The Fall Recap: Dream Within a Dream

By
Gillian Anderson as DSI Stella Gibson. Photo: Helen Sloan/Netflix
The Fall
Show
The Fall
Episode Title
The Hell Within Him
Season
3
Episode
4
Editor’s Rating
4/5

I've been struggling to write this recap, but not because I don't know what I want to talk about. The events and themes of The Fall are just so much closer to reality than many of us would like to admit. As the election has shown, rape accusations and abuse against women don't hurt the careers of men. Women must live with this knowledge every day, while being minimized and made to feel lesser through gaslighting, emotional manipulation, and outright assault.

As Liz Meriwether wrote in a piece for The Cut:

"Women rarely report 'forcible touching' to the police, but we have been reporting it to each other for years. Get more than one woman in a room and the stories of groping and flashing and grabbing that come out will make you run screaming from the table. These stories are passed down from friend to friend. These stories become our cautionary tales, our warnings, our Wanted posters. Women have always had these conversations — over food, over drinks, over the phone, in the middle of the night, at all hours of the day. Women do report assault. We report it to each other."

Sometimes, the emotional and physical abuse comes at the hands of the same men we expect to love and protect us. In "The Hell Within Him," we're shown how Sally Ann acutely experiences that abuse.

There is no easy way to put this: Sally Ann tries to kill herself and her children. She drives her car into the sea and is only stopped when strangers come across them. In the video footage, we can hear Olivia crying for help and Sally Ann stumbling to shore in a daze. She looks like some shipwrecked bride. This attempted murder-suicide is just many of the ways the episode scrutinizes Spector's effect on everyone around. As Stella says after Spector's representation requests her personal diary: "He's in the hospital. He's incapacitated. Yet he's still infecting the lives of every person he comes in contact with. He's a contagion." We can see the virulent aftermath of his presence most dramatically in Sally Ann's vacant face and unsure future, in Rose's sad voice as she tells Stella the details of her kidnapping.

I was struck hearing Rose tell Stella, off the record, that she wasn't exactly truthful about the arc of her relationship with Spector. They continued to see each other after he first strangled her. She reveals their sexual relationship took violent overtones. "We went to some dark places," she says, her voice distant.

Compared to Rose, Sally Ann occupies a small portion of the episode. In fact, we never even hear her speak. We just see her hollowed gaze as she balls herself up on a hospital bed. And poor Olivia, she's old enough to understand the weight of these tragedies. She's so desperate for connection that she holds out her arms to Stella, yearning for a hug. I can be harsh on The Fall's obsession with silence, but in these particular moments, the quiet consequences of Spector's violence is profound.

Consider how Sally Ann's murder-suicide attempt draws out such a strong emotional reaction in Stella, a character who withholds so much. Seeing herself cry is devastating to watch, especially as she discusses female anger in the wake of Sally Ann's decision.

Burns: "How were we to know she was that desperate?"
Stella: "It's what women do with their anger, Jim. They harm themselves or extensions of themselves like their children."

The way women experience and express anger changes along social, racial, and cultural boundaries. But despite those differences, it's clear that many women are told a similar message, again and again: Your anger must be avoided and tampered down. And when you get angry, you must never show it.

This is a message that Stella has obviously ignored. Throughout the series, we've watched as she channels her anger toward men like Spector. And when it's feasible, she uses her anger to drive care and attention for the women he's harmed. It is the fuel she uses to solve this case.

And yet I still think it's a mistake for The Fall to keep Stella at a distance. We're meant to understand her emotional state by scrutinizing her mile-long glares. It's an ambitious goal, but it undermines the show's broader narrative purpose. What makes "The Hell Within Him" the best episode of the season so far is that it finally places us within the mindset of the show's strongest character.

The episode even opens with Stella's dream. She's in a bathtub, surrounded by lit candles that give the scene a ritualistic feel. We then see a man start to massage her hand. It's Spector, of course. Without warning he pushes her deeper into the tub, holding her down, trying to drown her. She "wakes" to another dream of her father trying to wake her as she asks him for just five more minutes in bed. When she finally does wake up, the real world has none of the warmth of the moment she had with her father. Stella's emotional state acts as a through-line of the episode: her disbelief about Spector's memory loss, her sadness over Sally Ann's predicament, her anger on behalf of every woman affected by Spector's violence.

Gillian Anderson is a godsend. Her performance is challenging, electrifying, and emotionally honest in a way that's crucial to The Fall. The past few episodes were somewhat weak, but "The Hell Within Him" reminds us why we need stories that speak truth to such harrowing experiences. At its best, this show is unafraid to take a long hard look at the violence of men and the wounds they inflict on women.

It's interesting to contrast women like Sally Ann and Stella with the season's newly introduced characters, who are incredulous about Spector's guilt. Spector's supposed memory loss is a convenient excuse for his case to be dropped. (Or at least his sentence to be severely reduced.) It also allows him to garner a shocking amount of sympathy. The MRI proves that there is no physical reason for his supposed memory loss, which leaves two possible explanations: He's blocking his memory out because of psychological duress, or he's lying.

Although I'm still wary about this memory-loss plotline, the decision to introduce it beginning to pay off. The episode provides enough evidence to suggest that either answer might be true. When Healy and Wallace break down the evidence, showing him video footage associated with Rose's kidnapping and letting him hear his own confession, Spector is horrified. "That can't be me," he argues. As the evidence mounts in front of his eyes, Spector turns his violence inward. He begins hitting his head until Kiera rushes in to stop him. Throughout all of this, Wallace looks at Spector with a keen gaze, as if she looks hard enough, she'll find the answers she's looking for. Both Kiera and Wallace are there to help him, which explains their complicated feelings, but Kiera has clearly crossed a line. She's gone from being Spector's nurse to treating him like an intimate friend. She prays for him. She asks him about his relationship to death. She hangs on his every word.

But later, when Spector is in the psychiatrist facility run by Dr. Larson (Krister Henriksson), another patient asks him who he is. With a sick grin on his face, he says, "I'm told I am the Belfast Strangler." The vulnerability and kindness that Kiera sees in him is nowhere to be found.

Wallace's interactions with Spector and the case are vastly different. Did you catch her satisfied grin when she comes up with the idea to build a case against Stella's misconduct? Yes, it's her job, but I can't ignore how angry I felt when Healy said, "She seduced a confession from him." Those words have weight. Framing Spector's obsession as a mark against her reminds us how the world looks at women like Stella. Her hunger for justice pushes her to cross lines, but women like Stella ultimately protect us from men like Spector. They speak truth to power when no one else will.