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Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Fall (Season 1)

Starring Gillian Anderson, Jamie Dornan

Created by Allan Cubitt

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I am, in general, not a fan of serial killer stories. I am squeamish about the fearful final moments of victims that filmmakers and storytellers like to linger on, and these killer stories in particular tend to fetishize violence against women. And yet, somehow, I’ve found myself consuming and enjoying a lot of them lately. I’m currently hooked on Larime Taylor‘s comic series A Voice in the Dark, about a young late night college radio host struggling with her compulsion to kill. I recently finished reading The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, about a time-travelling killer driven to snuff out the lives of brilliant, vibrant young women.  And, most recently, I accidentally watched all of the BBC drama The Fall, in one sitting, right before I was supposed to go to bed.

In The Fall, Gillian Anderson plays Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, a coolly professional police officer brought to Belfast to formally assess an ongoing murder investigation. Soon, she is in charge of a task force chasing a serial killer, while an explosive scandal simmers in the department. Meanwhile, the killer himself puts his children to bed, kisses his sleeping wife, and opens his notebook to plot his next kill…

Part of what makes these killer thrillers palatable to me is that they actively work to confront or subvert the establish tropes of the killer genre. Every murder scene in The Shining Girls is from the victim’s perspective, not the killer’s, denying readers a voyeuristic thrill. Beukes’s says she hoped to establish the girls as “characters rather than pretty corpses”, and as a consequence, each death is painful, sad, and terribly frightening. A Voice in the Dark, though superficially similar to Dexter and other Heroic Psychopath stories, more deliberately attacks the demographics of the slasher genre, putting the knife in the hand of a young biracial girl and populating the story with women of all shapes, sizes, races, and sexual orientations. Also, like The Fall‘s creator, Allan Cubitt, Taylor is explicitly aware of the racism and sexism so often inherent in both these kinds of crimes and the fictional genre inspired by them.

“One of the ways the killer is able to perpetrate such crimes is by objectifying and dehumanising their prey,” Cubitt says, in an article before the finale of the first series. “I think it’s important that drama doesn’t do that.” This awareness shapes the way the story of The Fall is told, so that Spector’s victims are entirely human to us, characters not corpses. Although we spend a lot of time with the killer, and he is driven by a need to literally and explicitly objectify his victims, the show takes pains to ensure that we don’t see the victims the way he sees them. They are people brought to a horrifying end. And although the killer may try to erase their humanity, DSI Gibson never forgets.

Through Stella Gibson, the show is able to call out and criticize the violence against women endemic to the genre and the world at large. Gibson finds nothing poetic, sexy, or fascinating about these killings. “It’s just misogyny,” she says. “Anyone have any doubt about the gender of the person responsible?” Gibson rarely raises her voice, but she asserts her feminism constantly, refusing to allow her detectives to judge or shame the victims, refusing to dignify Spector’s misogynistic spree, refusing to express embarrassment for having a one-night stand with a fellow officer. We rarely catch glimpses of her personal life, but through her actions we come to know her as methodical, quick-thinking, and relentless. She is, in some ways, the antithesis of Luther as a police detective. Though equally as driven, Gibson isn’t volatile, and never risks destroying an investigation through egotistical grandstanding. That kind of behavior is left to corrupt police officials. And the killer.

The cool force of Gibson’s personality meshes with the tense, muted mood of the chase to create an atmosphere punctuated by startling thunderclaps of violence. While Gibson does vocally criticize the misogyny of the crimes, the story does most of its emotional and psychological work with greater subtlety. The men around Gibson, from the obsessive, murderous Spector to smoothly competent Detective Eastwood, are revealed to be wearing masks of fragile stoicism over barely controlled emotions. It’s a powerful recurring device that the louder a character is, the weaker his position. The Fall is a quiet storm, a carefully constructed cascade of emotional reactions that feel all the more real for being so actively and constantly suppressed.

The serial killer genre is prone to exploitation, to fetishization, to gimmick and cliche. The Fall is none of these qualities. What it, and The Shining Girls and A Voice in the Dark, share is a willingness to acknowledge the sexism and misogyny at the heart of these kinds of crimes and stories, and to address it directly. The viewer should be upset and horrified by the deaths we witness; we should feel that the victims are people, not props. We should see that women populate our fictional world as much as our real one, not just as the victim but also as the detective, the medical examiner, the constable, the hero. We should see the emotional truth of the characters, male and female, struggling against a violently misogynistic worldview. The Fall works at every level to deliver a compelling, tension-filled story that is laced throughout with the unfortunate truth: men are responsible for terrifying violence against women. It makes you grateful for Stella Gibson. She sees that truth with clear eyes, and like a scalpel, she means to cut it out.

The Fall is instantly viewable on Netflix, and for purchase on Amazon on DVD or digital download.

Orphan Black (Season 1)

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Starring Tatiana Maslany, Jordan Gavaris, Kevin Hanchard, Dylan Bruce, Maria Doyle Kennedy

Created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett

Orphan Black had me right from the beginning, introducing Sarah Manning and the central mystery of the show in three breath-taking minutes without a wasted moment. Even though there are only 10 episodes, each a little less than an hour long, the season feels full, deep, without feeling busy or crowded. Each episode is a cliffhanger, pulling the viewer deeper into the mystery of the orphans and the high tension acrobatics of impersonation and intrigue that inevitably arise in a series about lookalikes.

The series follows Sarah Manning, an orphan and hustler with a seven-year-old daughter she hasn’t seen in 10 months, a drug dealer boyfriend to whom she owes money, and the exact same face as a woman who just threw herself in front of a train. When she assumes the woman’s identity, hoping to scam enough money to reclaim her daughter and go on the run, she finds herself in trouble with the police, on the run from a killer, and being drawn into a conspiracy involving ever more women who look just like her.

Sarah is my favorite kind of hero. She’s rough around the edges, often casually or even compulsively deceptive, but despite her complicated relationship with her family, she is loyal and, no matter how many times she tries to walk away, unquestionably brave. She can’t walk away, not from her family, not from the orphans, not from the woman whose life she has stolen. Something binds her to the fight, some mixture of loyalty – to her family and genetic twins – and sheer punk rock rebelliousness against whoever is playing games with her life. It’s this combination that makes her the protagonist of the show, and a bonafide hero: even her fellow “copies” look to her for leadership; even the antagonists remark that she is special.

The antagonists, speaking of which, are nicely complicated, and despite the shadows cast by corporatism and mad science, I don’t detect much of the usual science fiction trope of What Hath Science Wrought that’s been part of the genre since its inception. Much like Fringe, which I’ve been watching a lot of lately, the science is as likely to be the solution as the problem. The real problems faced by the characters are much more existential than that, a tangled mess of shared genes, assumed identity, and unfathomable purpose. The villains are charming and monstrous in equal measure, capable of generating sympathy while remaining a very real and dangerous threat. It’s risky to make assumptions in the orphan’s world, and difficult to know who to trust. Who can best protect the orphans from the killer who seems set on eliminating them: the cheerful and charismatic transhumanist or the driven and eminently capable detective?  Who has their best interests at heart?

Tatiana Maslany is the core of the show, for obvious reasons, convincingly playing multiple characters, often in the same scene, each with her own motivations and neuroses, strengths and vulnerabilities. She plays both the protagonist and the supporting cast, although the other supporting characters, especially Felix, her foster brother, are also instantly recognizable and endearing. Orphan Black is a well crafted drama based around well-realized characters, and every minute feels rich with meaning, tension, and possibility. Season 1 feels whole and complete and fulfilling, and yet I am so hungry for more. More mystery. More deception, more thrills. More of everything Orphan Black.

Season 1 is streaming on Amazon, or for sale on DVD and BluRay. Catch up before the new season starts April 19th on BBC America.

 

 

Revivification!

I wound up taking a long, unannounced hiatus, not writing much in general, and feeling really uncertain what I wanted to do with this blog specifically. I wish it had been a deliberate, planned, announced break, but nope! Just fell off for a while. I’m sorry.

Now that I’m back, I have some new ideas, new plans. I still plan to post effusive recommendations now and then – I have one planned for today – but I want to open things up a little bit. Sometimes I just enjoy something so much I think you should all watch it. Sometimes I have more to say about genre, character, or storytelling in general. Sometimes a piece of media is like a personal revelation. And sometimes, really, something just needs to be pulled apart to see why it failed.

Obviously your mileage may vary, but that’ s always been true. So, in the future, in addition to dividing posts by Books, Movies, etc, I will divide them into Recommendations, Writing, Criticism, and Personal subsections. Those are the working titles, anyway. As always this blog is a work in progress.

I’m also going to try to keep a bimonthly schedule of posts. Once a week was a bit too much for me, but I think I can have something to say once every two weeks. That should also allow time for me to work on other projects.

Anyway, that’s the state of the union. Stay tuned for ORPHAN BLACK.