Jim is horrified by the idea that he could be a member of the same species as Paul. And the subject is particularly charged between him and Stella given that earlier, he tried to force himself on Stella in a drunken moment, and she gave him a bloody nose in the course of defending herself. “I’m a man,” Jim protests. “I hope to God, I’m nothing like him.” Stella is firm but fair, and she develops a useful distinction. “No, you’re not. But you still came to my hotel room uninvited and mounted some kind of drunken attack on me,” Stella tells him. “I was saying no, Jim, quite clearly. You ignored me and carried on….No, it’s not the same. But you still crossed the line.”
The scene gets at what makes “The Fall,” currently syndicated on Netflix, feel so strikingly different from the glut of serial killer stories in film and television. Allan Cubitt’s drama refuses to treat Paul like a glamorous, sophisticated being worthy of our identification, focusing instead on the resistance and resilience shown by his victims. And “The Fall” raises an issue that is a live current in U.S. debates over gender and sexual violence, suggesting that all men are capable of terrible things. That’s the sort of sentiment that anti-feminists accuse feminists of using to smear innocent men, and that most U.S. feminists would aggressively deny believing. But by leaning into it, “The Fall” has made fascinating, discomfiting television.
“I think one of the reasons why ‘The Fall’ has some of the impact that it seems to have is because it posits the notion that Spector is on a continuum of male behavior,” Cubitt told me at the Television Critics Association press tour earlier this month. “He’s very much out there, but it definitely suggests that there’s a continuity between all kinds of male behavior and what Spector is doing.”
“The Fall” can take that suggestion to extremes. In one scene in the second season, Stella even describes maleness as a kind of error. “That particular scene, where she talks about it as a birth defect, there were various takes, some that had a little more humor in it than others,” Anderson told me. “But it is interesting that the take that they chose did not, and she appears to pretty much have that opinion, that it is a birth defect, which is quite a strong statement.”
Whether or not Anderson herself would go quite that far, she said she had been deeply affected by her research for “The Fall” and “Sold,” a movie about the trafficking of children.
“The sex trade would not exist if it wasn’t satisfying the male desire. And the stories I heard through research for that are unfathomable,” she said. “Those things go on. Those things happen in our own back yards every single day. And that’s not necessarily violent, but that is an element of male behavior that you do not see reproduced in female behavior. The opposite does not exist.”
But there’s a subtlety to “The Fall” that prevents it from becoming some sort of railing stereotype. The second season looks hard at what Paul means to his family, particularly his daughter, and the ways in which the skills that make him a killer also make him a good, encouraging father to her. Humans succumb to their worst desires and impulses sometimes. But we also sometimes succeed in overcoming them.
Cubitt is interested in the points at which someone like Paul gives in. “What would trigger someone into putting these things into action?” he asked me, explaining one of the main subjects of the second season. “That’s a huge thing, that’s a huge step to take.”
And beyond simply suggesting that men are potentially violent, Cubitt said he’s intrigued by the prospect of corruption that lingers in so many elements of human life. “A great many of the things that we are troubled by are on a kind of continuum,” he suggested. “That touch runs from the tenderest and most beautiful thing that could exist between, say, you and your partner or you and a child, through to more intimate touch, through to more aggressive touch and so on….One of the things I was aware of is these sort of individuals like Spector, their fantasy worlds are far more real to them than the real world. For writers, that’s a worry, because my fantasy world is more real to me than the real world!”
Stella, Anderson argued, lies on a continuum with Paul, too. Both share a tendency to tell lies. Stella’s are small, though not inconsequential: In the second season, she argues that a handsome police officer will be an asset to the investigation and suggests that she hasn’t seen his face, concealing her sexual attraction to him. Spector’s untruths are more dramatic: He has constructed two entirely separate personalities. But just as Cubitt suggested that our fantasy lives can overtake our real lives, Stella’s lies and the consequences of Paul’s dissembling suggest the risk that false statements can eclipse true motivations, even to the people telling the falsehoods.
But for all the grimness of its vision, Cubitt, who took over directorial duties in the second season of “The Fall,” makes certain choices that shows that revel in violence might consider a bit prudish.
To explain Paul’s psychology,”We had to show some kind of attack and the aftermath of an attack, but it was always my intention right from the beginning that we would do that as little as was possible within the scheme of things because it’s so disturbing, and you see so much of it, and so much of it is gratuitous. And I wanted to very much avoid that,” Cubitt says, explaining the show’s focus on women and their experiences, rather than the fetishistic details that give Paul such pleasure. “For me, the thing was much more in a sense to explore the ways we deal with traumatic experience and the ways we draw strength from our relationships with other individuals.”