The season-two finale of The Fall contained a wonder of television: a 20-minute scene of detective superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) interrogating Paul Spector, the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan, who’s quite a good actor when he doesn’t have to put on an American accent), finally in police custody. It also contained a scene that could have easily turned out to be some of the laziest writing of the series: a gunman storming into the woods, shooting a detective sergeant and Spector, possibly fatally. At best it was an unsatisfying follow-up to the earlier interrogation scene, and the death of either man would have soured a narrative that had been a well constructed drama of, as Ryan McGee wrote in the first season, “parallel lives bending toward each other.”
Subtle, this show is not. The first two seasons evoked an operatic struggle of feminism versus misogyny, an epic campaign of right versus wrong, shrunk down to fit the streets of Belfast. In some ways, that’s been its strong suit. Gibson is a character of unapologetic strength and defiance, feminist politics writ large. It’s unusual to see a “strong female character” written in such broad strokes, but that’s ultimately to the show’s advantage and to Gibson’s, and it lets Anderson play not just beyond the archetype, but as though the archetype never existed. Gibson is sexually empowered without overthinking it, and she’ll tell a nosy male reporter to “well and truly fuck off” if he deserves it. Spector’s character, on the other hand, is impossible to resolve: He hates women but loves children; he stalks women and murders them with his bare hands, but then transforms their bodies into high art. The devil is in the details, and so is Spector.
But the characters’ lack of subtlety sometimes bleeds into the rest of the show, and it’s tempting to roll one’s eyes when the new season opens inside Spector’s mind as he drives into a tunnel toward a white light, complete with his dead mother calling his name from the light and his daughter calling to him from the darkness. (The blues track—apparently composed for the show—is the same one from season two, episode five, when he was destroying evidence.) “Will he live or will he die?,” the show gasps.
But of course he will live, because he has to. It’s not just that there wouldn’t be much of a third season without him, it’s that DSI Gibson needs him—far more than he needs her. Sure, he found sick enjoyment as the Belfast Strangler in stringing her along, but he’d be the Strangler with or without her. His crimes are motivated by darker urges—and a thoroughly fucked-up childhood—whereas Gibson’s presence on the show is triggered by Spector’s crimes. She appears without context: no family, no friends, no home. Just a hotel room, a dream diary that hints at daddy issues, a red sweater. Nearly all of what we know of Gibson is defined through Spector, his motivations, and his murders.
Given the season-two finale, the show could have easily flashed forward days or weeks or months, picking up after Spector survived the gun attack, or even during further interrogation or in court. Instead, it picks up a few minutes after the attack in the woods, with Gibson in the ambulance with a badly wounded Spector, en route to the A&E, and the next several minutes move in nearly real time, as the emergency doctors try to stabilize and prepare him for surgery. After all, this is The Fall, which doesn’t squander opportunities to show off its mastery of the slow burn.
That said, the slow-burning medical procedural is a new look for it. The first half of the episode unfolds like the slowest, most beautiful episode of Grey’s Anatomy, with an impressive attention to both detail and guts—Spector’s eyes are taped closed before surgery; and a camera lingers on the shattered spleen being removed from his abdomen, which spills over with blood. If shows like Grey’s sometimes use injuries to shock (impalement on a metal pole, say), The Fall uses them to settle into the realities hollowed out by its main players. To different degrees, Spector and Gibson need each other, and each blood-soaked scene drives home that this relationship is going to be a lasting one, one way or another.
We ultimately learn very little in this episode: We now know that Detective Sergeant Anderson’s (Colin Morgan) injuries are relatively minor, but could result in longer-term damage, a possibility that he immediately blows out of proportion—though we don’t learn this until nearly halfway through the episode, and very little tension is drawn out of it. (Though frankly not even this show could have survived the heavy-handedness of having two of Gibson’s recent lovers die of gunshot wounds. She’s emotionally guarded, we get it.) Anderson finally vocalizes what we’ve all been thinking, and what may be the biggest hint for the third season: that Gibson is more concerned with the man she’s been hunting than the man she’s been fucking.
“Silence And Suffering” confirms a few things going into season three. Rose Stagg lives (for now), DS Anderson lives, and Spector lives (for now). Katie, the Spectors’ babysitter, remains dangerously besotted with the Belfast Strangler, and despite her bail conditions not allowing her to leave the house, she’ll clearly be a major plot device in the next episode. And for a show that spent two seasons being creepy as hell, the only hint of that spine-tingling comes in the near-final moments, when Spector’s eyes open and close, and the nurse—who looks an awful lot like his preferred victims—senses something out of the ordinary.
- Spector is twice referred to as a 32-year-old man; his hospital bracelet says “36M,” though I can’t tell if that’s definitely referring to age and sex. His birth date is listed as 1979, so that puts the show in 2011 if he’s 32.
- That is an awfully nice hotel for a police officer, even a decorated one, to stay in for an open-ended length of time.
- Spector’s daughter learning about her father is going to be devastating, isn’t it?
- That final scene with the old woman in the hospital is clearly setting us up for a big reveal, but it’s hard to feel very excited about it given the slow pulse of the rest of the episode.
- The nurse to the emergency doctor just before DS Anderson arrives: “Dr. O’Donnell, we’ve got another gunshot wound here for you.” “What is this, the ’70s?”
- When assistant chief constable Jim Burns shows up to tell Stella she can’t talk to the press, you can hear his anxiety. “I also said I could manage you.” Gibson just smirks. “You might want to straighten your tie before you go on camera.”
- I’m thrilled to be reviewing all of season three, on an as-yet-to-be-determined schedule. Stay tuned!