Vicky Newham


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BBC Crime drama, The Fall series 2 – a few thoughts

IF YOU AREN’T UP TO DATE WITH SERIES 2, YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO READ THIS

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Having just watched episode 4 of the second series, I have to confess to having got a bit frustrated with the plot and how the investigation aspect of the drama is proceeding. I have also been wondering how series 2 is going to end. For my MA I wrote a feminist critique of series 1 and this meant reading as much as I could of what’s been written and said about it. There were a number of things which concerned me about the first series, and some of these things have continued into series 2. I also wonder how the plot development and eventual resolution are linked with (if at all) the decision to end series 1 when and how scriptwriter, Allan Cubitt, (or the producers?) did so that the second series could be made.

It is easy to criticise a drama for not getting things right. Having pored over Cubitt’s quotes a while back, I came to the conclusion that he has thought carefully about how to portray the themes and characters he had in mind, that he did care about how he did it and how the drama is perceived, and that he knows his craft and market. Having written some of the Prime Suspect scripts, this is evident: DCI Jane Tennison changed the landscape for female detectives.

I have read articles which make me wonder whether or not we will actually find out in series 2 why serial killer Paul Spector is behaving in the way he is. In the Radio Times piece, Cubitt’s comment about this was to say that “[…] we never know why people do the things they do. And […] you don’t know why you do the things you do, either.”[1] I don’t agree with either of these statements and am a bit concerned that they are setting up an ending in which character motivations aren’t explained. About this, Cubitt says, “You’ll have to wait and see whether you feel cheated or not.”[2] The other question is whether or not Spector will be caught at the end of this series. I guess this depends on whether there is going to be a third series. Personally, I can’t see how the producers can drag out the plot into a third series but if the viewing figures have been good, who knows?

Regarding the explanation for Spector’s behaviour, I hope that this is not going to turn out to be too clichéd. There have been mumblings in series 1 and 2 about children’s homes and in episode 4 Spector mentions that his mother committed suicide when he was a child. Whilst – from psychoanalytic and developmental psychological points of view, at least – most psychopathology originates in early experiences, it is sometimes covered in fiction in a clichéd or stereotyped way.

The issue of whether we learn in series 2 why Spector kills seems to annoy Gillian Anderson too, who in the Radio Times piece asks “But why do we need to know so much about somebody? The simplicity and sparseness [of the script] is what is pulling us forward and is so intriguing, but it’s almost as though we can’t take it at face value. But the reason why it’s as good as it is is because you don’t have all that stuff slapped on all the time.”[3] Oh. Okay. (Except it’s not)

I am also interested in how Cubitt’s motivations and interests inform his script-writing. He has said publicly that his aim in writing The Fall “… was to explore […] violence against the female body”[4], and said that he “find(s) serial killers fascinating”[5]. What I would like to know is what does he mean by ‘explore’ and what aspect of serial killers fascinates him? The answers to these questions are linked to whether the drama wants to understand violence against women or something else entirely.

I still have issues with Spector being portrayed as such an attractive serial killer and why we need to see so much of his abdomen. We know from forensic psychology and criminology that psychopaths can be charming. But I wonder if Spector the Gorgeous Killer isn’t a bit of a fantasy? To my knowledge, few male serial killers (and most are male) are as professionally high functioning as Spector’s character (Harold Shipman is one exception) and cluster analyses of traits show that many are found to have problems with personal relationships (whereas Paul’s character is married with two children and is someone who children seem to trust).

As with series 1, I have found Stella Gibson’s wardrobe distracting. Gillian Anderson is on record saying that she felt that her character would wear glamorous clothes but yet it seems to irritate her that people want to ask her about the subject. “Literally every interview, I am asked about the blouses,” she says.[6] Oh dear. She’s not happy. Again. As with Sara Lund’s jumpers, viewers do comment on character wardrobe, and I am surprised that Anderson, with her considerable experience as an actor, doesn’t understand this. To be honest, I would guess that she does, but that something else is pushing her buttons. Regarding the link between attractiveness-glamour-intelligence-competence, I don’t believe that an intelligent, competent woman can’t be attractive. My problem with Stella’s wardrobe is that although she has a senior rank, she still goes to crime scenes. In one episode we had her walking over a released crime scene in four inch heels. Huh? It’s like Dr Nikki in Silent Witness. If it were me, I’d ditch the heels and pull on my jeans and boots first.

Another aspect of Gibson-as-sex-object which bugs me is why we have to see prolonged shots of her swimming. If we need to know that she can’t sleep or takes exercise, a few brief shots could cover that in my opinion. Despite what Cubitt says about learning from the way that series 1 was filmed, I don’t see too much difference. There is still too much lingering on Gibson’s (Anderson’s?) face and body and cleavage. It seems unnecessary. I have liked Gillian Anderson since the days of the X Files and thought she was/is a good actress so it isn’t a personal thing … although I am curious as to why she wants her character to be so glamorous when she’s a jobbing detective.

When the second series of The Fall was commissioned I wondered if this affected how the producers wanted series 1 to end. I don’t know how much of the script was already written. There have been no murders yet in series 2. This has reduced the sexual sadism, the glamorisation of sexual violence and eroticisation of murder and death which, personally, I am relieved about.

Plot-wise I find the investigation aspect of series 2 rather amateur and incompetent. I know it’s fiction but I was surprised that a detective of Stella’s rank – and presumably, competence? – would not realise that she had put Rose Stagg in danger? And in episode 4 of series we see the Police tailing Spector when he visits his family. I am not convinced that the Police wouldn’t pick him up. He knows they are on to him, and has been playing a game with them all along. They have sufficient evidence on some of the associated or more minor charges (than murder) to arrest him. It seems that aspects of the plot have been treading water. There have been no more murders yet, just the kidnapping of Rose – although why most of this new development is happening off-screen is unclear. Spector dragging in Katie-the-babysitter as his accomplice is an interesting twist but I have concerns that aspects of this dynamic play to rape fantasy. Furthermore, I cringed at some of his lines to her about whether she is ready to embrace the darkness, and at his musings about whether the world is a place of suffering, of greed and despair. The funniest and strangest line ever, however, was delivered by pathologist, Professor Reed Smith, that she couldn’t go to Gibson’s bedroom for post-snog activity because she came from Croydon.

In sum, though, there have been some very dramatic and scary moments, for example, when Rose turns over to find Spector in her bed, and I like the technique that both Jakob Verbruggen (director of series 1) and Cubitt employ when a scene cuts from one thing to another quickly and the second scene is not what you expect. I also think that the acting is exceptional from every single character: intense and honest. However, whether series two has suffered from the departure of Verbruggen as director, which Chris Harvey in the Telegraph seems to consider is the case[7], I don’t know: I think some content and thematic aspects have improved in series 2 but then we haven’t had any murders yet. YET.

Vicky Newham © 2014

[1] http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2014-11-13/does-the-fall-glamorise-violence-gillian-anderson-and-writer-allan-cubitt-defend-their-thriller (accessed 5th Dec 2014).

[2] Same as 1.

[3] Same as 1.

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2013/jun/07/the-fall-allan-cubitt-women-violence (accessed 5th December 2014)

[5] Same as 4.

[6] Same as 1.

[7] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/tv-and-radio-reviews/11274265/The-Fall-Review-Series-2-Episode-4-Gillian-Anderson.html (accessed 5th Dec 2014).


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Endings in drama and fiction

(Warning: contains spoilers)

After watching the last episode of The Fall last night I was motivated to consider endings in drama and fiction and what we expect from them. This has come up a few times recently with high profile British television dramas, including Broadchurch.

For years it’s been the norm with long-running television series to end on a cliffhanger. I find it frustrating but it does make me tune in for the next series to find out how the story progresses (although by then I’ve often forgotten the plotline and/or lost interest). However, with crime dramas, my expectations are a little different. With long series like The Killing I, with twenty four episodes, there was a self-contained story which was resolved at the end. In the next series, we were given a new story line. And I think that this is how it should be. What I found annoying about last night’s concluding episode of the Fall was that I expected the same, and it didn’t deliver. Halfway through the series it was announced that a second series had been commissioned. What I am now intrigued by – given last night’s finale – was what would have happened if it hadn’t been? Would the programme have ended as it did? Or did the producers chop it off so as to be able to keep part of the story back for series two?

The Fall also prompted me to review my understanding of fiction and ‘story’. It was a television drama rather than a novel but should it still conform to the the rules of fiction? I would argue, yes. It wasn’t a real life drama. In real life things often aren’t resolved, they’re are lots of coincidences, and people often do things for strange reasons. Fiction is very different and norms vary depending on whether a novel is genre or literary fiction. In crime fiction the convention is that the criminal is caught and justice is seen to be done. People refer to the ‘moral nature’ of crime fiction, and, although I don’t see it as such, I do want to see people punished or treated (sorry, I believe in treatment!), depending on what has motivated their crime. I don’t necessarily want to have every detail sewn up and interpreted for me. Did I expect the killer to be caught at the end of the first series? Yes, I did. Were the producers perhaps worried about not having another story and lead character for the second series which would measure up to the one with Jamie Dornan as the very attractive serial killer? If this is the case, it means that the plot was governed by commercial rather than storytelling principles. I can quite see how, having started with such a dramatic opening storyline, and if they had resolved it at the send of series one, they might worry about this. But surely this just means that they need to invest in scriptwriting to ensure that series two could be equally strong… no? To chop it off in the way they did, to eke out the existing story, is bound to lead to claims by the audience that they feel cheated.

With The Fall, I think that something else contributed to the last episode being a failure: we knew who the killer was from the start, and the story was about why he was committing the crimes. The viewer was only given a little information about this in the final episode. We discovered that he’d been in care and had disrupted attachments. Personally, I wanted a bit more than this. It felt a little cliched, and I wanted some detail to show me how his developmental experiences had led him to sexual violence. After all, not everyone who has been in care becomes a serial killer.

With the last episode of Broadchurch I remember all sorts of articles, interviews and tweets about ‘having to watch right til the end’ and this led to speculation about a killer twist. Then it turned out that there wasn’t one at all. Had I not read those comments, and been led to expect something, I would have been happy with the ending of Broadchurch. For me the ‘why’ is almost more important than the ‘who’. But I felt that I’d been manipulated slightly into watching til the credits just so that the programme makers could tell me that Broadchurch would be returning. Whose benefit was that for then? Ahem.

Do readers and viewers want a last minute twist? Do they want everything explained? If a crime has been committed, do they want to see the perpetrator apprehended? I wonder if the medium affects how we might feel about this. Surely a publisher wouldn’t publish a crime novel where the perpetrator isn’t caught at the end? And if the publisher said to readers “Oh, just buy book two to find out”, those readers wouldn’t be happy. And that’s fair enough. I’m not bothered about last minute twists in novels. Sometimes they seem gimmicky and can ruin an otherwise brilliant resolution. But I just don’t want to feel cheated.

What do you think?

Vicky Newham © 2013