Review: The Fall (S2 E1/6), Thursday 13th November, BBC2

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I’ll admit it; the first series of The Fall was not an easy watch for me – nor, I suspect, for many others in the female contingent of the audience. Not only did it tap into the primal fear of any woman who has spent any time living alone – one of having your supposedly safe space invaded by a stranger –but it also had two of the most unsettling characters ever created as protagonist and antagonist on a UK TV crime show.

And no, it’s not just because Paul Spector, the rapist serial killer, is played by the preternaturally handsome Jamie Dornan. Although one would prefer to characterise such a monster as invariably physically repulsive or just banal, writer/director Allan Cubitt has deftly sidestepped setting up a false opposition and given us evil with a beautiful surface. But it’s a calculated beauty that fades quickly away when he isn’t talking on the phone to his hapless (and now-estranged) wife Sally Ann (Bronagh Waugh) and daughter Livvy (Sarah Beatty).

The story picks up 10 days after the last series ended. Spector has fled the city after telling his wife that he’s been having an affair with underage babysitter Katie. It was actually a sexual assault, but then his view is bound to be a bit skewed. After all, this is a man who appropriates his daughter’s Barbie dolls to strip, truss up and gag them. He stows them under the bed – are they a diorama of his past killings or rehearsals for future ones?

The truth is the more chilling aspect is our putative heroine, Detective Supt Stella Gibson (the mesmeric but glacial Gillian Anderson). She is, if anything, more unsettling to watch than Spector. When she is in the hospital room of the latest (fortunately still alive) rape victim Annie Brawley, she is not the comforting copper you would expect a seasoned sexual crimes expert to be. We know even less about Gibson than we do about Spector – we’ve seen his inner rage expressed graphically, but Gibson remains an iceberg in her iconic pristine white silk blouses (almost as big a star now as Sarah Lund’s Fair Isle jumpers were in The Killing) – about 90 per cent of what makes her tick remains below the surface.

Gibson has none of the bawdy bonhomie or passion of a Jane Tennison; even though she likes to indulge herself in risky sexual liaisons it seems more an act of self-debasement than a pleasure. Last series she had a quick fling with married fellow detective Jim Olsen after spotting him on the street. He then had the bad luck to be murdered in a sectarian attack the next day. And now her name is mud with male colleagues and the public as the revelation of her one-night stand is splashed all over the newspapers – not exactly a bonus point for a female senior Metropolitan Police officer who has been seconded to an investigation in the patriarchy of Belfast. Her only allies seem to be her colleague and ex-lover Jim Burns (John Lynch) and pathologist Reed Smith (the marvellous but underused Archie Panjabi) and even she thinks Gibson is a bit of a slag.

Something we did learn about her in this episode is that she probably suffered a sexual trauma of her own when young – she definitely sounds like a self-harmer when she advises Annie Brawley to snap a rubber band against her arm to help her dredge up details of the attack for her statement. No, Gibson is definitely not a soothing presence. Even while she is insisting to her squad that they must remember the victims during the investigation and “keep them human”, we begin to feel that Gibson is as traumatised and damaged as they are.

Deborah Shrewsbury

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