The Fall Season 3 Is a Slow, But Mesmerizing Story

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Gillian Anderson as DSI Stella Gibson. Photo: Helen Sloan/The Fall 3 Ltd

The Fall wears its thematic preoccupations on its sleeve, weaving together deliberate, meditative slow sequences with an intimate, almost voyeuristic cinematography. That is even more true in the series' third and potentially final season, which is available on Netflix. Throughout much of the season's six episodes, nothing much seems to happen. It's all careful, unhurried movements and lengthy discussions about three primary obsessions: victimhood, process, and memory. Three topics, you'll note, that don't involve a whole lot of agency.  

And yet for all that nothingness, The Fall is still remarkably gripping television. Even more important, it's one of the few police procedurals that takes its violent, terrifying, misogynistic antagonist with deadly seriousness. It's undeniably invested in showing us the evil within Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), but it's even more focused on what comes before and after that evil. The Fall is the rare series that gives attention to its murderer without detracting from its remarkable dedication to the inner lives, to the personhood, of the victims.

Lots of similar shows and movies claim to be about the victims. The dead women of this genre — yes, they are always women — are sometimes mothers or daughters, sometimes prostitutes or upper-class professional women, but they're always given lip service of care. We see their photos. They smile. We consider their lovely or tragic lives, cut short by violence. But unlike other procedurals, The Fall explores that victimhood as part of a bigger, more complicated portrait.

The season is bookended by two relevant monologues from its protagonist, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson). In the first, she carefully explains to a victim's husband that his wife's apparent cooperation with her kidnapper does not indicate her consent. "In that state of fear," Gibson tells him, "she might well have been compliant. She might well have submitted. But that does not mean she consented." In the second, at the end of the season, Gibson tells a young woman that in order to escape the creeping, poisonous role Spector has played in her life, she needs to be both victim and rescuer. "You need to fight for yourself," Gibson says. "Because right now you're in danger." She's not talking about a literal physical danger in that moment, though. She's talking about the fight to retain a sense of self.

These monologues remind us that The Fall is inordinately focused on speech and language — talking as therapy, talking as expression of perversion, talking as performance and a way to reveal truth. So we see Stella Gibson offering extensive monologues because it is a way for The Fall to put forward its thesis on victimization and recovery, and also because the show is obsessed with process.

To some extent, all investigative shows are process-driven. That's where the procedural in "police procedural" comes in, after all. It represents the narrative fascination not just with what happened, but how it happened, how we discover it, and how it is prosecuted. This has been The Fall's strength from the beginning: We've always known who the Belfast Strangler was, so the question has always been how our intrepid detective would get him. With season three, The Fall stretches that dynamic even further. He's already been got. There is a mountain of evidence against him. Suddenly, the question of process becomes more personal and mundane.

Of course, this introduces the stuff you'd expect: how Gibson & Co. will build the case against Spector, how his family will respond, how it will play out in the courts. But The Fall lingers on far more unusual, everyday sorts of processes as well. There is a lengthy, fascinatingly slow sequence in the first episode in which trainee physicians intubate Spector immediately after he arrives at the hospital. With careful, almost loving detail, we see what his surgical aftercare looks like. We spend a lot of time with the police as they sort through paperwork. We watch as Spector gets transferred from the hospital to a psychiatric care facility. After his young victim/obsessive fan Katie runs away from home, it's even explained where she's been going to shower.

Unfortunately, such deliberate focus on routine creates the feeling that the season isn't about all that much. Although it escalates dramatically in the final episodes, you'll spend a lot of time thinking, "Where is this going, exactly?" The end does justify that early lingering, but the season is unmistakably intent on considering the aftermath of trauma as its own narrative space. It all returns to process — not just in how you catch a killer, but how you gather yourself back together after you've done so. How you recover from a bullet wound. How you cope with the knowledge that your husband is a monster. (Poor Sally Ann Spector. The answer to that one is "not well.")

These themes of victimization and process are also tied up with The Fall's most persistent fixation: the issue of memory. On waking from his surgery, Spector claims to have no memory of the last six years. This plotline — and Jamie Dornan's performance of it — are the best and most frustrating aspect of the season. It throws Spector's previous confession into question and creates all sorts of legal snarls, of course, but it's most interested in the bigger issues. If you don't remember committing a crime, are you still culpable? How, exactly, can you prove memory loss is legitimate? It's here that the show's facial close-ups are most effective, as we scrutinize Spector's face for any flicker of performativity or glint of knowledge.

In the final episodes, there's a scene where all of these ideas collide. It all weaves together — Specter's memory, the process of investigation as well as the process of criminality, the balance of trauma he experienced as a child set against the horrific things he did as an adult — and it feels like a worthy culmination of everything that's happened so far. It is frightening and mesmerizing all at once.

But this is not a perfect season of TV. As fascinating as surgical procedures are, and as nicely as they fit in with The Fall's bigger thematic frameworks, at some point there's just not enough narrative momentum behind Spector's nurse reading off his stats. Although the season's conclusion is both surprising and pleasantly frustrating, it adds an unnecessary moralizing button at the end. And for all of its devotion to the personhood of victims, perhaps most frustrating is the show's familiar narrative setup. The Fall is unusually good at dismantling misogyny and the tropes we use to consider crime and victimhood, but it is also yet another story about child abuse and dead women. Being one of the better stories about dead women doesn't mean the premise is any less frustrating.

When it's firing on all cylinders, though, the third season of The Fall is an unusually meditative, self-possessed piece of television, one that actually earns the "psychological thriller" title that too often gets thrown at anything related to a serial killer. At the end of the season (and perhaps the series), Stella Gibson has earned her contemplative, dissatisfied, exhausted glass of red wine.