It begins with a nighttime routine. Put your hair up, wash your face, wipe down the sink. Contemplate the day ahead before crawling into bed.
Then, the murder.
Deviance is built into everyday life; violence is the terrifying exception to the regular “make the kids’ lunches,” “take the dry cleaning in,” “reschedule that meeting for next Tuesday.” Normalcy is followed by inhumanity. Mundane life threatened with violence; this is the style of the BBC series “The Fall,” about a serial killer living in Belfast and the seasoned investigator brought in to find him.
Jamie Dornan, recently chosen to play the sexually aggressive Christian Grey in the new “50 Shades of Grey” movie, is fittingly cast as Paul Spector, a charming serial killer who specializes in the murder of young professional women. Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”) plays Stella Gibson, the detached investigator from London trying to uncover the monster behind a spate of female strangulations.
At first, “The Fall” looked like another pulpy thriller — the kind that draws you in with violence and sadism even though you know you should look away. In the first episode, we watch a murder unfold: we see the break-in, the struggle and a terrible death. But the episode doesn’t end with a body, but rather with the murderer lovingly tucking his daughter into bed. The pilot establishes the paradox between loving father and methodical murderer, letting us know right away that this guy has deep issues with women. We are confused and fascinated by Paul — drawn in by the universal obsession with things that go bump in the night. Because of this, at first it doesn’t register that the writers are quietly establishing a feminist agenda that complicates the way we view both Paul and Gibson.
Detective Gibson is understandably intimidating to anyone; whip-smart, no-nonsense and seasoned to handle even the most brutal murders. She is a powerful force regardless of her gender. But the other characters’ wariness of her can’t be the result of simple intimidation; she is an authoritative, competent and archetypally masculine woman. We have seen these kinds of women on television before — Olivia Pope from “Scandal” or Dr. Temperance Brennan from “Bones.” But unlike Gibson, these women are often invincible only until their own emotions get in the way. They are masculine until they show proper female emotion, and powerful until they crack and admit they need help. In contrast, Gibson never fits into gender norms, which makes her the most susceptible to judgment.
For example, in the third episode her top button comes undone during a press conference, and as she calmly informs the public about the murders of three women, the media instead focuses on her “sexiness.” She brings a man home for a one-night stand, and when she feels nothing afterwards, she is judged for having neither moral scruples or guilt. She is a woman who acts entirely on her own needs, but because she doesn’t live in a vacuum, she is forced to face the social implications of her actions.
Many crime shows disregard any sort of nuanced social commentary, instead focusing on simplistic ideas of good and evil, justice and retribution. “The Fall” dares to question societal norms, reminding us that even in the face of senseless murder, real people still live in a world where many of their greatest problems are intangible and bloodless.
Murderers and thieves and rapists aren’t created in a vacuum; other people and outside ideas affect their rise. Gibson and Specter are distinctly new characters within the overdone world of crime thrillers. Both are psychologically complex; both in rebellion against social constructs; both sympathetic without being likeable. “The Fall” doesn’t overtly inundate us with theories and ideas, but instead creates everyday lives wracked with violence and obsession. We are hooked because we want to understand who this terrible man is, and “The Fall” begins to explain by first exposing the society and environment that shaped him.