not in our stars, but in ourselves
I understand from the internet that there was a new episode of some show called Mad Men last night. Did I watch it? Of course not. I watched two episodes of the now-two-years-old BBC series, The Fall. (Also, I am being facetious about Mad Men. I use the internet. I know it came back last night, to much fanfare. But I fell asleep about five minutes in – not because it was bad or boring, but because I’m 105 and have trouble staying up past ten o’clock.) Now, I’m not such a snob that I would ever think something was better simply because it was from the cousins across the pond – but I do think that The Fall provides some interesting, uniquely Anglo-Irish twists on the usual police procedural, and I’m eager to see the rest. For those of you who haven’t seen it, and who would like to, there are spoilers ahead – even though I’ve seen only two episodes. You’ve been warned.
In Belfast, the murder investigation of Alice Monroe has gone on for more than a month, with no real breaks or promising leads. Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is brought in from London’s Metropolitan Police Service to investigate the investigation, so to speak, and to ensure that the Belfast police haven’t missed anything, neglected anything, or done anything improperly. Monroe was an attractive woman with important connections, and her unsolved murder is an embarrassing scandal. As Gibson prepares to go to Belfast, we meet Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) – while he’s breaking into a currently empty house. The house’s owner, Sarah Kay (Laura Donnelly), is out at the pub on a Friday night. She, like Monroe, is an attractive brunette in her early 30s with a successful career. Spector takes photos of himself in Sarah’s house, removes her underwear from her drawers, caresses some of them and puts some of them in his backpack. When she returns home that night, a matching set of bra and panties has been laid out on her bed, with her vibrator underneath. She calls the police, who take her concern seriously enough to check the house and to advise changing her locks and/or staying with a friend for a while, but not so seriously that they think it couldn’t have been just a bit too much drink making her paranoid. Spector, by this time, has returned home – to his two young children, and his wife, a neonatal nurse whose strange hours permit him to go out unnoticed most nights.
That’s all just from the first episode. As you can probably tell, the show doesn’t waste time, or pad things unnecessarily. But the show also doesn’t fall into the usual procedural trap: that of showing only the cops’ struggle to catch a killer. We get at least equal time between “the good guys” and the lone bad guy, often cutting between the two, as if to underscore how very alike they both are. This serves several functions. For one: showing that “the good guys” aren’t exactly shining beacons of virtue, or intellect, or dedication. True, Gibson is a cool-headed, gifted, tremendously intelligent cop (and while that sounds, on paper, awfully similar to Anderson’s most famous role as one of the FBI’s least wanted – it’s nothing like Scully on the screen), but she has to fight against local police with their own agendas and schemes. We’ve seen this before, of course, on everything from The Wire to True Detective, but those narratives usually involved victims no one cared about – no one except A Few Good Cops. Here, we see that the police are often just as dysfunctional when investigating a murder that the public is clamoring for them to solve – and that feels, to me, much more like real life.
For another function served by the equal screentime between light and dark: Spector isn’t just some shadowy monster. Thus far, at least, there’s no attempt to rationalize or excuse his predatory habits. But we get to see a serial rapist and murderer doing all the horrifying things we read about in the newspaper – and then go back to a completely ordinary routine with two small children and a wife. The series will delve further into Spector’s psyche, I’m sure, but for now I’m fascinated by what must happen all the time with these serial something-or-others: the people around them, the people who see them every day, are so blind that they don’t, or can’t, or won’t see the evil lurking behind the mask of sanity. You would think that, if you were married to someone who obsessively stalked other women, and broke into their homes, and stole their underwear, and tied them up and raped them and then painstakingly cleaned the bodies and crime scenes, and then came back home to you – you would think that you’d notice something. Right? But it’s not always – or even often – the case. People see what they want to see. At least, grown-up people do. Spector’s children, an older girl and a younger boy, seem to sense something is awry, in that eerie way that kids do. The daughter has been having terrible nightmares lately, and has drawn disturbing pictures at school. The boy woke up, frightened, and waited up for Daddy to come home…when Daddy was out stealing some stranger’s knickers.
In short: The Fall is great so far. As usual, I’m years behind everyone else, but I’ve gotten to it now, okay? Geez. I certainly love my American procedurals, but there’s something else here, something that’s usually lacking in everything except The Wire. In America, we tend to be very black-or-white, either-or, my-way-or-the-highway; and I think that tends to create a falsely manichaen fictional universe – one that spills over into how we think of the real one we live in. Even if the U.K. and Ireland’s political life has fallen into the same puerile tropes as ours, they’ve at least kept sufficiently in touch with their literary traditions to remember that things are always much more complicated than good versus bad.
P.S. My boyfriend remarked, and I agree, and I’m sure others do as well, that Dornan’s character here is basically Christian Grey – he’s just not rich, and it’s not presented as ~*~romantic~*~~. Same character, though.