In its season-three premiere, The Fall makes the mistake of briefly placing us in the mind of its killer, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), as he staggers between life and death. We even see Spector in a tunnel with a bright light at the end, his mother calling to him from the light while he hears the laughter of his young daughter, Olivia (Sarah Beattie), on the other end.
The sequence is heavy-handed in a way The Fall rarely is, which sticks out in an episode that creates its best tension within the minute aspects of an unraveling investigation. Beyond those stylistic issues, placing us within Spector’s mind offers nothing we don’t already know. He’s a prosaic character. His misogyny is commonplace, even as it manifests so brutally.
Perhaps this is why The Fall can be so uncomfortable to watch. The writers realize that virulent sexism exists in various degrees, festering in society because it is just that commonplace. At its most interesting, “Silence and Suffering” examines the ways women steel themselves against the men around them. How we harden in the face of everything from the sexist overtures of colleagues to men who force themselves on us, causing us to reshuffle our lives in hopes of survival. Unfortunately, it seems that the show hasn’t learned from the mistakes of its previous season: Characters still make uncharacteristically stupid decisions to push the plot forward, while too much focus is given to the minutiae of Spector’s home life. Watching this premiere, I began to wonder if the series has forgotten what made it so compelling to watch in its first season.
“Silence and Suffering” spends considerable time detailing the work and opinions of the doctors who are trying to save Spector’s life. There is no tension in this story line; we know he will survive. And yet, the episode barely extends its gaze beyond the hospital. What about the major players? To be frank, I’m not drawn to The Fall for its pedestrian characterization of Spector. I wasn’t all that curious to see the petulant teenager, Katie Benedetto (Aisling Franciosi), crying over him when she suspects news coverage is alluding to his death. Even a brief glimpse of Spector’s fractured family in the wake of his arrest and shooting isn’t all that powerful — although Olivia having to face her father’s monstrousness may lead to interesting developments. It’s Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), the dedicated and uncompromising detective heading the investigation, who keeps me coming back to this show.
Unfortunately, we don’t get as much time with Stella as you’d expect. Instead, the premiere splinters into small updates on the status of each major character, which leaves it feeling a bit unmoored and without a thematic through-line. Nevertheless, I was struck by series creator Allan Cubitt’s attention to the small visual details. Under his watch, a mere glance between characters holds the promise of suspense.
The Fall has always been a stripped-down show. Characters stare at each other for lengthy periods. It’s interested in silence more than the rough-hewn poetry that sometimes defines the dialogue in modern crime series. Its color scheme is as dreary as the interior lives of its characters — everything awash in grays, pale blues, and sickly greens. But in “Silence and Suffering,” blood red is everywhere. We see it during the gruesome surgery scenes involving Spector. We see it on Stella’s hands, her shirt, and the edge of her sleeves. We see it when the camera focuses on a hospital worker mopping up the blood down the hall. Blood takes on an almost mythic quality, representing both the ability to save Spector’s life and the aftermath of his violence. These characters can no longer ignore the savage effects of his misogyny.
Spector, as a character, isn’t that interesting. Learning more about his background last season only made him more opaque. But he is interesting as a symbol, as a representation of an especially potent strain of misogyny. Spector is a reminder that, sometimes, the cruelest men are our fathers, our exes, our husbands. That the kind co-worker who brings us coffee can also be the same man who beats his girlfriend or gaslights women with such regularity it goes unchecked.
While I found the focus on the doctors who eventually saved Spector’s life to be an odd choice, it does provide the opportunity to see how regular people are responding to his murders. “I hadn’t really thought of myself at risk in that way,” one of the female doctors says to a male colleague when discussing Spector’s crimes. Because the victims were regular, professional women — the exact kind of victims society gives a damn about — many of the women throughout the narrative are obviously unnerved. That could have been me, they think.
I was struck by the doctor’s comment because the threat of violence from men has weighed on my life since I was a child. I learned early and often how men can react if you don’t smile, if you don’t appreciate their advances, or if you traverse beyond how they feel women should be. It’s here The Fall says something worthwhile in regard to the ways women move through the world. Yes, Rose Stagg (Valene Kane) surviving Spector’s kidnapping and abuse feels improbable and unearned. Yes, Spector’s struggle in the hospital to survive lacks tension. But at its best, The Fall understands the price women pay, day after day, to survive in a world that’s eager to de-power them. In a genre that so often uses women as mere narrative props, this is a powerful, crucial distinction. Later in the episode, another female doctor checks Spector’s vitals. He’s unconscious and still deeply wounded, yet his presence gets under her skin. She’s presumably thinking that she could have been one of his victims.
My favorite scene in the episode comes at the very end, when Tom Stagg (Jonjo O’Neill) talks to Stella about his wife. At first, he’s understandably hard on himself. He’s plagued by a million what-if scenarios in which he would have saved Rose from Spector. But then Tom quickly turns to blaming Rose herself. Why didn’t she scream or fight back? Why did she just go with him? This exchange shows how a woman’s victimhood is predicated upon being the right kind of victim. Even in the wake of brutal abuse, a woman’s actions are questioned. But as Stella reminds us, the truth is different: “Men always think in terms of fight or flight. In fact, the most common instinct in the face of this kind of threat is to freeze.”
Stella isn’t done, and tells Tom that Rose may have been compliant with Spector out of fear. “If she didn’t fight, if she didn’t scream, if she was silent and numb, it’s because she was petrified. […] In that state of fear, she might well have been compliant she might well have submitted but that does not mean she consented.” For many women, what Stella says rings far too true. You keep your head down, you remain quiet, you tense up in hopes that whatever violence you might face will pale in comparison to what would happen if you did fight back. “Silence and Suffering” is an imperfect premiere that focuses on the least interesting aspects of The Fall. But in moments like this, when Stella poignantly describes the fear women experience, I remember why I watch this show.