, father, and professional bereavement counselor. He is young and handsome; he is not what comes to mind most readily when one imagines a sexual predator. In fact, the entire character seemed an object lesson in counterpoint to the #NotAllMen campaign of earlier this year — more often than not, it is impossible for women to discern which men are dangerous until it is far too late. Paranoia in sexual politics is safer than trust.
The idea that the killer seems, by all accounts, to be a stable and desirable man is played out in a subplot involving his fifteen-year-old babysitter. She has a transparent crush on him, and in her emergent sexuality — which the killer has encouraged by inviting her to listen to music at his house (with his children present) and giving her beer — she invites him to have sex with her. That he declines is less a matter of moral scruple and more owing to his psychological necessity to maintain his worlds as entirely separate: he is either devoted family man or a strangler of young successful women, but the two identities must remain separate for him. (Indeed, it is their inevitable overlap which causes him to panic and fall directly into Gibson’s setup — which the New York Times reviewer also misinterpreted, stating that his call to the police was a sign that he remained “one step ahead” when two whole episodes showcased Gibson’s strategizing to draw him out. Either this and other critics were doing something else while they watched the show, or they projected their gendered assumptions onto the story, secure in the knowledge that it would play out as these things always do. Except: not at all.)
That the killer rejects his babysitter for amoral reasons is transparent in the scene where he visits her house to tell her that he cannot see her again. Instead of taking adult responsibility, or acknowledging that he led on an adolescent girl, he turns it on her; she “drives him crazy,” she leaves him unable to think straight, she is too young and too nubile for him to even tolerate. In this formulation, the fault lies not in the killer — not in his own predation or lack of self-control — but in the body of a teenager, in its pathological femaleness. It is an argument that is so fucking common it is no wonder that many male reviewers saw it as a demonstration of the killer’s “depth” — i.e., his relatability — rather than his psychopathy.
The show doesn’t make the same mistake. Gibson calls the killer out for exactly what he is: a misogynist, an artless woman-hater, a man with no control over himself. That he cares about his young daughter, or that he helps a client leave an abusive husband, does not erase the fact that he strangles women for fun, and what the show manages to pull off (fairly remarkably) is to portray the killer as a rounded human being without offering any sympathy. Sure, he had a shitty childhood, but a reason is not an excuse, and the story makes no excuses for misogyny: whether it is the strangulation of women or the suggestion that they should not have sexual agency, Gibson is unafraid to address the bullshit of the men around her directly, without stridency or scolding but simply with truth. She is a steel fist in a silk glove.
Moreover, just as we see other women working with Gibson to bring justice, we’re also shown how other men are — unwittingly — complicit in the killer’s advantages. The show opens with him burglarizing a woman’s home; he steals nothing of value but arranges her underwear and a dildo on her bed, which is sufficiently freakish that when she arrives home and discovers the outlay, she calls the police. While the female officer (Gibson’s future assistant) is concerned but curtly professional, her male partner trivializes the woman’s concerns: “Could your cat have done it?” he asks, a diagnosis of hysteria sufficient for the woman to decide she has overreacted and will stay in her home, rather than with her sister — a decision which, of course, leads to fatal consequences.
The male police officer certainly did not intend for this young woman to die. He was merely making a joke; he thought it was nothing. His inability to trust a woman’s perception of her own situation was a very real causative factor in her death, but then, men’s inability to trust women’s perceptions of themselves in general is a very real factor in everyday life.
“What will you tell your daughters, to keep them safe?” Gibson asks Panjabi’s medical examiner, as they revisit one of the crime scenes. Gibson stands in front of a display of high-heeled shoes, but she’s already made it more than clear that she’s not interested in judgment. The question is less of a question than an expression of futility; for these two women who have seen so much violence, so much of it specifically directed at women, there is no easy answer. Women are often blamed if they wear heels or tight clothes, as the babysitter was, but women in burqas are not any safer. The entire question is a trap, a setup that never serves women but only those who turn them into victims.
It is not a perfect show, but it’s worth watching.