Flirting with the enemy: The Fall’s baffling mission to make murder sexy

The Fall continues to be shot through with imagery that subtly (and often not so subtly) connects violence against women with sex.

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The Fall
BBC2

During a recent interview to promote series two of The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm) the show’s star, Gillian Anderson, and the man who created, writes and now directs it, Allan Cubitt, were asked what they make of the accusation that it glamorises violence against women. Both appeared to be in denial. Anderson’s response was to point out that the serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) carefully lays out the bodies of his victims because “this is what turns him on”, as if his motivation were licence enough for depiction of what looks very much like soft porn to the rest of us.

Cubitt, for his part, insisted that Spector’s creepy tableaux simply reflect his intellectual aspirations (he likes quoting Nietzsche, and making arty drawings in his murder scrapbook) – though there then came, from him at least, a small concession. He didn’t direct the first series, he told the journalist, but now he is in the chair, we might notice a change of emphasis. “It may be that the camera lingered too intimately on certain things,” he said.

Well, we shall see. In episode one, Spector didn’t get around to killing any women, so we can’t yet tell if “certain things” will indeed be kept off camera. In other respects, nothing has changed. The Fall continues to be shot through with imagery that subtly (and often not so subtly) connects violence against women with sex. This in effect cancels out the presence at its centre of a strong, determined, fearless and sexually liberated woman, DS Stella Gibson (Anderson) – although, in truth, the way the character is played also makes her complicit in this insistent, soft-focus prurience.

When she visited the scene of Spector’s most recent murder, for instance, she was wearing spike heels: shoes in which she could barely walk, let alone run. Later, we saw her, as she is so often and so unaccountably wont to do, changing in the loo back at the station, a flash of lace bra clearly visible as she buttoned her silk blouse. No copper on earth dresses like this in the middle of a tough, tiring and perilously underfunded murder investigation (on secondment to Northern Ireland from the Met she also, incidentally, resides in a somewhat lavish-looking hotel). But leaving that aside, the message seems pretty clear to me.

She and the equally attractive Spector are engaged in what is by any other name a flirtation, for all that they’ve never met. He is a tease, avoiding all her traps, while she desperately puzzles his psychology – “This is an addiction,” she tells her team, reminding them of the “release” he finds in killing – in an effort to creep ever closer.

Such coquetry looks pretty ugly next to his particular psychopathy. Worse, when she talks about him, Gibson sounds and looks for all the world as if she’s turned on: her voice slows, her skin appears preternaturally bright, her lips glisten. “I thought I should look as unfeminine as possible,” she said, explaining her decision to put on her uniform before an important meeting. This was a feminist statement, a nod in the direction of the double standards with which she must cope in an institutionally sexist organisation. But, in context, it seemed only to emphasise the way she appears to dress up for Spector, as if he alone were worthy of her cigarette pants, her ivory blouses, her softly falling hair.

Should the bruises on the necks of Spector’s victims induce such husky absorption in the woman who would be his nemesis? It is vile that they do. We all of us expect a certain degree of prettification in our crime dramas; none of us could bear the reality of what a murder investigation looks like (I mean the tedium, as well as the gore). But this? This almost salacious excitement? No. There shouldn’t be a place for it here, and that The Fall is a highly gripping show – Cubitt is nothing if not a suspenseful writer – only makes it worse, extending as it does Gibson’s collusion in all this to the viewer. Switch off, switch off, we may tell ourselves, as we watch. But we need to know she’s going to catch him.

We want, I suppose, to see Spector and Gibson out on their first (and last) date. Oh, but the terrible thrill they will feel when the handcuffs are finally on. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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