Starring Gillian Anderson, Jamie Dornan
Created by Allan Cubitt
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.