Dark, deliberate crime series The Fall is grimly compelling stuff that plays an unsettling trick on the viewer. Set in Belfast, the mystery centers on a mild-mannered grief counselor named Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan). Outwardly Spector is an upstanding family man, but secretly he’s a vicious serial killer who prays on innocent women. Called in to investigate his latest crime is Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), a brooding and brilliant inspector with psychological insights into the crime borne of her own unique experience. When Gibson connects Spector’s latest victim with an earlier murder, the investigation escalates into a classic cat-and-mouse conflict that strays unflinchingly down the pitch-black alleys of human nature at its worst.
At first glimpse, The Fall’s serial killer narrative plays out like a bleaker, more European inversion of Dexter. There, the writers took great pains to invest you in Dexter Morgan’s particular brand of evil by ensuring his victims were “deserving” targets. Here, though, Paul Spector—played with increasingly creepy and intense villainy by Dornan—is completely and utterly unsympathetic. He feeds off the suffering of his innocent victims in an unrepentant and arbitrary manner. This isn’t to say the series doesn’t invest you in his plight; part of the show’s penetrating end game is to lure the viewer into a fascination with this monster, despite his irredeemability. He’s a liar, a misogynist, and a sociopath of the highest order, and yet the show plays on your curiosity to concern yourself with his peculiar psychology. The way the series yanks the rug out of this interest is a real punch in the gut.
In terms of sheer watchability, however, the show gets far more mileage out of Anderson, who is riveting as Spector’s relentless opposite number. Gibson’s determination and professionalism cork a volcano of emotional volatility that’s only ever hinted at by the narrative. It’s one of those subtle, nuanced performances that doesn’t look like acting until you realize how convincing it is.
The faceoff between Gibson and Spector drives the story, but The Fall has other assets: seemingly incongruous subplots that flesh out and eventually tie into the wider world; a solid supporting cast that includes Niamh McGrady, Archie Panjabi, John Lynch, Stuart Graham, Bronagh Waugh, Aisling Franciosi, Karen Hassan, and, in a crucial role, Valene Kane; and a uniquely respectful handling of the potentially exploitative elements so commonly found in this subgenre of crime story. (Really, on this score it’s more similar to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than Dexter.) All these components culminate in a season two ending that some will find abrupt, but that I found thought-provoking, both as a penetrating character study of Gibson and a hopeful sociopolitical commentary.
Be forewarned: The Fall is full of very difficult-to-watch depictions of violence against women. It’s also glacially paced, creaking and lurching through each episode in a manner that will mesmerize some while alienating others. Most surprisingly, evidently there’s a third season in the works…which blew my mind, as the season two finale seemed quite calculated to tie everything off thematically. My guess is that viewers who make it to the end of season two will most likely be interested enough to continue, however; I know I will.