by Billie Doux
I am going to discuss the entire first season (five episodes) of this Netflix series in depth, so if you haven't seen it all yet, you might want to leave now. (Beware the spoiler kitten!) You can always come back later, after you've seen it.
Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) turns in an excellent performance as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, a talented cop who is the first to realize that a serial killer is targeting Belfast. She is professional, strong, and comfortable with herself. She refuses to apologize or even appear abashed about her one night stand with a married cop who is later murdered, while her male superiors are alternately jealous, snide or titillated. In short, I absolutely loved her.
Jamie Dornan (Once Upon a Time), as serial killer Paul Spector, also turns in a terrific performance. He comes off as a cipher at first, like a man whose entire life is dominated by an internal monologue that we're not hearing. He works as a grief counselor, of all things, and he parrots the correct words and sentiments to his patients while doodling obscenities on his diagnostic chart. He's a husband and father who appears to love his wife and two children, but he seemed so passive with them that I kept wondering if he actually cared or if he was simply playing a part.
By the second episode, I started wondering if maybe there was no "there" there. Was there anything going on inside this man at all? Is he something of a ghost, like his name (Spector)? The long interval he was taking to strangle his victims totally creeped me out; Gibson thought maybe his hands were weak, but he was obviously a strong man who took pleasure in their suffering. Why did he wash Sarah Kay's body and paint her nails? Did the lock of hair really have something to do with his mother, as he told Katie, the nosy, seductive babysitter? (I wanted to shake her for being so foolish about playing adult games with this dangerous man.)
There are Gibson/Spector parallel scenes right from the opener where they are both "unmasked" and continuing throughout the series: she writes about the killer, he writes about the victims; she swims laps, he runs, and so on. These scenes are obvious, but they're not just filmmaking tricks because both Gibson and Spector have a lot in common. They're both calm people who speak mostly in monotone. They are both doing what they absolutely feel compelled to do. Interestingly, they both show emotion for the first time late in the series and pretty much simultaneously -- Spector, when he learns Sarah was pregnant and he destroys the murder book he made for her, and Gibson when she sees the autopsy X-rays of her murdered lover. At one point, Gibson talks with her friend Reed, a forensics expert, about "doubling", the compartmentalization cops have to do to cope with their work and their real lives. Gibson observes correctly that this is what the killer is doing, as well.
The end of the first episode absolutely got to me; I thought about it that night and the next day. It was that last shot of Sarah Kay on her bed, staring helplessly up at the man who was about to kill her. Her enjoyment of life, enthusiasm for her job, the love she had for her sister and niece, it was all in her eyes; she knew she was going to die, and for no reason other than because a subhuman monster wanted to kill her. It's just horrible that the cops show up and ring the doorbell as Spector is killing her, and leave. In the second episode, her body is the center of the action and it's so beautifully posed and so upsetting. It reminded me of how I felt about the Buffy episode, "The Body". This isn't a disposable McGuffin intended to set the action in motion. We feel for her. Well, I certainly did. The treatment of the victims, and Gibson as the main character, of course, give this series a strong and believable feminist slant despite the fact that women are being victimized.
The scenes filmed from the ceiling of the Spector home are just fascinating, too, because as little Olivia tells her mother in the third episode, we know that there really is a naked woman in the ceiling. The dangling mobile under the attic trap door throws shadows on the wall of Olivia's room, and she often wakes up screaming from terrible nightmares, much like the loud, horrible sobs of the families of the victims. (Sarah's sister Marian sobbing with grief was so real that it was difficult to watch.) I kept thinking Spector would end up killing his young daughter, or at the very least Katie the babysitter. Fortunately, no.
Gibson is, of course, exactly the sort of woman that Spector chose to victimize, with the exception of the color of her hair. She knew it, too. She used that knowledge and the red nail polish to get him to call her. And that phone call, the climax of the fifth and final episode, was just wonderful. He thought he was in total control, which was his thing, and she turned the tables on him. She dissected his psyche and made him feel small and stupid in the space of five minutes. It was breathtaking.
As I've mentioned in my Dexter reviews, I don't usually like shows about serial killers, and I'm not a fan of the detective genre. There are always exceptions, though. The Fall is clearly an exception. Every element of the story was carefully set up and paid off, and unlike The Killing, I'm not at all upset that they left us with a cliffhanger. (In fact, someone -- not me, I hasten to add -- could write a thesis on why The Fall worked and The Killing did not.) Will Spector start killing again? Of course he will. He left a ton of loose ends, too. What about the cop who interviewed Spector? Won't he recognize the artist's sketch? Tune in next season. And yes, there's going to be a next season. I'm looking forward to it.
This turned out to be a long review, and I left a good chunk of it either unwritten or on the cutting room floor. I had stuff to say about the male/female cop team who found Sarah, a substantial diatribe about women as victims and men as killers, bits about Gibson's superiors and the woman that Spector saved from an abusive husband for totally selfish reasons -- and a lot about Spector's interesting wife Sally-Ann, who was so perceptive about what was wrong with her husband even as she made a choice that I never, ever would. Maybe I should have done it as five separate reviews. This Netflix entire-run-released-at-once is great for getting us hooked, but not so great for reviewing, episode by episode. Maybe I'll do individual reviews before season two. Should I?
Four out of four bottles of bright red nail polish,
Billie Doux is the founder of Doux Reviews and has been reviewing her favorite shows for quite some time. More Billie Doux.