not in our stars, but in ourselves
I had promised to write more about The Fall, and kept putting it off, and putting it off, as is my wont. Today, however, I was looking at the new issue of cléo (great stuff, by the way), and read “‘Die to Yourself’: The 21st Century Feminist Crime Drama’s Dream of Justice“. I would strongly recommend reading it yourself, but I’ll sum it up for you: three recent television crime dramas, sort of within the procedural format, have female (and feminist) law enforcement officers as their main character. Happy Valley has Catherine Cawood in Yorkshire, The Fall has Stella Gibson (from London) in Belfast, and Top of the Lake has Robin Griffin in New Zealand. In each case, her “femaleness” gives her unique insight into not only the crimes she’s investigating, but into society’s ills in general. Kathleen Kampeas-Rittenhouse, the article’s author, argues however that law enforcement is always necessarily a patriarchal institution, and does nothing to prevent these crimes against women in the first place. In the case of The Fall, Gibson not only tacitly upholds the patriarchal status quo, but also the colonial status quo: Northern Ireland was, and is, and will probably continue to be, rather an unruly fragment of the “United” Kingdom. Valid points, one and all.
However, I will tell you, dear reader: I unabashedly loved The Fall. Last month, the BBC announced that there would be a third season (fine, “series”), so perhaps it will take some of these critiques to heart. Really, though, it’s working with a pretty strong hand as is, and I’m excited to see where else it goes.
In case you missed it the first time, The Fall is about Gibson (Gillian Anderson) and Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan). Spector is a serial killer who targets attractive, professional women in their early 30s, all with pale skin and dark hair. He stalks them, learns about them, breaks into their homes, tortures them psychologically for a while, and then strangles them. After she’s dead, he cleans his victim, cleans her sheets, paints her nails, and arranges her body artfully. Throughout, he takes photos and videos of the victim and her home. The Belfast police haven’t had any luck solving the first of what will turn out to be a series of murders: hence, Gibson comes over from London to lead the inquiry into the police work itself. While she’s in town, Spector strikes again, and she insists that they treat this as an active serial killer case. Someone as cool, blonde, self-possessed and -assured as Stella is bound to attract notice – especially when she’s been sent over from the Met to make sure all those naughty bumbling Belfast cops are doing their jobs properly – and Spector himself takes notice of her. He calls her, he breaks into her hotel room, he does his best to make sure she knows he can figure her out. On one of his taunting phone calls, Gibson snaps at him, “You try to dignify what you do, but it’s just misogyny. Age-old male violence against women. For Fiona Gallagher, Alice Monroe, Sarah Kay, Annie Brawley – I won’t let you.”
I take Kampeas-Rittenhouse’s point that none of The Fall is revolutionary – but it is refreshing, if nothing else, to see a woman who’s eloquent and daring enough to tell a real-life serial killer that what he’s doing isn’t special. It’s just misogyny. Slightly more exotic than some of the other garden-variety samples that make up the basis of Western civilization – but just misogyny all the same. He can imagine himself to be an artist and a genius, but – as it turns out – he’s just a suburban dad with a sad childhood and a gullible wife. Sure, he has more imagination than most other depressed suburban dads, but that’s all he is. Stella, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to let everyone know that she’s extraordinary. Her clothes are always impeccable. Her body is, while blessed genetically with a perfect hourglass figure, kept in rigorous shape with frequent long swims. Her speech is careful and measured, delivered in the poshest of accents. Her emotional needs are mysterious, but she isn’t at all ashamed to profit from other men’s physical response to her. Her intellect is beyond doubt or reproach. Her ability to command a room is as powerful as any general’s – and she doesn’t even need to threaten anyone for them to obey her word.
This brings me to one of the most interesting things about The Fall: while Stella makes occasional small errors in judgment, she is right about 95% of the time. Instincts, orders, analyses, everything. The other women of The Fall, even if not as extraordinary as Stella, are far more squarely on the side of goodness and rightness. Stella’s co-worker, Dr. Reed Smith, is a hardworking and clearheaded pathologist who acts as Stella’s conscience – when Stella has trouble listening to or locating her own. One of the Belfast patrol officers, Dani Ferrington, is strong enough to admit that it tears her up to see what Spector has done to these women – but who still wants to do whatever she can to help the case. Spector’s wife, Sally Ann, is a neonatal nurse whose lack of perception and imagination where her husband is concerned are outweighed by her loyalty and compassion for her children and the frantic new mothers hovering around the NICU at her hospital. She is horrified when she finds out that Paul has been living a double life – and supremely horrified when she realizes it was the life of a stalker and serial killer, rather than a mere statutory rapist (his initial cover story was that he’d been having an affair with the 15-year-old babysitter). Speaking of that babysitter, Katie is about as accurate a portrait of a teenage girl as you can get: chaotic and impulsive, prone to taking insane risks without considering the real consequences, but still vulnerable, still a child. She should be chasing after boys her own age, but Paul pinpoints that the boys are more likely to chase after her “sexy” blonde friend. Like any predator, he grooms her to work with and for him – and it’s not her fault that she succumbs. You get the idea: these are complex, interesting women who may struggle, but who follow their moral compasses as closely as possible. They really do try to do the right thing, and regret it keenly if they feel that they’ve erred somehow.
The men, on the other hand, are almost always wrong: morally, procedurally, emotionally – in every possible way. For a start, there’s Mr. “Just Misogyny” himself, Paul Spector. It’s a shame he had such a difficult childhood. It’s not an excuse for him to become the brute that he is – and clearly, if pushed to it, he would fall back on that as an excuse: boo-hoo, my mummy never loved me, so I kill women, boo-hoo-hoo. More than just the serial killer, however, The Fall presents a wide array of other men of death, slavery, and the pursuit of misery. There’s Jimmy Tyler, leader of some sort of gang of thugs/republicans, who beats his wife and blames her for their child’s death of meningitis. There’s Jim Burns, Stella’s boss in Belfast, who had an affair with her years before – and was prepared to leave his wife, so he says, for what Stella clearly considered a sex-only relationship. He compromises the case by speaking with powerful men connected to one of the murder victims. He gets drunk and tries to force himself on Stella (and she responds by breaking his nose). Through all of this, he’s presented not as bad, but as weak. The women here are never weak, not even the victims: one of them, when she’s bound and sobbing as Paul films her, screams that she loves and is loved, and nothing he does can change that or take it away from her. Imagine any of these men (or any man you know) doing the same.
In short, no, The Fall isn’t the feminist call to arms that we all might yearn for – but it is subversive, in more ways than just featuring a female cop as the lead. The women are presented as stronger emotionally, if not physically, and as having a much surer sense of right and wrong – unless they happen to be adolescent (Katie) or grief-stricken (Mrs. Tyler). The men are presented as essentially weak. All their cruelty boils down to weakness. All their hatred is self-hatred. All their possessive desire masks a desperate fear that they can’t love, can’t receive love, don’t deserve love, don’t understand love. I don’t mean to imply that The Fall is misandrist in nature, just that it restores women to their proper place in the natural order of the human species, before patriarchally minded men panicked. There was never any “fall of man” – just men trying to push women and keep them down. Good luck with that, boys.