The Fall Recap: Under the Microscope

The Fall

The Gates of Light
Season 3 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating *****
Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector.
Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector. Photo: Helen Sloan/Netflix

The Fall prides itself on being as impenetrable as its leading character. That impenetrability pairs well with the show’s icy mood, but in “The Gates of Light,” we’re reminded why the interior lives of these characters should be front and center. “I always thought that I wanted love and security. Now I just feel like I’m floating free in a void,” Rose Stagg tells Stella in the episode’s standout scene, her voice faltering as her fingers dance across the wounds she doesn’t even remember inflicting on herself. So much of The Fall’s shifting dynamics are meant to be gleaned from chilly gazes, but as Rose falls to pieces, we see the benefits of more direct character development. What she says applies not only to her ongoing struggle, but also to the other characters and the show itself. It’s all floating in a void.

We watch Jim Burns down alcohol in a bathroom while he’s on the clock. The investigative team silently recoils as they pore over Spector’s photographs of him in women’s lingerie, his face obscured by pantyhose. They carefully inspect the notebooks that document the women he stalked along with his innermost thoughts. (Nietzsche figures prominently into these journals, making Spector seem even more pedestrian, like a sullen teenage boy’s idea of a serial killer.) Beyond this collected evidence, “The Gates of Light” ultimately details the fallout of Spector’s memory loss, and how his very presence warps the trajectories of everyone around him. It’s almost as if Spector has his own gravitational pull, forcing people into the darkness that has come to define him.

Some women, like the cop who guides Spector into the room where he’ll remotely attend his first court date, look at him with thinly veiled disgust. And then there’s Katie, whose unhealthy obsession with Spector has overtaken her life. Or what about poor Sally Ann, who moves through her day as if trapped in a waking nightmare. She’s been so hollowed out by what’s happened, even Stella unsuccessfully argues for the charges against her to be dropped. The more I watch Spector and the women around him, the more I believe he’s a blank slate for The Fall to project its ideas of misogyny and violence. Unfortunately, limiting his characterization to that symbolic purpose has caused some problems. I’m more curious about his nurse, Kiera (Aisling Bea), who has gone from fearing Spector to treating him sympathetically. She worries about him openly. She asks him intimate questions about his near-death experience. (“I know life is our only possession,” he responds.) Even when leaving his room for the night, she says she will pray for him. Kiera’s sympathy isn’t an isolated occurrence, either: “The Gates of Light” has a troubling undercurrent of sympathy for Spector, going so far as to suggest that since he can’t remember his crimes, the man is basically innocent.

The episode goes to great lengths to show how unmoored Spector has become in the aftermath of his memory loss. This is evident when he first meets his lawyer, Sean Healy (Aidan McArdle), and the woman assisting him on the case, Wallace (Ruth Bradley). They carefully, bloodlessly extol the crimes Spector is accused of committing. Photo after photo of the women he stalked and killed are put before him until he can’t even look anymore. He only recognizes the sole survivor, Rose, since they dated when they were in their early 20s. But I wasn’t struck by Spector’s tears or discomfort. Instead, I focused on the question he asked after they told him about the murdered people: “What sort of murders?”

Of course, Healy wants the case thrown out under the excuse that Spector’s memory loss casts into question whether he is fit to stand trial. I’m not interested in the legal workings of this argument, which Stella, Burns, and other police officials have a tense conversation about. My concern is a moral one. What is The Fall trying to say by suggesting that Spector is innocent because he can’t remember his crimes? Why introduce this plot twist now, after committing to a story about the various degrees of violence women face? It casts into question both the show’s feminist leanings and its moral complexity.

Even if Spector didn’t kill any women when he was in his 20s, his violent impulses and the underlying issues they represent didn’t come out of nowhere. We’ve known Spector was a killer since episode one. We have watched, with sickening detail, as he stalked, murdered, and posed the bodies of several women. Even the women whom he didn’t kill, he harmed, typically under the paltry excuse of his weird mother issues, which fail to add complexity to his character. Also, his notebooks suggest there may be more victims, adding another layer of urgency for Stella to get this right. The pages are full of him tracking and documenting the daily habits of women along with his sexual fetishes. Spector’s question about “what sort” of murder suggests that his desire to kill women existed long before the beginning of the series, which makes the sympathetic light he’s being cast in all the more questionable. I’m not saying Spector needs to be an archvillain; even when you hate a character and what he represents, he can demonstrate layered complexity. (Jessica Jones handled this very well with its villain, Kilgrave.)

The possibility of other victims leads Anderson to find an interesting connection between a murdered woman and a man Spector used to know, who’s now serving time for the crime. “Where on the continuum of his violence do these journals fit?” she asks. That question can also be posed toward the memory-deprived Spector. When he was in his 20s, how did his violence toward women manifest? When did this behavior start?

Rape and murder are obviously on the harsh end of that continuum. But women also face normalized threats from men: the bombardment of catcalls, groping, leers, gas-lighting. Rose may have survived, but mere survival isn’t enough. Spector’s chances of regaining his memory seem slim. Does that mean justice won’t be found for his crimes? What about justice for Sally Ann, whose loyalty has destroyed her entire life?

I have never been a fan of Sally Ann’s characterization because of its slim parameters. She’s the pathetic, put-upon, downtrodden wife. She’s a difficult character to watch because she’s an empty symbol for the sad spouse of a violent man. Actress Bronagh Waugh’s performance makes Sally Ann even more grating; she adds little complication or lightness to the character. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel for her.

It’s Sally Ann’s empty gaze that most unnerved me as I watched this episode. Like Rose, she is haunted by Spector’s presence. When she drives to the beach in the dead of night, her kids asleep in the backseat — possibly drugged, as an earlier scene alludes — the absolute reach of Spector’s violence becomes clear. Even if Spector can’t remember what he has done, he doesn’t have to. Countless women in his orbit must carry the memories of his violence for him. And they have the scars to prove it.

The Fall Recap: Under the Microscope