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Review: The Fall, series 3

The much-praised – but also much-criticised – BBC2 drama series “The Fall” has completed its third and final run. How far did its strengths out-weigh its weaknesses?

Jamie Dornan. Niall Carson PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.Too often, UK drama series are re-commissioned simply because of audience figures, irrespective of whether their quality or inherent open-endedness justifies such extension. So “Broadchurch 2” on ITV was a complete bust, despite the success of the first series; “Missing” (on BBC1) and “Humans” (Channel 4) have started their second series, neither very promisingly (“Missing” has mysteriously become “The Missing”). Fine writing and clever plotting allowed “The Affair” (Sky Atlantic) to escape this trap (despite promising not to, I watched and admired series 3), and “Line of Duty” (BBC2) – keeping some core characters but finding an entirely new story – actually improved in its second outing (sadly, the third series collapsed into absurdity in its final episode).

The first 5-episode series of “The Fall” (also BBC2) was self-evidently incomplete. The sexual predator and serial murderer, Paul Spector (played by newcomer Jamie Dornan), had not yet been caught, though his pursuer, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (played by Gillian Anderson), had worked out his identity, and they had made glancing contact before he slipped away to Scotland. There was also a promising but unresolved police corruption storyline, which under-pinned why Gibson had been brought over from Scotland Yard to take over the investigation, at the behest of her former lover, Jim Burns (played by John Lynch), now the Assistant Chief Constable in Belfast.

Season 2 brought Spector and his family back from their bolt-hole to Belfast, where he kidnaps a former lover, Rose, in revenge for her having helped Gibson identify him as the serial killer. His family baby-sitter, 16-year-old Katie, develops an overwhelming obsession with him, which he carefully exploits. He is also being pursued by a tough Protestant gunman, whose wife has recently lost a child, and who is convinced that Spector has abused his role as a grief counsellor to help her escape to a shelter for abused wives. Eventually, Gibson captures Spector, who agrees to lead her to where Rose is hidden. The gunman forces a police officer to disclose the location of the rescue operation, penetrates the cordon, and shoots and wounds both a policeman and Spector before being killed. The last we see is Spector being ferried by helicopter to hospital, with Gibson fearful of losing him before he can be brought to justice. Rose, meanwhile, has been found alive.

Season 1 of “The Fall” was heavily criticized (for instance by Bea Campbell in open Democracy) for its seeming misogyny: drawing the viewer into the mind and method of a dangerous psychopath, detailing his proclivities and violence. The writer of the series, Allan Cubitt, tried to rebut the charge, but the excellent script, remarkable acting from Jamie Doran and bravura direction from Jakob Verbruggen combined to create scenes of a deeply disturbing nature. The atmosphere of menace and danger – re-inforced by the background of sectarian violence – permeated every episode. At one point, Spector even manages to invade Gibson’s hotel bedroom, and read her “dream diary”.

It was perhaps Verbruggen’s frank admission that his shooting style was “voyeuristic” which led to his replacement by Cubitt as director for series 2. Cubitt’s direction was further proof that most writers know exactly how their scripts should look on screen. However, there was no denying that the compelling drive of the first series had given way to a steadier – for my taste, too steady – development of the Gibson/Spector relationship. The police corruption sub-plot had completely disappeared. As some loose ends were being tied up, Cubitt introduced a cliff-hanger: Spector, in police custody, is shot – but not killed – by the Protestant gunman who has been pursuing him. Frankly, this felt like a classic case of the habit I had criticised two years ago (“Sequelitis: A Dramatic Affliction”) of TV commissioners being reluctant to let a hit show come to an end. After all, a third series could scarcely start with Spector dying, he was in custody and could not escape, so how would six hours of screen-time be filled? As it turns out, it was Cubitt, as much as BBC2, who needed the extra screen time.

The star of “The Fall” is Anderson, whose participation was surely a key factor in its financing. She is also credited as an executive producer (along with Cubitt and two long-term colleagues of producer Gub Neal, Justin Thomson and Patrick Irwin). Yet her presence on screen – improbably glamorous, defiantly feminist and ostentatiously bisexual – arguably unbalanced the production. As with most crime dramas, the detective is at the heart of the action, but “The Fall” was as subversive in its intent as in its form, to the end.

When I first wrote about the series (After “The Fall”, July 16 2013), I noted the Miltonic origins of the title. All the individual episodes were sub-titled with quotations from “Paradise Lost”, though these were only available on-line (presumably the BBC thought they were too portentous, or pretentious, for even the BBC2 audience – one is reminded of Dr Johnson’s comment on Milton’s “gigantic loftiness”). But Milton’s epic poem tells of two “falls” – the expulsion of Lucifer from Heaven, choosing to reign in Hell rather than serve above, leading to his scheme to tempt Adam and Eve into the disobedience that forces their expulsion from Eden.

It is Spector’s character that in the end defines “The Fall” – and James Dornan’s remarkable inhabitation of Spector is a true tour de force of acting which throws into question the production’s pre-occupation with Anderson. Yes, the third series marks time for the first two episodes, as Spector recovers from his life-threatening injuries. Critics compared those episodes to scenes from “ER”, which was fair enough – but Cubitt could scarcely ignore Spector’s medical crisis, and uses it to good effect, as the “patient”, emerging from his medical coma, claims to have lost his short-term memory (conveniently covering the years of his murderous attacks), so providing a first line of defence for his legal team.

We are also able to observe how he captures the sympathy of his front-line nurse, Sheridan, played by Aisling Bea as a look-alike for his female victims. With Spector’s symptoms requiring expert analysis at a secure psychiatric unit, headed by a Dr Larson (a Swede played by the best interpreter of the detective Wallander, Krister Henriksson), Nurse Sheridan presses a folded banknote into Spector’s hand as he departs the hospital. He reads the biblical message she has written on it – “he that loves not abides in death” – and then discards it as he enters the unit. Gibson spots this on CCTV and retrieves the note, but is unaware who has written the message: on her eventual return to London, she pins the £20 note to her wall, still puzzling over its content and provenance.

Spector’s purported amnesia requires him to recognize his daughter, Olivia, born before its supposed start (though he appears puzzled by how old she is – eight rather than two – and expresses surprise to learn that he has a son, Liam). However, it also spurs Gibson’s team to search for crimes using his modus operandi from the time he was in London, using the name Peter Baldwin (Baldwin was not his biological father – that was a British soldier who left his mother before he was born – but a man who lived with his mother for a time).  

It is this plot twist which sets up two gruelling hours of viewing, as Cubitt delivers the content that must have been – for him – at the core of “The Fall”, but obscured for much of the time by the conventions of a police procedural thriller. The London investigation challenges Spector’s claim to Gibson that he had suffered no abuse at the orphanage to which he had been sent at the age of 10 after failed attempts at fostering. It was Burns himself who had exposed the vile regime at the orphanage, which had led to the imprisonment of the paedophile priest, Father Jensen – and who interviews Jensen in prison about Spector. “He was a pretty boy” murmurs the unrepentant Jensen, played by the ever-watchable Sean McGinley: is your coming here anything to do with the Belfast sex murders?

Burns warns the London-bound team that those running the orphanage had forced all the boys, every day, to masturbate publicly, as well sexually stimulate staff members. Few could have survived that experience undamaged. By this time in the inquiry, with Gibson under investigation for having failed properly to protect her prisoner against the Protestant gunman, and Spector potentially evading prosecution, Burns has resorted to heavy drinking.

The London murder which has attracted the attention of the police team is a death during sex, apparently by strangulation: but another man is serving a life sentence for the crime – David Alvarez. Reading through the interrogation records, the Belfast detectives work out that Alvarez had been fed by his interrogators nearly all the details of the crime: almost as if he had not actually been there. They also find that the CCTV footage that has survived shows not only the victim and Alvarez on the street together, but – just behind them – someone who looks just like Spector.

Alvarez is interviewed, and identifies this CCTV image as Peter Baldwin, the name by which Paul had been known before his eventual adoption, at age 13, by the Spector family. They had been at the orphanage together, where Peter had been Jensen’s favourite for a whole year – “pretty boy” is what Alvarez says Jensen called him (and is how Jensen had described him to Burns). When it fell on Baldwin to nominate his successor, Alvarez had felt sure he would be chosen – and was eternally grateful to Baldwin for choosing someone else, and so saving him from that hellish ordeal.

The two had met up again as adults in London, and on the night in question had picked up Susan Harper and taken her to Alvarez’s flat. After he had had sex with her, he had left her with Baldwin. He had not seen him since. The Belfast detectives ask him why he has taken the blame for a crime he did not commit. He shrugs off the question.

Once the police charge Spector with the Harper murder, which pre-dates his claimed period of amnesia, his options narrow. Far from denying the encounter, he claims her death was accidental, whilst experimenting with placing a plastic bag over her head during sex, after Alvarez had left the flat. Under interrogation, and during interviews with Larson, he steadily reveals more and more about the roots of his psychopathic behaviour, most specifically in his relationship with his mother.

After Baldwin had abandoned them, on Spector’s eighth birthday, he remembers sharing his mother’s bed. But she was sad, and angry – angry with him, though he can’t remember why. Ten days later, he came home from school – she had failed to collect him – to discover her hanging from the back of her bedroom door. He had called 999, not knowing if she was dead or alive. When a social worker told him she was in a better place, he wondered if that meant she was alive, but no longer encumbered with him.

He claims to be “intrigued” by what he has heard of the Belfast murders, slyly noting that laying out clothes in the shape of a body is something he used to do with his mother’s underwear. This had aroused him, and stealing underwear had later been an aid to masturbation. He had found spying on people’s homes – on “real people” – satisfying: when he progressed to breaking into those homes, he planned it carefully, and found it easy.

He didn’t want other people to feel safe. As he edges closer to admissions, and as Gibson joins the questioning – “she speaks!” – he looks directly at her. She urges him to give up the charade of amnesia, to abandon the performance and the need to be noticed, and to “own” his confession. As he glares at her, his solicitor calls for a break. Spector stands up at the interview table, and – taking advantage of the absence of handcuffs and momentary loss of attention by Sergeant Anderson – suddenly attacks Gibson, with brutal punches and kicks. When Anderson – who had been wounded in the arm during the shoot-out at the search site for Rose Stagg – tries to intervene, Spector viciously twists and breaks the arm, before finally being over-powered. Burns – who had been monitoring the interview – is one of those who pitches into the struggle with Spector, before being pulled off by a colleague, horrified to find him drunk.

Gibson’s injuries are superficial. On hearing that Spector’s former babysitter – and co-conspirator – Katie has been self-harming in custody, Gibson visits her. She reveals that she, too, still sometimes cuts herself, out of continuing anger at the loss of her father when she was a teenager (she has previously told the doctor treating her cuts and bruises that the last time she was happy was when she was a child, and her father was alive). Katie admits her own anger at her father, killed in a motorcycle accident when she, too, was 14, blaming him for loving his dangerous motorbike more than his teenage daughter.

Katie’s letter to Spector – “my pain is for your pleasure”, “I can feel you crawling through my veins”, “I exist for you” – has been intercepted by the police. Gibson tells her that Spector by now barely knows she exists: his anger and rage have carried him too far. She, however, is not yet lost. Gibson urges her to let those who love her do so. As a glimmer of hope enters Katie’s eyes, a phone call interrupts the interview: news from the secure hospital.

Spector has been cultivating one of the other inmates, Mark Bailey, who claims to have been held in the ward for five years, after breaking his sister’s arm in retaliation for her mocking his sexuality. A warder tells Spector that Bailey actually then raped his sister, dragged her outdoors and threw her in front of a moving vehicle, killing her. When Spector sees Bailey again in the recreation area, doodling in an exercise book, he takes the book and the pencil, and recites a macabre poem (“There was a man of double deed”), writing in the book the final words, “Twas death, and death, and death, indeed”, before signing his name. He asks Bailey for a favour.

The ever-observant Spector has been noting how Dr Larson keeps his various keys in a locker. He tells Larson he has dreamed of seeing his body in a coffin, cut into pieces, but still connected to his nervous system. We know he has dreamed of suicide, throwing himself from the top of a high building. He asks Larson if his condition could be treated, even cured – and Larson cannot give a positive reply. The stage is set for a devastating denouement.

Bailey starts a disturbance in the recreation room. Spector slips unnoticed to the doors through which he expects Larson to try and enter. When that happens, he pounces on Larson, punching him into unconsciousness. He seizes the locker key, and opens the locker. But he does not take Larson’s car keys – this is no escape attempt: instead, he grabs a cell pass key, and removes Larson’s belt. Then he opens one of the locked cells and hides inside. The warders have meanwhile overpowered Bailey, and carry him back to his cell, throwing him inside, slamming and locking the door.

It is there that Spector lurks. He wraps the belt round Bailey’s throat, slowly strangling him. At Bailey flails and dies, Spector seems to experience a sexual climax. Then he takes a plastic bag from a waste basket, places it over his own head, ties the belt tight round his neck, and hangs the buckle from the door hook. We watch him (if we can look – in my days as a broadcaster such a detailed depiction of a suicide could not have been transmitted) as he suppresses his instinctive struggle, and succumbs to asphyxiation. By this time, the warders have realised what has happened, and burst into the cell: but both men are dead, and a bloodied Larson has been hospitalized. It is then that the call is placed to Gibson, interrupting her session with Katie.

Spector’s final acts are open to more than one interpretation. Killing Bailey could be retribution for the murder of his young sister (Spector believes that children are inherently innocent in his Miltonic scheme of the world visible and the world invisible). There may even be a hint of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”, where the Chief smothers McMurphy, as a kind of mercy killing, before fleeing.

But Spector’s dominant motivation is surely to deny Gibson her desire to bring him to trial and see him imprisoned for the rest of his life. As she told him, when he teasingly recalled hearing – distantly – someone say “we’re losing him” after he was shot (so, again, partially casting off the cloak of amnesia), that was not – as he put it – because “there must have been one person at least who cared”, but her deciding that death would have been too easy for him: he needed to confront the dreadful black hole of his heart. So Spector exercises and displays his power over others, even in a secure hospital, and power over himself. True to Lucifer, he asserts that “the mind is its own place, and can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”.

In making Spector comprehensible, Cubitt does not ask for audience sympathy. As Gibson warned early in the drama, Spector has spread poison all around him. “How will you explain your crimes to your daughter?” she asks him when he calls her in series 1. Now that daughter, Olivia – like Gibson and Katie – will have to deal with the early death of her father, as well as his terrible acts, even as she recovers from her distraught mother’s attempt to drown herself and her children. Spector’s wife remains traumatized.

Six murders, an attempted murder, a kidnapping, at least two violent assaults: the families of Spector’s victims lack even the closure of a trial. Burns has resigned as Assistant Chief Constable. Sergeant Anderson’s detective career is surely ended by the physical damage inflicted by Spector. Poison, indeed: though almost the last scene Cubitt offers us is of Rose Stagg reading a fairy tale (“when wishing still did some good”) to her daughter, Nancy, for the love of whom, and in certain knowledge of whose love, she had defied Spector’s tortures. At least there were two survivors.  

To the end, the production team clung to phrases from “Paradise Lost” for their episode titles. Well, almost the end: one episode title – “What is in me dark illumine” – was actually a misquote for “What is Dark in me Illumine”; and another title – “Silence and Suffering” – is not from “Paradise Lost” at all, though there is a phrase in one of Milton’s letters about “silence and sufferance” being “the best apology against false accusers”. Cubitt and Neal have maintained a dignified policy of “silence and sufferance” with regard to the latest spate of criticisms of “The Fall”: and I respect that, taking the view that the overall achievement of their 17-hour epic far out-weighs its few weaknesses, and speaks for itself. The largest faults seem to me the result of the artificiality of a linear broadcaster’s needs.

Indeed, BBC2 owes “The Fall” a full narrative repeat of the entire drama, so that we can more fairly take its measure, by-passing the structural constraints of spreading across three broadcast years a story that runs in “dramatic time” for just a few months. After all, how reasonable is it to expect an audience to remember the brief scene of Burns’ visit to Father Jensen in series 2 nearly two years after it was first transmitted? Of course, such a re-run would also expose the loose threads in the narrative, but that is a risk worth taking.

The world of linear television, and renewable series, is being overtaken by web delivery. These days, as Netflix is demonstrating with its launch of the big-budget drama “The Crown”, the highest quality content does not even require a TV set for viewing. Meanwhile, Sky Atlantic has just broadcast a re-make by HBO of the BBC drama series “Criminal Justice”, re-titled “The Night Of”, which enlarged and transformed the original as it transferred the action from London to New York. It was not just the sheer quality of the new version which compelled attention: the freedom that HBO allowed the creative team (novelist and screenwriter Richard Price and film director and writer Steve Zaillian) meant that individual chapters – the word “episodes” seems so limited – of their television novel could run to whatever length was required (89 minutes in one case) whilst the whole work could be viewed as a continuous downloaded sequence. Surely, somewhere and somehow, Cubitt and Neal deserve the same opportunity.  

About the author

David Elstein is Chairman of openDemocracy's Board. He is also Chairman of the Broadcasting Policy Group. 

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