Killer Serial

05.22.13

The Haunting New Serial-Killer Thriller Heading to Netflix

BBC Two’s ‘The Fall,’ starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan, debuts on Netflix on May 28. Jace Lacob on Anderson and Dornan’s searing performances and why you need to watch.

It is virtually impossible to talk about The Fall—BBC Two’s addictive and provocative serial-killer drama that begins streaming stateside on Netflix on May 28—without mentioning the ghost in the room: Prime Suspect.

The allusion to Prime Suspect, a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic, is well founded. For one, The Fall is the closest that television has come to capturing the taut alchemy of Prime Suspect: part police chase, part psychological portrait of the hunted and the hunter. At the time of its premiere in 1992, Prime Suspect captured the institutional misogyny of the Metropolitan Police and placed at its center Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison, a knife-sharp detective who wasn’t content to hover at the edges of a “man’s world.” Over the seven seasons that Mirren portrayed Jane, viewers came to see her as a brilliant, if flawed, protagonist who somehow remained tethered to the glass ceiling that she had shattered and who turned to drink and sex to dull the loneliness of her life.

In The Fall, we see both the hard road that Mirren’s Tennison had to walk but also the women—both fictional and real—who followed Tennison’s path in the 22 years since she first appeared on screen. Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, played here with precision and grit by Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), joins this tradition as a confident and headstrong copper who flits between steely logic and rational detachment. To call her emotionless is to miss the point: Anderson’s Stella has real and vivid emotions, often deeply so, but she’s far more calm and rational than her male colleagues, a capricious and sensitive lot who can dodge bullets but can’t avoid wounded egos.

Created by Allan Cubitt (who not surprisingly cut his teeth on Prime Suspect 2), The Fall is a top-flight mystery that taps into political tensions in Northern Ireland and the troubling undercurrent of violence against women. Stella Gibson, a Metropolitan Police detective from London, arrives in Belfast to conduct a 28-day review of a high-stakes investigation into the murder of a professional woman who was found strangled in her home, her body artfully posed in her bed. What Stella—an out-of-place Englishwoman—discovers is that Belfast is far from peaceful, with the locals’ simmering rage constantly threatening to boil over into violence, and that this crime may be connected to another unsolved murder. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has stumbled upon a string of murders perpetrated by a killer who has the same level of precision and dedication to his own craft as Stella does to hers.

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Gillian Anderson (right) in BBC Two's “The Fall.” (BBC)

Unlike ITV’s recent mystery drama Broadchurch (which will air in the U.S. on BBC America beginning August 7), The Fall is not a whodunit. The narrative meticulously constructs the dark and twisted mind of a serial killer, a roguishly attractive bereavement counselor played by Paul Spector (Once Upon a Time’s Jamie Dornan), as he stalks his next prey, Sarah Kay (Laura Donnelly), a dark-haired professional woman who is unaware of the true danger awaiting her in the darkness of her apartment.

Paul isn’t a garden-variety psychopath, but instead a killer who has built a placid façade to face the world. Living a double life as a devoted husband and father to a family oblivious of his murderous tendencies, he is able to compartmentalize his dark side, concealing his impulses and the tools of his trade (hidden, most worryingly, in a crawlspace above his young daughter’s bed). Paul’s ability to shut himself off, however, isn’t unique; Stella admits at one point to “doubling” as well, being able to cordon off the darkness of her world and switch it off.

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What follows over the course of the five-episode run is a taut (at times, nail-bitingly so) cat-and-mouse chase between Anderson’s Stella and Dornan’s Paul, as Paul ramps up his killing spree. He is an addict in need of a stronger and deeper fix each time, a man who so desperately needs to dominate successful women that he destroys them and then bends them to his whims after death. As he risks exposure, Paul goes to greater lengths to fulfill the intense need within him, even as Stella and her team—which includes The Good Wife’s Archie Panjabi as a motorcycle-riding medical examiner—begin to close in.

While the murders provide the backbone of The Fall, there are other subplots afoot as well: an abusive relationship between a couple who have recently lost their son, the sexual advances of teenage seductress Katie (Aisling Franciosi) toward Paul, and a drugs-and-prostitution ring that may point toward deep-seated corruption within the PSNI. (There’s also the illicit affair—a “sweet night”—between Stella and a male colleague, Ben Peel’s James Olson, which emerges as an unexpected and tangential storyline.)

What these separate strands add up to is an intriguing and thought-provoking mystery that taps into dark fears about how well we truly know the people in our lives and about the disturbing prevalence of violence against women. Additionally, The Fall considers the depiction of “innocence” in how these narratives are covered in the press, with Stella strongly advocating for a syntax that is devoid of judgment for the victims. (She urges for the usage of “highly qualified” rather than “professional” in a police media release.) In this sense, The Fall sharply recalls not only Prime Suspect, but also the narrative dazzle of Scandinavian dramas like The Bridge and Forbrydelsen. (Indeed, Stella Gibson’s sisters-in-arms could easily include Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund and Sofia Helin’s Saga Norén.)

The Fall sharply recalls not only Prime Suspect, but also the narrative dazzle of Scandinavian dramas like The Bridge and Forbrydelsen.

Anderson—in her first television series regular role since Dana Scully on The X-Files—is mesmerizing as Stella Gibson, delivering a first-rate performance that does not elide Stella’s femininity, but instead uses it as part and parcel of her innate strength. Stella Gibson may be a flawed protagonist in the mold of Jane Tennison, prone to the same icy temperament, but, unlike Mirren’s sleuth, Stella doesn’t have to hide her femininity nor does she have to act like a man in order to advance her ambitions. She is instead a puzzle to be solved in her own right. Stella’s nonconformity and assiduity are perfect companions to her desires, and she doesn’t apologize or feel guilty for fulfilling those needs. For Anderson, this is a role that she was born to play: uncompromising and flinty, radiating a ferocity and tough conviction. 

Panjabi—so fantastic as legal snoop Kalinda Sharma on CBS’s The Good Wife—isn’t given all that much to do here as pathologist Pamela Reed-Smith, though Kalinda’s legion of fans will relish seeing Panjabi with her hair down, a sharp medical examiner and mother whose character furthers the series’s exploration of feminism through traditionally feminine ideals. These two female protagonists offer a portrait of career women who aren’t beholden to outdated rules.

Dornan offers a career-making turn as Paul Spector, presenting a stirring portrait of a man who is both serial killer and devoted father. As the noose slowly tightens around his neck, Paul begins to take wild risks with his “art,” taunting police and teetering on a blade’s edge between exposure and madness. His pathology is pulled into sharp focus as the plot advances, but the tantalizing question—what propels someone like Paul to kill these women?—is never given an easy answer. Dornan’s performance is full of unexpected tenderness toward his children and his saintly wife and a savagery toward his female victims, as he shuttles back and forth amid a deadly Madonna-whore complex.

When it debuted in the U.K. last week, The Fall became the highest-rated drama premiere in eight years for BBC Two, and a second-season renewal is said to be close, though nailing down Anderson’s schedule now that she’s booked as the female lead in NBC’s Crisis may prove to be tricky. But putting aside the vagaries of scheduling, what is certain is that this spellbinding psychological thriller, which remains enticingly (or frustratingly) open-ended at the conclusion of its first season, is more than worthy of your rapt attention this summer.