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The Fall: Dark Descent

“No one knows what’s going on in someone else’s mind. And life would be intolerable if we did.”

The first three and a half minutes of 'Dark Descent', before the series name burns onto the screen, are stark and matter-of-fact. There isn’t any dialogue, there's no score, just incidental sounds. Two different people, a man and a woman, a window into their lives, almost mundane, juxtaposed. It's simple, like the inside of a spiral, tight and compact.

But as we go around the bend again and then again, teeter-tottering between these characters quite situated in their lives, the vista widens. And like any spiral, it frays. Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) stalks women, but also he's a dad, with two kids (and one's a daughter) and he's a husband, and grief counselor. Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is a woman, a detective, a superintendent called in to oversee a case about a murder of a woman in a male-dominated police force in a male-dominated field. In a male-dominated world. In fact, the first episode of The Fall is so well-constructed, its austerity is almost not to be believed. Because there are these little instances of compassionate sweetness, too, where the dialogue laces the visuals with the daintiest most subtle specific human emotion and experience. As if all the economy and exigency in the world still can't touch a crystal clear moment of true human connection forged from the realest truths.

Most of what we call "needs" are desires.

There's a lot of world view on parade on the page in a well-written TV pilot, (it's the 101 of writing one since it might be your only shot at communicating the value of a show) but in 'Dark Descent' just as much of the show's POV is in its images. Paul places his foot over the picture he had just drawn of his client to conceal it from her husband when he's confronted in the elevator but it serves to communicate his subconscious intentions, too, to place her underfoot -- and objectify her in the most prodigious way possible. Later, Paul stashes the diary of his sickness under his daughter's pillow when his wife climbs in the bed to lie down next to him, both of their heads inches away from his pitch-black fantasies. More visual metaphor with multiple simultaneous meanings. Stella holds her own wrist with all of her strength for as long as she can stand it to prove how athletic one has to be to actualize their murderous compulsion. These are images that don't have a foundation in television or film as far as I know. They're unusual, complex and they're very very loaded.

Men and women express grief differently.

And the seesaw at the center of this tale structurally works because it explicitly, relentlessly shows the deep abiding difference between the genders. Its equilibrium conversely finds itself, then, in the shared sameness of the human condition. Stella and Paul poignantly represent both their gender's outward boundaries, and the point where the lines converge. Neither sex is judged, shamed or exploited. Both are shown in a piercing reality as substantial, elaborate and fully dimensional. It's unusual how well the women of The Fall know themselves. And the men possess a kind of omniscience, too, made from an unexpected blend of intelligence and vulnerability. The heart of this series is about people who are just too broken to function in our society, most particularly, outside of the extraordinarily refined tunnel they have bored for themselves. This based on the idea that the bedrock of life itself is loss, never-ending, of one kind or another. (Hey, it's not called The Fall for nothing!)

The essence to a committed relationship is exclusivity.

So to solidify our investment in Stella and Paul, we have to buy that they really are two lines that can and will intersect -- that these two extremes can somehow understand the other better than most and in the most dire of circumstances, when all else is lost.

The Devil Is In The Details:

*Gillian Anderson's facial expressions could cut glass.

*The supporting characters are exquisite. They are extremely well-cast and acted. All are memorable for interesting distinct reasons.

*The tension is created in such weird and wonderful ways. I.E. the babysitter. Need I say more.

*The score (Keefus Ciancia and David Holmes) falls somewhere between Brian Reitzell (Hannibal) and Cliff Martinez (The Knick). It's fantastic and so full of dread.


Ferrington: "Could it have been the cat?"
Stone: "She's drunk."
Ferrington: "That's her excuse, what's yours?"

Stella: "But really and truly you should fuck off. Now."


  1. I've only seen a few episodes of this but Gillian Anderson is brilliant, I keep thinking I should watch more of it! Mainly I like it because my Mum's from Norther Ireland and I have family there, and it's so nice to see a drama set there that isn't about terrorism and the IRA (yes, this qualifies as 'nicer' than most NI-set dramas. It's a depressing history).

    The Falls Road is a famous road in Belfast, so the title is a sort of pun, as well as obviously being thematically appropriate! We don't really have 'pilots' over here, we mostly produce a short series as a complete package, which is good in some ways, as it means at least a short story arc will be fully written and filmed in advance, though it does mean first episodes don't always stand out as much as they do in the US.

  2. Juliette,
    First of all, watch the whole series! GA makes it well-worth it. Secondly, thanks for the information about the pilots. I didn't know that was the case with every series. You guys do it way better.

  3. We've done the odd pilot - Being Human had one - but they're really rare over here. One reason why so many series are only 6-8 episodes long!

  4. What a good read, Heather. You have such interesting things to say about how this episode, and this series, treats gender.
    Both Gibson and Spector are are unusual people, not at all typical of their sex. But they are both so calm! They speak in monotones, and yet both actors manage to convey that a riot, an orchestra, is going on inside their heads.

    The parallel scenes with Spector and Gibson that run through the entire episode are just amazing, from the silent opener with both of them revealing their faces, and continuing in tandem until the end. To be honest, the final scene upset me so much the first time I watched it that I skipped it this time. It was too real.

  5. Juliette, I love how supportive of the writing process the BBC is -- having these tight contained series where the writers know ahead of time how many episodes they are getting -- it's just a wonderful approach to a TV show.

    Billie, I kept racking my brain as to how this subject matter is palatable or why we even accept it based on where we are in our evolution as a society but I think it's because The Fall is trying to show a different more enlightened take on men and women and compulsion than the genre normally offers. I mean they were not playing around casting both GA and JD in those roles! :) All that said, the violence is unwatchable by all accounts. It's very effective.

  6. Billie, I forgot to add that I love the way you describe Stella and Paul's psyches -- that there is a riot and orchestra behind the their calm demeanors.

  7. Thanks for the thoughtful review of this most interesting show. One of the things I noticed in both this and Broadchurch/Gracepoint is that the "villains" are "normal" guys which is much truer to reality than the monster murders that we often are shown. People will often not believe 1. that 'such a nice guy' could do horrible things and so victims are not believed, and 2. that loved ones wouldn't know that their partner, friend, etc were harbouring such horrors. It is good, if scary to see that such people and situations might exist.

  8. I agree that the writing of this show is on a level almost never reached in television. What makes it even more astonishing are the moments with no dialogue that cut between our two protagonists.

    Although I have seen this series and know what's coming, I was surprised at how on edge I was again. The writing, the acting, the score all collude to ramp up the tension to an unbearable level.

    The final scene is so, so upsetting. The look in Sarah's eyes when she realizes that help was so close, but finally not coming, is heartbreaking.

    Great review, Heather.

  9. Doc:
    That's a really good point about the similarity to Broadchurch and its portrayal of the 'normal' guy. I agree that it makes the subjects touched on in both these series that much more unsettling.

    I agree with your sentiments about the re-watch. It's actually worse, if that's even possible, this third time around because I am much more aware that "the devil is in the detail" to quote Stella.


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