Review: The Fall
The Fall is a drama about a serial killer currently streaming on iPlayer in the UK as well as Netflix; it consists of three series, five episodes in the first series and six each in the other two, and the same story continues through all three series. The main characters are Stella Gibson (right), a detective played by Gillian Anderson, and Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan. Gibson is seconded to the Northern Ireland police when their investigation into the murder of a young woman fails, but two other young women are murdered in similar fashion shortly after Gibson arrives. The search rapidly narrows to Spector, a bereavement counsellor who is married (to a neonatal nurse) with two children who seems quite conscientious about his job. Spector also kidnaps a former girlfriend, holding her captive in the boot of her own car, and she is finally rescued at the end of the second series. In the final series, Spector turns out to have killed a woman in his youth and allowed his friend to take the rap and commits his final murder while on remand in a secure psychiatric unit (!).
The series touches on two aspects of Northern Ireland’s history, and Ireland’s more generally: the Troubles, and child abuse. In Spector’s day job, he tangles with a Loyalist goon who is violent to his wife and is angry that his son’s organs may have ended up keeping “Taigs” (Catholics) alive; the man is out of prison on licence and Spector encourages his wife to report him for domestic violence, resulting in his being re-arrested. He and his friends seem to have eyes all over the city and are able to track the wife down to a women’s shelter and assault her and other women in the refuge. He then uses a contact to make two attempts on Spector’s life, one of them after he has been arrested and the second of which causes him serious injury. The third series is mostly about the aftermath of this: he appears not to remember anything about his recent crimes, though both Gibson and some of the psychiatric staff are sceptical.
The police also investigate Spector’s childhood and he initially tells them that, despite spending time in a church-run children’s home where a priest was later jailed for sexual abuse, he escaped the abuse by making himself repulsive to the abusive priest by not washing himself. It turned out that he had, in fact, been this priest’s ‘favourite’ who bore the brunt of his abuse for a whole year and was then expected to pick his successor. This emerged when, having reasoned that his murders in Belfast could not have been his first, a murder was discovered in London for which another boy from the same care home had been convicted; the conviction was obviously flawed and on interview, the boy told police he had taken the rap for Spector because Spector had picked someone else to be that priest’s ‘favourite’. I find this a little bit far-fetched; someone might take the blame for some things for someone out of gratitude, but murder?
Two other aspects of the plot don’t seem quite credible. The first is how the character of Katie, the Spectors’ babysitter, changes from one series to the next. To begin with, Katie is clearly a victim; she is assaulted by Spector while babysitting after she takes a lock of hair from a drawer having heard that the killer had taken locks of hair from his victims. Katie tells him she suspects he is the killer; he responds that his behaviour is merely an attempt to save his professional reputation and that she is just a silly suburban schoolgirl. She then becomes obsessed with him, lying for him and attempting to destroy evidence and is ultimately arrested for assisting him. Although initially granted bail, she is then remanded in custody for breaching her conditions as a result of her obsession. Another is Spector’s wife’s actions after it is decided to prosecute her for also lying to the police about her husband’s whereabouts (well before she was aware he was a suspect for murder): she attempts to drown herself and her two children. Gibson explains this as an example of how women take out their anger on “themselves, and extensions of themselves”. I’m sure a lot of people will find this bit of cod psychology unconvincing and I certainly did; men are much more likely to view their children in this way, and treat them as such, than women. Sally-Ann had already learned from her daughter that she did not believe her father was a murderer; perhaps she wanted to protect her from learning the truth. But I still find it a bizarre and unlikely course of action.
I also found details of Spector’s and Katie’s detention in the final series unconvincing, to say the least. Katie was in a juvenile detention centre and was allowed to wear dangly earrings, even after she had self-harmed. Even schools do not even allow these (many do not even allow studs these days), so why would any youth detention centre? Spector is in a secure psychiatric unit which has a lot of locked doors and CCTV, yet very easily gains access to the staff locker room where he overpowers the lead clinician and seizes a leather belt and a plastic bag, both used as weapons. Secure psychiatric units are like Fort Knox and have extreme restrictions on where patients can go and what they can get access to (many do not allow anything that can be used as weapons, including pens and pencils); they also typically have a high staff to patient ratio. I find it quite unlikely that a patient could have escaped staff notice for long enough, even under those particular circumstances (a disturbance in the dining hall), especially when his propensity for violence was well-known. And, not to go into too much detail, the depiction over several minutes of what Spector did with the belt and plastic packaging was irresponsible and unnecessary.
An amusing detail was how many musical references the story made. The operation to find the killer was called “Musicman”, adopted before the police learned that their prime suspect shared a surname with a musician who was also a murderer (a bit of a continuity fail). There was a public prosecutor called George Lowden (a well-known Northern Irish guitar builder) and a law firm called Simon and Patrick (a budget Canadian guitar brand); Music Man and Gibson are also makes of guitar, Baldwin (Spector’s childhood surname) is a make of piano and The Fall was a British band.
The series is a bit over-long and some parts of it take up too much time. One episode in season 3 feels more like an episode of Holby City, and even that doesn’t spend this much time on surgery scenes. That and the following episode, showing Spector’s physical recovery from the incident and subsequent surgery (and apparent memory loss), could probably have been condensed into one episode. In the final episode, Gibson talks at length with both Rose, the woman Spector kidnapped, and Katie; with Rose, she comes clean about mistakes she made which may have put Rose in danger, while with Katie, she talks about having lost her own father (as had Katie) and about how to channel her anger. We see nothing of Sally-Ann, however, after her suicide/murder attempt in the third-to-last episode (though we get a visit to her daughter in her new foster home, where she tells us her nightmares have stopped).
So, the series was gripping enough; I watched it all the way through and always wanted to see the next episode. It didn’t peddle the cliche about serial killers being purely calculating individuals with no real emotion for anyone; Spector had obviously been damaged by childhood abuse and appeared to genuinely care about his family and was kind and gentle with his daughter after he was allowed to see her following his arrest. However, I am not sure another series (or two or three) featuring the same police team would keep my attention as this did, as the police officers were not all that likeable or relatable.
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