But the debate over The Fall’s first season obscured the show’s revolutionary treatment of women and the topic of sexual power. In fact, I haven’t seen another program that so directly challenges and rewrites the traditional conventions of crime dramas, starting with Anderson as DSI Stella Gibson, a highly-regarded London cop who gets called to Belfast because investigators there need her expertise on a murder case.
Refreshingly, none of the tropes we’ve been trained to expect in a story about a powerful woman play out. Nobody resents Gibson’s appearance on the scene or questions her authority. Her gender is a non-issue; subordinates hop to when she enters a room and they follow her commands without question. Gibson doesn’t try to submerge her femininity and stomp around barking out orders. In Anderson’s restrained yet compelling performance, Gibson is cool, calm, and always chic, with the most fabulous coat in detectivedom.
When a shooting happens at the station, it’s Gibson who smoothly takes charge while also tending to a male colleague in shock. As she begins to suspect that the murder they’ve been investigating is linked to subsequent killings, Gibson presses for the creation of a task force and firmly makes the case that she should lead it.
But this isn’t to say that it doesn’t make a difference that Gibson is a woman. Early on, she tells a colleague to leave the word “innocent” out of a statement about the victims. “What if he kills a prostitute next? Or a woman walking home drunk?" She asks. “The media loves to divide women into virgins and vamps, angels or whores. Let’s not encourage them.” It’s she who notices the victims’ painted nails, and who appears at a press conference with her own nails painted bright red as a signal to the serial killer that she’s on to him.
More importantly, while Gibson is very good at her job, she isn't portrayed as having sacrificed her personal life in exchange. That’s long been a frustrating trope about powerful women on television, including Sarah Linden, the detective on The Killing whose obsessive commitment to cases came at the cost of relationships with her fiancé and son. But neither does Gibson try to escape the stress and trauma of her job with damaging addictions. She has a glass of wine to unwind in the evening, and she swims every morning as discipline and release.
Gibson isn’t free from flaws, chief among them a blindness when it comes to pursuing sexual relationships with colleagues. Indeed, in her confidence that such liaisons are her right and won’t affect her work relationships, she isn't unlike Mad Men's Don Draper. And it’s as unsettling to hear Gibson ask to have an attractive male detective whom she's met for 30 seconds assigned to her team—knowing that she intends to sleep with him and that her colleagues know it as well—as it is to watch a king order a maid brought to his chamber. The decision of writer and showrunner Allan Cubitt to place Gibson in Belfast as a visiting detective is deceptively central, because the audience never sees her returning to an empty house or has reason to question why she doesn’t have a social life. Gibson is on a work assignment—it’s natural that she would be staying by herself in a hotel and not have a group of friends to hang out with. It may seem like a small detail, but the choice allows Gibson to just be a person, like so many of her male counterparts around the dial.