August 01, 2013
As a precocious pre-teen and teen, I was obsessed with adulthood; I couldn’t wait for the responsibility of rent checks and retirement plans. I watched serious drama as a way to prepare myself for this adult life I so wanted, and since we didn’t have cable I spent a lot of time watching PBS to figure out exactly how adults lived. I loved Masterpiece Theater, Mystery!, and particularly Prime Suspect, the dark and emotionally complex BBC crime series starring Helen Mirren as Jane Tennyson, a lone female detective in a boys’ club of often outright hostile fellow officers. I wanted to be like Jane Tennyson when I grew up. I dreamed of living a solitary but important existence, of having a job that was so central to me that I would forget meals and drink black coffee, a job that included meetings and orders and sleepless nights in which I would struggle to find the key to understanding a fragmented picture and solving the case. Jane Tennyson’s life always had an air of romance to it despite its gritty realism.
Prime Suspect changed the way that women were portrayed as officers of the law: Tennyson was allowed to act like a male film-noir lead. She drank too much. She couldn’t manage to hold down a long-term relationship. She slept with inappropriate people. Unlike her male counterparts, though, Tennyson’s behavior outside of the office was held against her in the workplace. No matter how effective she was at her job, she was still a whore who slept her way to the top. Her sexuality made her a target—as long as she was a sexually active woman, and as long as men continued to kiss and tell, her authority would be in question.
The BBC2 series The Fall (now streaming on Netflix) stars Gillian Anderson in her first major television role since she played the scientifically-minded, yet endearingly vulnerable Skully in The X Files. The Fall is nothing like The X Files, and Dana Skully is nothing like Stella Gibson, a British detective in Belfast working to solve the serial murders of thin, successful, dark-haired women by family man and grief counselor Paul Spector (Jamie Doonan), a fact that is revealed in the first few minutes of the series. Stella Gibson comes from the Jane Tennyson school of flawed female characters, but where Tennyson is messy, Gibson is controlled. She takes younger men as lovers on a whim and easily discards them when they get too clingy. She walks into a room, surveys it briefly, ignoring any indications that she might have been the topic of conversation before walking through the door, and orders up a car to take her where she needs to go. She is remote and efficient, and her flashes of emotion are almost immediately tamped down by her cool exterior.
Early in the series, Gibson takes on a fellow police officer as a lover, but when he sends her shirtless photos and texts her about their next meeting, she gives him the cold shoulder: She had misjudged him, she tells an investigator later after the same young police officer is found gunned down in front of his house and she is called in for questioning. She explains that they had little contact after their initial hook-up, that they didn’t talk, and that she discontinued the relationship because he was too insistent about meeting. The investigator is incredulous and all but calls her a slut. Stella is surrounded by men who either want to possess her or shame her. When her superior officer and former lover warns her of the effect she has on men and tells her he would have left his wife and children for her, the viewer understands why she responds with the seemingly cool, “That would have been a mistake.” It’s clear that his feelings for her aren’t love, but possessiveness, and that his words aren’t advice but a way of blaming her for his own actions.
Gibson’s appearance seems to irritate the men she works with. Unlike Tennyson, who was usually styled in completely utilitarian clothing, her hair cut short, Gibson wears silk blouses and pencil skirts. She has long, icy-blonde hair, usually worn down around her shoulders. She does not present in a way that feels “safe.” She doesn’t don traditionally male attire or attempt to hide her femininity. Anderson’s face, which is both beautiful and remote, remains largely unimpressed by even the most alarming sights. She at first seems almost too cool, too collected, to be human; she doesn’t seem to care, initially, that the man she slept with the previous night has just been murdered. And then, subtly, Anderson lets us know more about Stella Gibson. She reveals that she has worked with rape victims. She has a degree in anthropology. She has a subtle and sweet relationship with a fellow female police officer, Danielle Farrington. She is also a tireless defender of her own freedom.
This is a key difference. Unlike Jane Tennyson, Stella Gibson isn’t trying and failing to establish relationships with men: she seems to have given up on that idea completely as a way to keep her independence. She is fiercely feminist, to the point of seeming to speak lines directly from feminist texts to colleagues who challenge her. Sometimes this is a bit distracting, particularly when she lectures a serial killer via cell phone about his deep-seated hatred and envy of the women he kills. Still, despite the stiff textbook-speak, it’s striking to have a female character bluntly saying what is true of the kind of killers and rapists that Paul Spector is based on: this kind of murder is overtly gendered, bound up in titillation and fear.
While Jane Tennyson is messy, though commanding, Stella Gibson is flawlessly in control. The show makes a direct connection, through scene juxtaposition, between Gibson and Spector, the serial killer. They both like to make sure that they are at an emotional and intellectual advantage in any situation. They both carefully cultivate their relationships to make sure that nobody who threatens their power is allowed too close. This overt comparison is troubling. Is the show suggesting that living a life like Stella’s is somehow equivalent to Spector’s? That a woman who chooses this solitary life, devoted to her work, is somehow as damaged as a serial killer?
The Fall‘s handling of Spector’s character is also unique. He’s often depicted shirtless, doing chin-ups or other types of exercise (for the express purpose to be strong enough to subdue and strangle women, the show implies). He is sexualized, probably more than Gibson is. On the surface, he seems to be the perfect sensitive man—he is a grief counselor who kisses his children every morning before leaving for work. But he also manipulates female characters in the show, from his wife, who has no clue that he is hiding such an enormous dark side, to the babysitter, whom he subtly and skillfully almost-seduces, to a female client, whom he convinces to leave her husband because she is being abused (or simply to control her? His motives are always mixed). Spector is a puzzle, a man capable of both horrific violence (the most stylized and horror-movie like scenes in the series involve Spector stalking the women and subduing them) and gentleness.
The Fall is a slow, poetic, and unflinching look at gender, sex, and crime. Although it isn’t perfect, and sometimes hits the wrong notes, it remains a unique crime procedural that has the potential to move beyond some of the more clunky elements that marred the first season. When season two airs, I’m eager to get through the icy exterior of Stella Gibson and see if there is room in her character for the passion and humanity that Jane Tennyson brought to television.