The Fall Recap: Breakdowns and Breakthroughs

The Fall

His Troubled Thoughts
Season 3 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating *****
Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson.
Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson. Photo: Helen Sloan/Netflix

Memory is a powerful thing. It’s what makes us who we are, it’s the fuel behind the decisions we make. It determines the people we’re drawn to and it shapes the mistakes that come to define us.

Memory plays a pivotal role in “His Troubled Thoughts.” Stella and her colleague, ACC Jim Burns (John Lynch) are both questioned about the events that led to the shooting that nearly took Spector’s life and may prematurely end the career of Tom Anderson (Colin Morgan) due to the nerve damage in his arm. In this episode, memory is a weapon, a wound, and possibly even a salvation for Spector, whose unreliable memory can fit all these classifications. But that flexibility comes with an unexpected twist: Spector has lost a significant portion of his memory after regaining consciousness in the hospital.

Spector thinks it’s 2006, he’s in his 20s, and he’s in the hospital because of a car crash. We don’t learn how this will affect the investigation. We don’t know if this memory loss is permanent. The confusion marking his face when he sees Olivia and his wife, Sally Ann (Bronagh Waugh), means the memory loss is real, at least. This plot twist is something I would expect from a nighttime soap like Scandal, not a crime drama that prides itself on a careful, slow narrative burn. In addition to the flaws of the premiere episode, this suggests The Fall has become too far too heavy-handed. It also makes me very worried about what the writers are building toward. What are they planning to do with Spector?

The Spector who stalked and killed several women isn’t the same man he was in his 20s. If he can’t remember his crimes, will he be responsible for them? Will his new lawyer find a loophole to exploit this development so Spector doesn’t get any jail time? Is this an attempt to humanize Spector? The idea of losing your memory is a primal fear. When your memory goes, so does your identity. But Spector’s memory loss doesn’t add new layers to his character — it makes him even harder to read.

When I wrote about the premiere, I noted that Spector isn’t so much a character as a potent symbol for misogyny. But he can only work as a symbol for so long and I feel that time ran out in season two. For The Fall to work now, Spector needs to be far more interesting. He still seems more like an idea than a fully formed character. Throwing in the issues he has with his dead mother and memory loss only make him more prosaic. Beyond the roles he fills (husband, father, killer) and the ways he’s upended the lives of women, who is Paul Spector really?

It’s a question The Fall hasn’t adequately answered, which leaves season three feeling somewhat hollow. If we’re not engaged in the psychology of the show’s antagonist, how can we possibly care about justice being done to him?

“His Troubled Thoughts” is at its most interesting when showing how Spector has left many women’s lives in ruins. When Rose Stagg she sees him wheeled on a gurney, she has a panic attack and discharges herself from the hospital early. Sally Ann is a shell of herself, her hollow gaze making her grim situation even more heartbreaking. Olivia has grown curious about what’s happening with her father; despite what she’s learned, she doesn’t believe he’s a killer. Then there is Katie, the troubled teenager who was manipulated by Spector and has an unhealthy obsession with him.

Even the best television shows can sometimes get teenagers wrong. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m looking at you.) They’re so often written as petulant caricatures of bad behavior with little empathy or respect for anyone around them. Are some teenagers like this? Sure. But not all of them. There is nothing challenging or illuminating about Katie’s characterization. The show is never more heavy-handed than when it focuses on her story line, which struggles to find a place within the larger narrative. She’s a one-note character, the type whose every action feels punctuated by an exclamation point. We watch as she gives herself a septum piercing. She treats her mother terribly. She stalks her former friend Daisy (Tara Lee) after she comes across a news article in which Daisy discusses meeting Spector. She even goes so far to physically harm Daisy, perhaps blinding her. What purpose does this story serve? Katie brings nothing besides the ability to supremely annoying with minimal effort. Spending time watching her life explode brings up more concerning questions: Where is The Fall going this season? How will Katie affect the other story lines? What is this season trying to say about crime, misogyny, and the various forms of violence men impose on women?

Thankfully, we see more development with the actual case. The team gets a tip about Spector renting a storage locker under another name, which proves to be a goldmine. They find Spector’s detailed notebooks about the women he’s stalked, alarming photographs, and the car the police were looking for, which will tie him closer to Rose’s kidnapping. But even this evidence isn’t enough to distract Stella from the fact that she’s losing control of this investigation.

Stella is a woman who is all about control. It isn’t a coincidence she tends to sleep with colleagues who work under her, treating them with casual indifference. This something Burns alludes to when he pointedly asks about her involvement with Anderson, something Stella never admits to despite his prodding. Burns has become the face of the investigation, the one who reveals Spector’s identity to the press. He goes as far as defending Stella in front of their superiors. She’s a good detective with a keen eye and deft understanding of human nature — and she’s also a woman riddled with contradictions, who shares a desire for control in a similar way to the killer she is trying to bring to justice.

Watching Stella interrogated by a similarly icy blonde police official gives The Fall its first spark of electricity this season. Stella is great at deflection. She describes the events we saw play out last season with such precision and detail you’d almost believe that everything she did was the right thing to do. Yes, she managed to save Rose. But the end of the second season, Stella made several uncharacteristic decisions in order to drive the plot forward, which The Fall is now forced to reckon with. She made a lot of mistakes, several of which can be seen as negligence.

As the show has often done before, “His Troubled Thoughts” buttresses Stella’s many mistakes and contradictions with a powerful feminist statement. “Let’s not let it beat us,” Stella says to patrol cop Danielle Ferrington (Niamh McGrady) about the “patriarchal” culture they’re forced to work within. Is Stella’s description of the world and its treatment of women true? Undoubtedly. But it’s also true that Stella has become obsessed with this investigation. She exhibits a questionable attraction to power imbalances that tip in her favor. She demonstrates little regard for the internal lives of the men she draws into her life. These contradictions make her a fascinating character and are begging to be explored. In its third season, The Fall would be wise to not only add depth to Spector, but to turn its attention to the contradictions of its lead protagonist. By doing so, the show might better explain the ways men and women relate to each other in a world so defined by misogyny.

The Fall Recap: Breakdowns and Breakthroughs