Review: The Fall “Season One”

Our UK correspondant, Robin Write, catches up to Netflix’s The Fall Season 1 before tackling Season 2, which was recently made available to US audiences on the streaming service. Minor spoilers follow. Look for Robin’s Season 2 review in an upcoming post.

Written and co-directed by Allan Cubitt (Anna Karenina, Prime Suspect 2), The Fall is a BBC crime drama set in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A gripping, daunting watch, fuelling Britain’s already innate fear of going out after dark. The first episode sets the story, the tone, the drama, of the entire season – of which there are a total of five, hour-long episodes (all available on Netflix).

This opening episode wastes no time at all. We have the Metropolitan Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson, X-Files) browsing through case notes of an unsolved murder while packing a suitcase. This is not going to be a holiday. Then we have Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan, 50 Shades of Grey), clearly illustrated as an intruder of a woman’s house as he plants his face into her underwear and eats an orange. That bra belongs to Sarah Kay (Laura Donnelly, Outlander) who we see mingling with her professional work colleagues and having drinks. Let me assure you, if you don’t believe this is going to be messed up in these early minutes, you are not paying attention. And you should be because we already have a strong whiff of the cat looking for the mouse chasing the cheese.

The dynamics and competence of varying levels of police work comes under scrutiny fairly soon. Providing moments of genuine intrigue and horror (two members of the police involved in two very different but equally shocking shootings). When our first potential victim realizes someone was in her house, she calls the police. The two officers, having seen no forced entry, ask her if she has been drinking – you can see already the police working backwards here. The same police officers go back to check on Sarah when one officer’s intuition, Ferrington (Niamh McGrady), starts to put pieces together. They assume she must be staying at her sisters as earlier mentioned, but they have no idea Paul has her tied up on her bed and is successfully muffling her screams. You almost scream at the TV.

The Fall 01

Newly arrived detective Gibson is clearly no bullshit and is confidently efficient, entering an investigation (and country) where Northern Irish high-ranking police have a tendency to remind her “things are very different here.” She has done her homework, though, and voices without being coy her intentions – but even her pants suit and pristine white feathers are soon to be ruffled. In the early episodes though, Gibson has no choice but to pace things, no matter her police background, she is still finding her feet. And so are we.

Our criminal, Paul, has a wife, a son, and a daughter. He is a grievance counsellor, but you have little time to imagine him as a nice, caring human being. When a couple struggle to talk or cope with the loss of their little boy, Paul is, instead of taking notes, drawing the woman as though she were nude. You will shudder soon after, when the woman’s husband almost sees the drawing when he intimidates Paul in the elevator. There is a fifteen year-old babysitter, and she flirts with him. He keeps a notebook of drawings, time accounts, and ID cards of his prey. You already start fearing for the safety of his entire family – not just Sarah. That level of anxiety hits you fast, knowing the killer immediately, and we are forced to relate to him as a family man. To boot, Paul’s daughter has nightmares, and his wife Sally-Anne (Bronagh Waugh) works in a baby ward.

There is a sprinkle of strong subplots. The Assistant Chief Constable Jim Burns (John Lynch) and Gibson’s tug of war on whether the murders are to be investigated individually or as one linked case. There is corruption within the force too. This is not just a bunch of cats chasing one mouse. No, these felines claw at each other at times – not to mention dabbling in cocaine and escorts. Gibson herself seduces another detective (not on this case) in her hotel room illustrating even her questionable ethics. To emphasise the show’s squirm tactics, this sex sequence is juxtaposed with Paul washing Sarah’s dead body in the bath before painting her nails and taking photos of her on the bed.

The Fall 02

There are moments of substantial danger for Paul, too. When he gives the grieving mother from the first episode a house call, local troublemakers are hostile and follow him. Later, her husband follows him home and threatens to kill his own family. These moments, while not forgetting Paul is a murderer, turn your stomach – a couple of times I wondered if he would even live to get caught. Not just that, as well thought out as his crimes are, he is careless, leaving victims hair in a drawer and popping his seedy diary in the loft in his child’s bedroom. Your mind tries to put the pieces together, not sure if these clues are leading you down the right path, or merely just red herrings.

As the clocks ticks, we realize Gibson is a fairly remorseless woman, she does not have a lot of time for emotional coverage. She is neither cruel nor particularly uncaring, but police business is police business. She knows the process of investigations, and she knows how the media works. Gibson has a sharp tongue, but at the same time is a woman of few words. When she does speak, though, those words tend to be affirmative. There is a very foggy hint of further story arcs with her colleagues, including the female pathologist Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi), and we wonder if there will be a better working relationship with Burns and co.

The Fall is a pulsating, often eerie, drama. It gets into your blood, your mind, and your only remedy is to continue watching in the hope justice is done, and your nerves are settled. Emotions run as high as your fears at times too. There are many such heart-swelling moments, including Sarah’s sister discovering her dead body. It’s such a genuinely moving, lingering moment, and transcends when we see the emergency call from the point of view of the operator. We only imagine the emotions hidden under the professional role.

I binge-watched the five episodes, and was riveted from start to finish. In fact, I would recommend it whether you want to darken your day or not. That, or spread it out over the week. It pulls you in though, and I suspect you won’t want to wait too long. And don’t expect everything to be all wrapped up nicely by the close of the season with a bow on top. It’s just much, much better that way.

Both The Fall Season 1 and Season 2 are now available on Netflix.

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