“You’ve heard the story you know how it goes
Once upon a garden we were lovers with no clothes
Fresh from the soil we were beautiful and true
In control of our emotions till we ate the poison fruit
And now it’s…
Hard to be
A decent human being”
I watched the first season of The Fall through my fingers, declaring after – or sometimes even during – every episode that I was not watching any more.
The most common response offered around lunch tables and in hairdressers throughout Northern Ireland when someone asked: “Did y’see The Fall last night?” is that it’s very… dark.
It’s very dark. And compelling. And complicated.
And now it’s back, available on Netflix for your viewing pleasure – I use the term lightly – whenever you wish.
I watched the initial through-fingers-episodes because it was set in Belfast. A BBC crime drama/psychological thriller set in Northern Ireland starring Gillian Anderson (from the X-Files!) as Superintendent Stella Gibson and our own Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector, the sexually-motivated serial killer she is pursuing. We don’t often see our streets or hear our accent on TV and we wanted to watch, even as it was hard to watch. It was dark, yes, but it was a change from the usual dark story of our troubled history.
During that first series in 2013, I had a newborn that was sometimes sleeping in the Moses basket beside us as we watched women being tied up. Sometimes she needed nursed, before, after, maybe during Paul Spector’s fetishes. I made my protests and I covered my eyes and I declared myself finished with it. Until the next episode when I started watching over my husband’s shoulder again.
My internal conflict as I watched The Fall mirrored the debate being played out in the media and among critics. Very highly acclaimed by some, just as persuasively denounced by others. Risky, intelligent, feminist. Unnecessarily graphic, repulsive, misogynistic.
Between seasons, its writer Allan Cubitt defended The Fall as an exploration and critique of misogyny, rather than an example of it. I buy that. Uncomfortable watching that is meant to be uncomfortable watching. I always buy that argument. I also know that it does not necessarily mean it is good for me, in particular, to watch it.
But I kept peeking over my husband’s shoulder because of Paul Spector. Not because of his good looks – a whole debate in itself: is it interesting or just sick to have a sexual serial killer that looks like this? I was drawn back by the chillingly ordinary side of him: the everyday charm, the familiar warmth, the likeable Belfast dad. The ‘family man’ side of him was relatable, in ways that the aloof detective was not. And perhaps the most disturbing thing of all was how this confused you at times about whose side you were on. You could trust this man, on behalf of the daughter he was tucking into bed. Uncomfortable in all kinds of ways.
I finished season one in discomfort, unable to articulate what I thought of it, swayed by opposing arguments. I heard some interviews with Allan Cubitt before season two began this November and I was swayed again, of course, by the ‘exploring a difficult and complex subject’ talk. And I was intrigued about the rest of the story he wanted to tell.
I didn’t miss a second of season two. I didn’t protest or waver. What I liked most about this season was how the investigation focused in part on developing an understanding of Spector, on why he is the way he is. The show may not have been a profound critique of this, but I love the question and I love that I was provoked to think about it after the credits rolled.
I like that the show makes us uncomfortable in all sorts of ways – the side stories of corruption and questionable sexual conduct, the blurred lines, the crossed lines, the contradictions. I don’t think Cubitt is telling us what to think about any of it, just giving us cause to think for ourselves. Is he suggesting anything by his title, ‘The Fall’? I have no idea of his intention. But it suggests something to me. I sit with the discomfort and the biblical connotations and the truth that things are not the way they should be. In an interview with the Big Issue, Cubitt talks about The Fall being a character study of the sort of person that’s capable of doing the sort of thing Spector does. He says: “My thinking is, they’re on a continuum with the rest of us – it’s just that they are very far out there.”
And so I sit with the discomfort, I sit on the continuum, I sit with my theological understanding of the fall. It’s such different thinking to the labelling and the tabloid headlines that want to remove real-life Spectors from the continuum, to consider them not human at all. It’s such different thinking and it’s uncomfortable in all sorts of ways.
My husband has starting running recently, usually at night, when our girls are in bed. As we watch the final episode of The Fall and Sally Ann Spector says there had never been anything strange about her husband’s behaviour, other than that he liked to run at night, I look sideways at my husband. We don’t like our serial killers to be relatable. We don’t like that continuum.
“And in my best behaviour
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid”