I recently finished watching The Fall. It was a Netflick’s original show staring Gillian Anderson. It is a British Police Procedural, where Stella Gibson (Anderson) is a London detective sent into to review what seems to be a stalled murder investigation. As an American, I have limited knowledge of how British policing works (or British law), but I’m looking at other aspects of the series.
As a police drama goes, it is fairly standard fare.
There’s an unsolved murder in Northern Ireland. The case has gotten a lot of media attention that has lead to claims of police corruption and incompetence.
It turns out that the murdered woman was the victim of a serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dormer). Gibson is the first to make a connection between this murder and one that occurs not long after her arrival in Belfast. The show progresses much as one might expect in terms of plot.
The important stuff.
What Stella Gibson Says
The writer/s of the show give Anderson some of the greatest lines in television. Her character says what every feminist critique of a tv show (and culture) thinks – but she says it out loud.
Even better than that, she says it without apology, shame, or anger.
For example, when the police force is discussing a press conference about the serial murders, Anderson specifically addresses the language of “innocent victim” – She points out that “innocent” is irrelevant. She asks how they would characterize the next victim if she was a prostitute or if she was coming home drunk wearing a short skirt. She further points out that media loves to paint woman as virgins and whores and the police force didn’t need to contribute to that. As she outranks most of the other officers present, no one questions her, but there does seem (at least on some of the characters) a kind of chagrin as they realize they are complicit in this system as well.
Later, when it is discovered that one of the victims had a profile on an adult-kink website, her first response is to investigate, not to judge. She tells the officer, who found the information, to get transcripts of the victim’s activity – questioning was the video (seeking rough sex) “internet fantasy” or “did she set up meetings/dates” – there was no moment for her of judgment about the website or the acts the victim said she was seeking. When the officer makes a “she was asking for it” suggestion, Anderson shuts him down.
I don’t think I have ever wanted to cheer in a police procedural – but in this one I did, repeatedly.
Her willingness to say what generally is unsaid makes this series.
What Stella Gibson Does
Early in the series, she invites another detective to her hotel room (remember she’s from out of town) for a one night stand – or possibly “a while I’m here” night stand. This detective is murdered (in an unrelated case). Suddenly her behavior is scrutinized. She is condemned for having a fling with a married man. She points out two interesting things: 1. His marriage isn’t her problem (duh men have agency) and 2. He didn’t tell her he was married.
First, I guess some may find her attitude about his marriage problematic. However, she didn’t force him into anything. In fact, she meets him briefly – hands him her card with her room number on it. That’s the end of their interaction. I should be clear, that I absolutely reject the “men as ravenous sex machines” stereotype. Dead-Detective is 100% capable of saying “no,” of saying and doing nothing (after all she’s gone), or of saying “yes” and being held accountable for his choices. She has no responsibility for this man’s other obligations. They are *his* obligations, not hers. The infidelity double standards are particularly vile to me. They tend to excuse male behavior (and perpetuate the “men are dogs” myth, the men “can’t control themselves” myth, and the woman as “temptress” myth). All of these contribute to rape culture.
She is being chastises by Jim Burns (the head cop in Belfast). In this exchange, she points out to him that he wasn’t concerned about the “moral reputation” of police officers when *he* was having sex with her (and was at the time married). In fact, by the end of the exchange, he simply falls back on the “as police officers we must maintain more moral lives.” This ignores his own moral failings (if he’s calling her out on the adultery thing, his own must also be immoral). Further, it ignores the fact that she didn’t do anything immoral. She, an adult woman, had sex with a consenting adult man… Oh, now I get it… Strong woman with sexual agency is automatically immoral.
She doesn’t back down with him, and she refutes anyone who brings it up. Once it seems like it may become a media issue, and may further degrade the credibility of the police department and the investigation, she does question leaving the investigation.
As there is a third season in the works, I’m hoping the writer, Allan Cubitt resolves the show with his same meaningful voice. Unfortunately, the show seems to be veering toward Stella being in love with Spector. The show has leaned toward the obvious before, and then pulls a major change. So I’m waiting to see how it plays out if and when the third season happens. For now, im keeping my fingers crossed that however the series resolves with the same feminist tone it began with,
Sally Anne Spector
I liked the complicated relationship Spector has with his wife. When she discovers his lies, he claims that he is having an affair. I guess an affair is better than being married to a serial killer. But he claims to be having an affair with their 15 year old babysitter. I loved how the series plays this out. She’s conflicted, she agonizes, she struggles – there is not an easy choice for her. Further, he convinces her that if he is convicted of a sex crime, she will lose her nursing license. I have no idea of that’s true, but again, it puts her into an impossible place. She has two young children, a husband that could go to prison, and may lose her only means of financial support. Not to mention, she loves him. I get that. It’s easy to say if my spouse ever did X, I’d never forgive him/her. But I think love is more complicated, and the series shows that. I think it also did a phenomenal job of not making her seem pathetic for struggling with leaving him.
The babysitter, Katie. She is a 15 year-old girl with a crush on Spector. She awkwardly flirts with him whenever they interact together. Initially he is kind to her without being condescending. Yet, he takes a creepy turn, obsessively watching her YouTube videos (she posts videos of her music). Aside from her youth, she also fits his type of victim. Again the series is subtle and realistic. She is struggling to grow up – her friends and media are all pushing her to be more adult, to be more sexual – but she doesn’t seem ready. She lies to her best friend, claiming that she and Spector had had sex.
The complication is she and Spector do start a relationship – but they do not have sex. She covers for him and even becomes his alibi. He seems to be manipulating her so that he will cover for him. Even after his arrest, and the evidence of his guilt is clearly established, she maintains her obsession with him – becoming the quintessential serial killer groupie (which was less satisfying than other elements of the show).
I find the writing for all three women to be some of the strongest I’ve seen in a long time. They are complicated, fully formed humans. They are placed in challenging and at times impossible situations. They respond to these situations in complicated, nuanced, and often troubling ways. The women are not reductive portrayals or stereotypes, even if they sometimes act in stereotypical ways – that too is realistic. Stella is always there commenting on, challenging, and dismantling systemic misogyny.