The Fascinating, Maddening End of The Fall

In Season 3, the Netflix show continued to raise questions about misogyny, madness, and obsession. Then it forgot to answer them.

A scene from 'The Fall,' featuring Gillian Anderson, in a dark suit, looking at a window.

The Fall has never been subtle about the fact that its two primary characters, the police detective Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) and the serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), are opposing sides of the same coin. Stella, all crisp white silk blouses and pale-blonde hair, is the yin to Paul’s yang, with his all-black combos, chunky sweaters, and implacable grimaces. Stella swims; Paul jogs. Stella is childless and romantically unattached; Paul is a married man with two young children. Stella hates misogyny; Paul hates, and murders, women.

That these two dueling forces have proven over three seasons to be not so different after all should come as no surprise. Popular culture is riddled with heroes whose antagonists are their perfect match, from Batman and the Joker (“You complete me”) to Sherlock and Moriarty. But The Fall, subverting the formula, has shown what can happen when a truly poisonous villain is paired with a woman, and in doing so, it’s become one of the most fascinating dramas on television. Stella isn’t a brilliant detective in spite of her gender but because of it; both her acuity as a policewoman and her ability to infiltrate her suspect’s psyche hinge on the fact that she’s a woman. The third season, which was recently released in its entirety on Netflix, continues to probe the dynamics of the relationship between Stella and Paul. But for all its psychological, almost literary complexity, it loses much of its narrative steam. It’s that great 21st-century phenomenon: a show that’s more fun to think about than it is to watch.

In the first season, which aired on BBC in 2013, Stella is introduced as a senior detective from the London Metropolitan Police Force brought over to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to oversee a review of the local investigation of a murder. From the very first episode, the audience is aware of the identity of the killer, with Paul shown meticulously stalking one of his intended victims. As a result, the intrigue of the show isn’t in finding out whodunit, but in the prolonged game of cat and mouse that plays out. In one episode, Stella gives a press conference in which she pointedly wears bright-red nail polish—a private signal to Paul that she’s noticed how he prepares and poses his victims after killing them. In another, he breaks into her hotel room, rifles through her clothes and intimate possessions, and reads her diary. Both, it’s fair to say, become obsessed with each other.

The third season picks up where the second left off, with Paul now in police custody, but having been shot by the jealous and violent husband of one of his clients. That scene, in which Stella rushed to Paul’s side and shrieked, “We’re losing him” as he gazed up at her, was how Season 2 ended, with the audience left to puzzle whether her desperation in the face of his grave injury was due to a desire for justice, or something more unfathomable. But instead of offering answers, the first new episode is like a hyperrealistic episode of E.R., focusing mostly on the doctors and nurses who are battling to save Paul’s life.

Philosophically, there are interesting things happening here: The show seems to be fixating on the energy and effort that goes into saving a life, just as, in seasons past, it’s shown Paul taking them in similar close-up. But plot-wise, it’s a slog. Paul’s spleen is removed (a metaphor, perhaps) in a scene of impossible precision, while Stella merely wanders around the hospital, seeming lost. In the second episode comes the most absurd twist: Paul is (spoiler) alive, but he’s claiming not to remember anything that happened to him after 2006.

Paul’s professed amnesia at least sets up some tension for the viewer, offering the mystery of whether or not he’s faking it to get out of the crimes he’s so obviously committed. But there’s very little else to be interested in, and Allan Cubitt, who created the show and directs all six final episodes, seems to be experimenting with a new fusion of detective procedural and Slow TV. Everything that happens is achingly, maddeningly ponderous; one scene, in which Paul is transported from one building to another, takes more than a minute and a half to play out. That’s a full 90 seconds spent on a scene in which a character does nothing more exciting than change locations.

The Fall still has intriguing points to make, but they get completely smothered by all the sensory detail—the click of the handcuffs, the slam of the car door, the swoosh of Stella’s silk blouse No. 1,634, the clack of her heels on the hospital floor. It’s easy to miss the fact that the show seems to be, perhaps for the first time, explicitly arguing that Paul and Stella are not so different; that her charismatic personality and ability to attract followers (mostly young women) mirrors his; that her desire to help people comes from the same place as his desire to hurt them—a deep sense of rage and injustice rooted in childhood trauma.

For a show that’s previously been one of the most compelling dramas on TV, not to mention—as my former colleague Amy Sullivan stated last year—one of the most feminist, it’s something of a disappointing end. Perhaps it could have played out with more urgency in fewer episodes. Possibly a more convincing twist might have carried the narrative along to its inevitable conclusion. It’s uncertain yet whether The Fall will return, although Cubitt has said he’s open to another season. But if nothing else, it’s been a remarkable thing to watch a show that sees misogyny so clearly, through the eyes of a heroine who isn’t afraid to employ emotion just as much as reason. “We’ve chosen to work in a masculine, paramilitary, patriarchal culture,” Stella tells a young acolyte in one of the new episodes. “Let’s not let it beat us.”