This post contains significant spoilers about True Detective and The Fall.
So I just finished watching the second season of The Fall, with Gillian Anderson. It’s really very well done, smart and political and beautifully shot. Anderson is a standout as detective Stella Gibson, but the cast is overall excellent too. It’s got the overall quality in production and immense attention to detail that are easy to take for granted these days. A couple things, though.
First: it’s another gorgeously made, lovingly created crime show that just doesn’t work on the level of a crime show. It reminds me of True Detective in that sense. It’s better than that show, and not just politically, but it still is better acted and better shot and better created than it is plotted.
True Detective was, for me, an interesting and noble failure because it was a mystery, at least in large part, and it utterly failed in that regard. I mean, really: as a mystery, it could not be worse. As a lot of people pointed out, in the lovely, ridiculous final episode, the whole boat ride meant nothing– they learned nothing of use to solving the mystery, and the creators seemed to have that whole plot point just for the “cool” scenes of showing the sheriff the ritual-rape-and-murder and for the terrible cliche of the secret sniper trick. But if you go back through a lot of the show, very often the things the detectives do make no difference for the overall case. In fact the entire part where Rust goes undercover in that motorcycle gang, leading to the wildly overpraised single tracking shot, ultimately makes little difference in progressing from point A to point B. That could work in a series that played up that angle; the movie Zodiac very effectively explored the false starts and dead ends that are part of detective work. But that’s not the show True Detective is, or the show it wants to be. I mean, they catch the guy through an impossible intuitive leap based on a ridiculous clue. I’ve painted a lot of houses in my life, and I never got paint on one ear, let alone both. It’s impossible that the character guessed it, the audience had no way of making the connection earlier… it’s a mess. And that’s just in terms of how the detectives get from point A to point B in the story, not even going into the massive plot holes, dangling threads, and pointless contrivances. The show’s beautiful in many ways, but it’s just a bad crime story.
The Fall isn’t nearly as bad in that regard, but I also find it fails as a traditional crime story. It’s important to note that, unlike True Detective, The Fall isn’t a mystery; the killer is the first character we meet. But the show seems to go back and forth without confidence about whether Paul Spector is a master criminal or incompetent. At times, he’s the former, and at times, the latter. He meticulously covers his tracks, while simultaneously accruing evidence against himself. The show suggests that this is the product of a manic reaction to a killing gone bad, but it doesn’t dramatize that adequately, and there’s no rhyme or reason to the things he does to cover his crimes up and the things he does to incriminate himself. Again, I think that showing all the ways someone who styles himself a master criminal has screwed up, gradually giving the cops the evidence they need, could be a good show. Something somewhat similar happens in the recent movie Night Moves. But I don’t think the show is doing that intentionally, or at least not cohesively. Whether Paul is bumbling or masterful, and whether he wants to get caught or not, are questions that the show seems perfectly incapable of making its mind up about from scene to scene. Also, a subplot about a powerful Belfast figure who holds sway over the top cop just up and disappears from the story. (Is there any resolution at all to the killing of the detective Olson?) The abusive husband figure is also both a very obvious and heavy-handed dramatization of the show’s key themes and a convenient vehicle to move the plot along when in need. He’s too obvious a device for both theme and plot and this exacerbates his lack of character beyond big violent oaf.
It’s still a very satisfying couple of seasons of television, don’t get me wrong. I just feel like this is a key problem with Prestige Disease, the very palpable awareness that a lot of shows have now that TV is supposed to be a very big deal and that they are high quality productions of the highest caliber. Production values are much more reliably bought than a compelling, tightly plotted story.
On the one hand, yes, it’s more explicitly and intelligently feminist than most any show I can imagine. And it’s a dark, absorbing, challenging feminism, one that really is profoundly ambivalent about the fundamental violence (sexual and otherwise) of maleness. It’s amazing to see feminism of this radicalism and dedication on a mainstream TV show. There’s no noble male figure to reassure viewers that most guys are good guys. There’s better men and worse, but every major male character is implicated in some kind of aggression against women. So that’s great.
But I also feel like the show is pulling a more sophisticated version of the old Law & Order: SVU two-step. That show has a simple and powerfully enticing formula for viewers: it titillates them, then assuages their moral sense by having the detectives righteously win in the end. When Detective Stabler says some version of “creepy perv, you like getting your jollies with little girls,” he’s ritualistically cleansing the prurient entertainment they enjoyed when the creepy perv was getting his jollies with little girls. Not that they approve, of course, but the relationship between viewers and the crimes that entertain them is a little unhealthy in that way. It’s a way to have your cake and eat it, too.
I feel like The Fall is sort of the same way, though surely not intentionally. Because there are a lot of hints that the creators don’t want to make the classic, Hannibal Lecter-style appealing serial killer story… but they kind of do. Near the end of season one, Gibson gives a speech to Spector over the phone that insists that he’s in fact weak, and not powerful at all. (One of the show’s minor weaknesses is a tendency to just announce its themes explicitly.) The show is so self-aware that it wants to make that kind of statement. So why is Jamie Dornan shot to look cool, when he’s in his serial killer hoodie and mask? Why is there the classic, intense focus on his serial killer rituals, so common to the genre? Why the loving shots of his abs and pecs? Why does he get in one last cool little philosophical aphorism at the end of the second season, again portraying him as a figure of philosophical detachment and discernment? Why is his intelligence as insisted on as his sadism? Why is his relationship with his daughter so loving? The show’s head believes that he’s evil, but it doesn’t have the heart not to make Paul Spector another gorgeous, charismatic woman-destroyer.
Having been told by a detective she’s just bedded that he finds Spector fascinating, Gibson says, “I despise him with my entire being.” And maybe she does. But the show doesn’t. Or at least, the camera doesn’t. And while I applaud the show’s explicit feminism, I find the implicit sexism of yet another sexy killer of women depressing. I have come to wonder if the only way to make a serial killer story feminist is to have the killer himself be obviously pathetic on the outside as well as morally, or if there can ever be such a thing as a serial killer story that is genuinely feminist at all. Though I don’t think it’s intentional, and thus not cynical, I think the show’s effect is explicit feminism acting as a palette cleanser for another story about dead women and the charismatic evil man who killed them.
Maybe this is just the facts of life in the entertainment business; you’re not going to get a lot of show biz execs willing to cast their screen-dominating villain with someone who looks like John Wayne Gacy. But the show adds to what has become, for me, a growing ambivalence about the power of the protagonist in art and the powerlessness of creators to oppose it. Look at Sopranos. As many have pointed out, the last several seasons of the show function as a rebuke to all of the viewers who thought that Tony was cool and the fun was in watching him whack people. And, yeah, I hate that as much as David Chase obviously did. But… can you blame them, in a sense? James Gandolfini was so charismatic, and the criminal monster as sexy, enviable figure is so prominent in American culture that I wonder if asking people to recognize that Tony is a terrible, pitiful creature is too much. How many Scorcese movies have had the intended thematic purpose of demonstrating the moral rot of his characters, and yet the impact of plastering those characters on dorm room walls? I knew enough to make fun of people who thought that the point of Fight Club was that you should start your own fight club and do Project Mayhem. But god, they made it look sexy, didn’t they? It takes the incredible beauty and tenderness of that final shot to wipe Brad Pitt’s sexy abs and cool clothes away.
I just wonder if the natural power of the protagonist, or the attractive, intense antagonist, overwhelms the political and artistic desires of creators in most cases. Which is precisely what I think happens in The Fall.
Look, it’s great TV. I wish I had more of it to watch. It’s frequent thematic and plot confusion don’t outweigh the quality of the characterization, acting, and production values. And it’s remarkable to watch a show with such direct and unapologetic feminism. I just don’t know if, in the end, that feminism is achieved as well in practice as it was so clearly intended in theory.