Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Look at the Darkest Side of Humanity with BBC's The Fall

The Fall is a powerful, intense, challenging, and disturbing show that is most definitely worth the watch. In a world where there seems to be a police procedural and/or crime drama on every night on every station, it may seem redundant to have yet another show about a serial killer and the police search to capture him. And while boiled down this is exactly what The Fall is about, the show is far more artistic and serious than the many more sensationalist cookie cutter criminal-based programs out there already.

To step back a moment, The Fall is a BBC-produced drama taking place in recent years in Belfast, Northern Ireland. When the daughter of a prominent (and wealthy) businessman is brutally murdered, the local police launch a ramped-up investigation to catch her killer. To head up this task force, they bring in Stella Gibson, a detective inspector from London with a stellar (couldn't resist the pun!) track record for understanding and thus bringing in criminals. Gibson almost immediately sees a link between this murder and those of other women in Belfast who share similar characteristics (although, alas, the rest don't have the moneyed fame so their deaths weren't originally given the same high status treatment). Behavioral profiling of the murderer, painstakingly intensive forensic studies, and round-the-clock monitoring of tip lines and potential suspects' movements consume the task force's time as they pursue the serial killings.

Meanwhile, the viewers are given the position of knowing far more than the police as we soon enter into the world of the killer himself. A grief counselor with a wife and two young children, Paul Spector is mundane enough for most people to not notice him or suspect him of being guilty of anything more egregious than perhaps a speeding ticket. But underneath this calm demeanor lies a troubled psyche that finds fulfillment in others' misery and feels powerful only by destroying lives. Besides his unrepentant need to stalk and murder pretty women, Spector has a host of various other problems to deal with in his life, ranging from fairly typical parenting issues to a teenaged babysitter who is infatuated with him to a client case in which an extremely violent man is abusing his wife.

This last issue brings up an important part about what makes The Fall such a fascinating show. The cat-and-mouse between the police and the killer makes for plot-driven suspense and, as always for me, well-developed characters finish the job of sucking the viewer into the drama. But The Fall goes a step further by looking into a major cultural issue of times - and one that is sadly, often rather divisive - that of gender roles and gender equality/inequality. The issue of violence against women in particular is a large part of The Fall, and the show explores it in a number of ways, while also examining women's implicit and explicit roles in combating both crime and cultural stereotypes about their gender.

The Fall starts with presenting a female main character that is a wonderful example of a feminist hero. Stella Gibson is certainly not perfect and she's not necessarily "kick ass" in a superhero sort of way (although you wouldn't want to get on her wrong side either), but she's tough, smart, and confident. Her personality at first appears a bit cold because she isn't passionate in terms of raising up a fuss or otherwise getting bowled over by her emotions. But it's soon obvious that Gibson does indeed feel strongly at appropriate moments and while she is guided mainly by her intellect and sense of morality, her emotions also play a role in why she does what she does. She feels deep empathy for the victims and their families and is remorseful when she fears she's made a mistake that comprises a woman's safety.

Just like she is not devoid of emotion, she is also not a nun despite not being in a traditional relationship. Gibson has no problem clearly and plainly putting out her intentions when she finds someone of sexual interest - and when she does not. No part of Gibson's personality is tied up in any particular man or even in proving herself in a workplace historically populated by men. The show thankfully does not fall into the trap of turning Gibson into a "bitch" because she is a woman in a supervisory capacity or of making strong assertions about how Gibson has chosen being a career woman rather than a wife or mother, as thought it always needs to be an either/or choice. Clearly, the creators/writers here were not interested in presenting a stereotypical "women's intuition" type of female police detective who will inevitably end up in a long-term romantic relationship with her male partner. Gibson is simply living her life - sometimes making mistakes, sometimes shining (again, can't resist the puns based on her first name!) with insights not picked up by anyone else.

While The Fall certainly isn't alone in presenting a female lead - or even a strong female lead at that, the show doesn't just stop there. Gibson isn't a lone voice in the wilderness; the Belfast police and their attendant associates have a fairly equal amount of male and female employees. Even though she has a previous relationship with Assistant Chief Constable Jim Burns, on reaching Belfast, Gibson quickly aligns herself with two other women in particular - Dani Ferrington, a beat cop who becomes the right-hand woman to Gibson, and Professor Reed Smith, a pathologist who reports various insights to Gibson. In the world outside of the police force, we also get to know an array of female characters of various importance (and ensuing screen time) from Spector's wife to his victims to victims' family members and so on. The Fall presents women of all kinds: from the fiercely tough and professional detective constable Gail McNally to the busy and rather clueless (and thus, in a way, very sympathetic) Sally-Ann Spector to the clearly emotionally needy/disturbed young babysitter for the Spectors. With the exception of the babysitter Katie, who is a little one-note in terms of her motivations, all of the women - and indeed, all of the characters - are believable, well-rounded characters who have their individuals highs and lows.

But The Fall does more than simply present strong and believable female characters (not to say that isn't an accomplishment enough in a world where plenty of other shows and films struggle to have even a fair number of women in prominent roles). It also delves deep into a variety of issues surrounding women and how our culture treats women. It touches on how women are objectified, thus dehumanizing them to predators, specifically stating this through Gibson's words, but also showing it in other ways (i.e., using the visual medium of TV well to make the point). At one point when Spector tapes the torture of a victim, he ends his homemade video by asking why it's being watched. It's an uncomfortable moment of pointing out the viewer's own voyeurism and implicit role in this cultural problem of allowing women's rapes and murders to become lazy plot points to propel forward male heroes.

Nevertheless, the show is not without its detractors who criticize it for being misogynistic because of the female murder victims and for seeing from the killer's point of view. While I see their point about how displaying the corpses of dead women is troubling (it's something I felt with other crime shows), I don't find that to be the case here. Even though we see from the killer's eyes frequently, at no point are his actions condoned or held up as something to model/mimic. Meanwhile, there is so much empathy put out for the victims, the families, and even the community at large, that I don't feel like the dead women are simply props held up for their shocking entertainment value.

(Speaking of sensationalist shock value entertainment, I could not help thinking about the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey movie, which stars Jamie Dornan as the BDSM-loving protagonist Christian Grey. I'm not sure how anyone could watch Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector subjecting a teenaged girl to bondage and other "grooming" acts, stalking women in his neighborhood, holding a woman hostage, violently murdering women, etc. and still come away thinking that a book series/movie about a dominant wealthy businessman introducing a young, naïve college student to sadomasochism is romantic.)

The Fall also has gained some critics because of its pacing; the show is certainly slow moving and lingers where other shows rush full speed ahead. Unlike the myriad of procedural shows on the air that fill up 20-plus episodes a year with largely one-off mysteries with sometimes poorly explained motivations, The Fall has chosen to focus the first two seasons (a total of 11 episodes) to this one case. Viewers come to intimately know all the characters and see the continuing effects of the crime on the police members tracking the killer, the killer's family, the surviving victims, and the victims' families. While there are still some motivations that could be more fully explored (e.g., the babysitter), it's a good change of pace to be reminded of the humanity (and lack of it in the killer's case) behind crimes rather than just the next thrilling plot move. For me (and many other viewers), the slower pace was not an impairment to appreciating in the show; in fact, it in many ways made it a more suspenseful watch. As a viewer, you care much more about the fate of a character once you've become invested in that person's life.

The breadcrumbs thrown out about whether nature or nurture created the psychopathic killer is another interesting component to the show. As the story develops and we learn more about Spector's troubled past, there are plenty of opportunities to reflect on how and why this man became a narcissistic sociopath turned violent offender, even if the script doesn't always explicitly state his motivations. And while there are certainly many references to Spector and his deeds as monstrous, the show through Gibson often reminds viewers how life exists on a continuum and everyone has elements of good and bad in them. In one scene I found particularly poignant in this regard, Gibson takes Burns to task for trying to weasel his way into her bed after she repeatedly says no. While she does make certain to maintain a distinction between him and the killer, she still manages to remind Burns (and the audience) that the treatment of women as mere sex objects is an easy trap to fall into that quickly becomes a slippery slope.

Like any TV show or other artistic expression, The Fall is of course not perfect. There is a secondary plot about police corruption that almost entirely fades in the background of the serial killing storyline. At times, there are scenes that feel unnecessary or not fully explained. On occasion, the police seem woefully behind the serial killer despite the tremendous amount of money and effort being spent on this case, including some scenes that just seemed ridiculous in how slow the police were responding, which hurt some of the credibility of the show. But overall, I found the first two seasons of the show to be fully engaging and thought-provoking in terms of plot and themes. They were also all extremely well acted, with an array of interesting, complex characters being presented and explored. The end of the season two finale was a bit bizarre in my opinion (and I am not alone), but I'm hoping that the third season slated for release in fall 2015 will help to smooth over those ragged edges and provide a satisfying conclusion to this thoroughly captivating show.

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