“He’s not a human being. He’s a monster.”
“Men like Spector are all too human; too understandable. He’s not a monster, he’s just a man.”
In 2013, The Fall’s premiere was the highest-rated program out of Ireland in eight years. So it’s not surprising Netflix quickly picked up the compelling serial-killer drama for North American consumption. Starring Gillian Anderson as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson and Jamie Dornan as the pursued killer, Paul Spector, the series has certainly taken its time returning since the agonizing cliffhanger-of-sorts that they went out on, but with its return comes high expectations.
While The Fall’s first season spent much of its time indoctrinating you into this universe–easing you into the slow bath that is the darkness of the world–then this season is about understanding that darkness. Spector conceivably got away at the end of the first season for his crimes, but, addicted to what he does, we see him back at it. The show’s angle this time around is not so much being the fascination with what’s going on, but rather with what’s happening behind it all. Not just in terms of Spector’s motivations and why he keeps killing, but also particularly with Anderson’s Stella Gibson.
We get more insight into her than ever before, not just in terms of her past and who she is, but also with how she conducts an investigation and why she moves the pieces around in the way that she does. It’s very much watching two experts excel at what they do, with both of them being the antithesis of each other. But this doesn’t just stop with Gibson either. If there’s a secondary criminal this season, it’s certainly the unhinged, acceptance hungry Katie Benedetto (Aisling Franciosi) as she tries to foster a destructive relationship with Spector in spite of being fifteen years old. Every minute they’re alone together it’s tense and uncomfortable as hell. Watching her is sometimes just as fascinating as watching Spector, as you see the machinations behind her actions and the darkness she embodies through towing the line in not being a killer or on the side of the law, but in being alone.
The framework applied this year, as things resume almost immediately where they ended last season, sees things effectively divided into the apprehension of Spector, and trying to find and retrieve, Rose Stagg (Valene Kane), one of Paul’s latest victims, as the suspense and uneasiness is split between these two pressure points.
While these six new episodes don’t seem as “shocking” as the first season, it’s hardly as if the gruesomeness and morbidity factor has been cranked down any. Much time is still spent in the dark folds of Spector’s twisted brain as we see victims being pushed to their limits. There’s a bluntness and almost surgical level of detachment from violence at times too, as if to show us that pain is unbiased, random, and everywhere.
For instance there’s an extended sequence where Gibson is watching Spector’s tapes of Rose, the woman he’s kidnapped and holding hostage, as she screams for food, not wanting to die in a hole, and begs to go home to be with her children. Gibson sheds tears as Rose screams that Paul is a monster ad infinitum. It’s amazing when we realize that this piece just keeps going and isn’t going to stop, with Rose going through the whole gamut of emotions, shifting between helpless and empowered, as they let the showcase breathe. It could almost be an act on its own, which is a crazy thought, but what makes this show so much more unique than all the other shows that dwell in this material.
Really a huge part of the season is just this game that Spector and Gibson are playing. At the end of the first season he finally makes contact with her. They exchange words, and now that they’ve “met” they’re in each other’s systems, and in spite of this being a relationship that happens entirely offscreen until the satisfying final episode, their presence is constantly felt on each other. Watching how the upperhand is incessantly in flux between them, like in a thrilling sequence where Spector is hiding in a bureau in Gibson’s room, with Gibson and Jim (John Lynch) being there the entire time with Spector still managing to escape unnoticed, is riveting.
There’s a new found sense of cockiness in Dornan’s performance this year, and to see Spector letting loose and taking even larger swings as caution is thrown to the wind gives his character some of the best material he’s had to deal with. We even get Spector walking around, outright brandishing his wanted poster like a Tinder profile, as he scouts for potential victims. It’s all glorious, unhinged stuff as you wait for the other shoe to eventually drop.
Truly some of the most interesting stuff this time around is on Gibson’s end, and if Dornan is playing his role cockier and more unflappable, then Anderson submerges herself into the introspective depths of Gibson’s lonely, detached personal life. Her job is doubled down on and it leads to exhilarating set pieces like watching how she leads the police in handling a botched surveillance mission on Spector’s house that ends up getting out of hand. Seeing how Gibson improvises on the fly and is in utter control, even when she’s not, is delightful, as she operates with the same degree of confidence that Spector does.
However Gibson takes a somewhat muted role this season, with it very much being more of the Paul Spector show, which is great, because he’s creepy and nuts, but you’re always going to be wanting more Gillian Anderson than you’re getting, and it acts as a nice juxtaposition to the balancing of the first season. The thing is, even though we’re getting so much Spector, he plays it ever stoically, and his barely audible presence through a lot of this season gives him a lot more weight, especially when he does break loose.
For the most part this all meshes together exceptionally, and while some moments seem to lose focus or spend a little too much time on a particular detour, when it’s working it’s hitting harder than the first season did. Everything that was set up with precision last year is expanded upon and while some of the luster and sheen may be gone, the plotting and tension are more than cranked up, with the show’s conclusion acting as a deep meditation on what man is, something the series as a whole has been dealing with from the start.
One of the show’s largest fascinations is with this idea as to whether deep down we are men or monsters, with the theme constantly being played with in the show, right down to minor, tertiary characters. There’s an illuminating discussion between Stella and Jim over the nature of man, and if people like Spector are humans or monsters, where she basically equates him to Spector. It’s a wonderful debate, but one that also distills the show down to its core. It’s exactly why so much time is devoted to Spector and his perspective. It’s to show you how we all work.
More of a focus is also taken on the people on the periphery of all of this pain. It’s likewise devastating to see the damage caused around the edges of Paul Spector, regardless of whether he’s caught or not, with Sally Ann (Bronagh Waugh), his “wife” being pregnant with his child, his daughter left with her grandmother tenuously, and Katie bordering on obsession, removing him from these people, as dangerous as he may be, could end up causing even more trouble.
Another of The Fall’s greatest assets is its crazy, frenetic pacing, where you have no concept of predicting what’s going to happen. It would even be foolish to assume that Spector would get apprehended (if he gets apprehended even) in the final episode of the season. There’s a great energy and power to see a show clean house with episodes to spare. All bets are off, accordingly.
The show’s finale is feature-length and treated with the weight and respect it deserves. It’s not forced to rush. It’s able to end this right. And it does some exceptional work, like it’s smart decision to focus on everyone else’s relationship with Paul before finally, inevitably bringing him to the center.
The finale really goes all out and it has much to do with the centerpiece of the episode — Spector’s interrogation. There’s something to be said for Spector and Stella’s face-to-face interrogation, which we’ve been anticipating for the entire series, as these two simply talk, sitting down, nothing fancy going on, for 15 minutes of screen time. It’s just a tremendous exposure and intimacy exercise (it’s no surprise that the conversation is framed with so many direct close ups of Spector and Stella talking right to the camera, as if they’re speaking to us) as we watch these two bond for nearly 20 minutes, and we realize why this finale has such a bloated runtime. It’s almost impossible to think of this episode without such a lengthy indulgence like this, and as we must sit and stew with this evil and uncomfortableness, it achieves what it wants to. It makes its point. The show’s purpose is no longer to even prosecute him. It’s to understand him, and people, in general.
The Fall more than sticks its landing here as it eloquently finishes what it has to say with an absolutely masterful, unexpected ending that is all sorts of brilliant and the perfect piece of commentary on consequences, the actions of men, and what we do. Its final moments will no doubt generate much discussion, and it’s just satisfying that not only does The Fall maintain the excellence from its first year, but it goes out with a bang on top of that.