Gemma: My mother, who just started watching The Fall, mentioned being frustrated by how not-notably-clever Spector seems, and I found myself responding that that was the point.
Rasha: Yeah. The portrayal of Spector as the bad guy is such a departure from most other CSI/SVU interpretations of Monstrous Predators.
G: And from the other long-developing serial killer dramas, Dexter and Hannibal and the like. It’s a fairly direct call-out/indictment of those, I found, especially in Gibson’s dialogue at the end of S2.
R: Agreed. The Fall does this neat trick of putting Spector’s actions and contradictions under intense scrutiny, all without making him the narrator of how those things fit or don’t fit. Especially in Season 2 as Spector comes out with all the Nietschze-style Ubermensch spew, it becomes simultaneously clear that he thinks he understands what he’s doing and why and also that he has manufactured this narrative that hides his own life and deeds from himself. He’s the opposite of the monologuing villain we’re accustomed to.
G: That’s true. Well put.
R: Even when he finally monologues.
G: I appreciate the structure of his involvement with Katie. They show the dimensionality of the manipulation and the reality of her feelings without glorifying either. That’s actually a very fine line.
R: The evolution of his interactions with Katie is also interesting – his choice to see her as a child even as she is protesting to be seen by him as a desirable and desirous woman, and later his choice to treat her as a protégée when he realizes it’s expedient and that she doesn’t fit this idea he has of innocence. Is Katie an Innocent? I think the story troubles these waters for us, and it becomes much more real for that.
G: I was just reading an article about that horrible rape case where the teacher was sentenced to 30 days because the judge thought the 14-year-old “complicit.” The article has a wonderful, complex response from a woman who said, “Yes, 14-year-olds are sexual, and that does not mean they can give meaningful consent to sex with people in their 30s.” I saw Katie in that article, and it made me admire that portrayal—from actor and writers—even more.
R: Yeah, I’d agree. Katie does have agency, but she’s out of her depth in her own life and her own feelings. Her choices are made under a heady cocktail of lusty adolescent hormones and impressionable youth longing to be meaningful adulthood.
G: Very much so. And then we have Gibson’s wonderful assertion that Spector is Not a Monster—you know what a fan I was of that from a serial-killer show.
R: Yes. I appreciate her emphasis (and thereby the show’s emphasis) that this is precisely the kind of person who would be incredibly charming and seem very perceptive and intelligent because he’s maintaining a social performance. And yet: we get Stella printing out demon paintings and writing things up on her Idea Wall like “demon seed?”
G: Well, to be fair, Spector put the demon painting on her desktop.
R: Right, it’s part of his narrative about the mystical qualities of transcendent violence. I think the show is right in labelling that kind narrative as one that is much more reifying of violence and misogyny; the “he’s a monster” claim is much more about knighting the powerful (men, the police, governments) to care for the weak (women, children, brown & black folks) than it is about elevating the agency of those threatened with violence. That Rose Tyler is endangered by her work with the police is less about Spector being smart and more about the police being careless with safeguarding what she’s told them.
G: Well, my problem with the “monster” narrative is always precisely that, that it aims to absolve society of all responsibility. This person is outside of the boundaries of how humans work, so we humans can just disclaim any link to him. I liked the buildup of Stella’s thought and rebuttal in S2, in her relationship with Jim when he comes to her hotel room—that she could tell Jim that what he was doing was unacceptable, take care of him compassionately and matter-of-factly, identify with him the next day re: her near-dalliance with Reed Smith, and still be able to call him out on taking Spector off the continuum of humanity when he himself (Jim) couldn’t hear a woman refusing consent.
R: You’re right, the way the show handled Stella and Jim is brilliant. It humanizes violence while at the same time drawing a strong and clear boundary against it.
G: It also humanizes rape culture.
R: Whew. That is some hard sh*t to say, but you’re right.
G: There is a textbook on rape culture to be written about S2, seriously.
R: I would agree. The show doesn’t absolve the wider context of Spector’s life and the lives of the women he killed, and yet, it doesn’t present us with any neat answers for who is responsible.
G: YES. And I liked Jim’s visit to the pedophile priest for the same reason. The show is sometimes slow in the moment-to-moment, and I could do without quite so many minor chords, but wow do they know how to trouble the waters.
R: Who is responsible for Spector: Is it his mom? Is it the abusive priest? Is it the orphanage system? What made him who he is—
G: —and what questions does “knowing who he is” answer, and what questions doesn’t it?
R: I think the show points us to all of these contributing realities that make sense, and yet makes very clear that Spector is choosing this life, that he has boundaries that even he won’t cross.
G: Mmmm. Yeah.
R: To your comment about the slow pace of the show: It’s interesting to start this conversation with Peter/Paul Spector rather than with our notable and formidable female lead(s), Stella and Reed Smith. You’ve got me thinking about how the slow, quiet pacing of this show lends itself to shifting how our gaze enters the scene as viewers. I think we get an almost clinical view of all those involved, and yet the balance of contradictory facts and messy realities about each character renders a greater suspense and greater depth of emotional response.
G: I think it’s a stretch to call Reed Smith a lead, but you’re right about the characterizations being both holistic and suspenseful.
R: I know, wishful thinking.
G: Well, one always wants Panjabi to do more, and she always brings such completeness to a character that you can imagine her backstory. And while that kiss scene was clearly sensationalistic (between two women who became famous for playing characters who probably anchor, like, half the femslash on the internet), I actually loved how that scene played out, both in the moment and in the larger narrative of why we desire, when we’re looking for comfort and when we’re looking for something else, which is an angle on Stella that goes through both S1 and S2. (Man, this show makes us both wax poetic.)
R: Yep. Jezebel wrote about how The Fall is the most feminist show out there, in part for how it shows Stella as the subject rather than the object of desire. They quote her great line about: Man f*cks woman, fine. Woman f*cks man, that’s a problem. (this is reminding me of Rob Delaney’s great bit about wanting a woman who will f*ck him in the shed that she built.)
G: The Atlantic did too. Similar thesis. There’s also the line about the basic human form being female, maleness being a kind of birth defect. That was some spot-on delivery, Gillian Anderson.
R: Stella does get great lines in both series of the show. It takes me back to my envy of the writer’s room on HTGAWM. There’s some speeches you’re living and dying to hear someone say. The Fall is satisfying for that alone. But I would call The Fall a feminist show on more than that level. I think what you called out earlier about the textbook—on rape, consent, abuse, violence, and how those move through very human experiences of love, sexuality, parenting, families, and professional worlds—that to me is what makes this show such a quiet riot.
G: Yes, exactly! Because the whole time, it’s still telling a story, with characters who are wholly believable and compelling and (almost) wholly unsensationalized. My mother objected to Sally Ann’s naivete. I saw it as willful, and potent and believable as such.
R: Oh, she’s totally willful. To me, she reads like a different flavor of Katie. Or of Annie Brawley.
G: Mmm, expound!
R: These women are all drawn to Spector. He’s perceptive, he’s affirming as a counselor, he has strong boundaries about not hurting them (at least in public with Annie). I could see Sally Ann falling for Paul when they were out of school, and being bowled over that this model-handsome man who is so sensitive and troubled and wounded would understand her. I also see her as someone distracted by her work, how tired she is from being a mom. She hates him for possibly having a sexual relationship with Katie, their babysitter, but probably because that fits more neatly her narrative of what-is-this-handsome-man-doing-with-me.
G: Oof. Yeah. I love that actor, I’d never seen her before.
R: She’s protecting him up until the interrogation because she’s pregnant again!
G: And OH, Olivia. Give that child actor all the awards.
R: Her hiding things for her dad gave me the chills. The writing and staging and the actress were all effective.
G: Yes, and it was so kid-honest. There was no overwritten preternatural maturity or anything like that. She’s a kid. She loves her daddy. She knows some other people don’t. Therefore she protects him. She’s not telling a much more complicated story than that, even as everyone around her is.
R: And yet, that story alone is enough to scare the daylights out of anyone who knows anything about the power parents have over their children, especially when children lie for them. They don’t have to add any extra sauce on it. It’s scary enough.
R: I think S3 will be interesting for two things. First, how Paul deals with being confronted with the contradiction between loving and protecting his daughter (even as he asks her to lie and hide things for him) and hurting women who are other people’s daughters.
G: You think that’ll appear? The scene between him and Olivia felt very much like closure to me … but I guess they can’t leave it out of S3.
R: I mean, there’s all kinds of ish floating around with Olivia being like Stella in her relationship with/fascination with her father.
G: There is indeed. Ulgh, that note in Stella’s dream journal. How totally unsophisticated and uninsightful it was, and yet how completely disturbing. The idea of what privacy is also has a role in the show’s deep understanding of feminism.
R: Hunh, yes. Stella losing her journal does a blow, or we are led to worry with her that it deals a blow, to her status as an untouchable and remotely cool female superior officer.
G: But it’s not, like, a Horcrux, as it would be on a lot of shows.
R: I know. My second interest in S3: how Stella deals with this aftermath of encountering Paul and the possibility of his death. That ending scene was very curious and felt very pointed. If I was Anderson, I’d be having feelings about Stella running to Spector’s aid.
G: Oooh, yeah. As would I. Though Anderson was also part of the call-out process that was that episode–yeah, somehow cultural fascination with serial killers has become a Masculinity Thing.
R: Well, the show deals with masculinity in the forms of Jim, who we’ve talked about, in Stella’s lovers, in the priest, and I’m also thinking about the comments of Rose under duress about her husband (how he’s not as much of a man as Peter/Paul is, because she thinks that’s what he wants to hear and will give her an opening to escape), and also Spector’s comment about Joe Brawley not being willing to kill a man who was choking his sister somehow impugning his masculinity. I don’t know what else to say about it, but the show definitely has some comments about how masculinity is measured in violence.
G: It surely does.
R: I also have a note about what this show is playing at with Bettys and Veronicas, all the blonde vs. brunette.
R: I don’t know what to say about it. Dark-haired women aren’t safe, blondes are. Women change their appearance to be blonde, not because it’s going to match some ideal of beauty or fashion, but so they won’t be a target of violence.
G: I actually wondered about that with Reed Smith, our dark-haired sole WOC—whether she was imaged to link to the dark-haired women, or to defy them.
R: I go with Defy. She probably carries a scalpel with her and could take Spector in any alley. Anytime. He can choose the place. Maybe I’m saying that because Reed Smith is Kalinda in the Witness Protection Program, but still.
G: I will follow Kalinda wheresoe’er the WPP takes her.
G: I did feel like I was missing some nuance in my understanding of the English-Irish power structure as well—I wonder what it’s like for a Brit audience or an Irish audience.
R: Well, it’s interesting that the most direct comment about that power relationship comes from Spector’s mouth, and it’s a lie about why he won’t help the police. I don’t know.
G: Exactly. I found myself wondering how that moment reflected back to different demographics of non-American viewers.
R: Final thought: This show is the most thoughtful meditation on how power runs through gender relationships that I’ve seen on television. I wish Reed Smith had a bigger role to play, not just because she’s Archie Panjabi and will always be the Kalinda of my heart, but because her arrival, or the arrival of any other non-white women, would add a needed depth to this show’s meditations on gender, giving it the possibility to be not just feminist but womanist as well.
G: I could go for that.