How the divisive ending of ‘The Fall’ is a subversive success

Gillian Anderson and Colin Morgan on 'The Fall'.

Gillian Anderson and Colin Morgan on 'The Fall'.

One of the most reliable genres on TV is the detective show – whether it’s a case-of-the-week structure or a season-long deep dive into a single crime, charismatic sleuths have graced the small screen almost as long as the medium’s been around.

So in this new Golden Age of Television, it’s not surprising to find examples of detective shows that stand out among the rest and challenge what we expect from the typical formula of crime >> investigation >> justice. What’s surprising is exactly how series like Broadchurch, True Detective (season one) or The Fall subvert the genre and show how fertile it can still be. And having just belatedly caught up with the latest episodes of The Fall, I was struck by how well Alan Cubitt’s program delivers on its potential, while still leaving us with a divisive and possibly unsatisfying conclusion.

If you’re a fan of detective shows, you’ve probably been right along with the rest of us murder-mystery connoisseurs in following The Fall, the BBC series starring Gillian Anderson that premiered in 2013. After two excellent seasons, the third and (presumably) final block of episodes completed its run on TV in October of last year. Not long after, the season hit Netflix as one of their Originals, giving those of us not blessed with live access to the BBC with a way to find out what happens to Detective Superintendent Gibson (Anderson) and her investigation of the Belfast Strangler.

**Spoilers for Season 3 of The Fall below!**

For a show that has already grabbed the notice of viewers and critics alike with its willingness to depict the sadistic and deadly acts of its villain in such detail, Season 3 opens with an almost diametrically opposite kind of episode, one that deserves a closer look than some writers have given it.

Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector, the "Belfast Strangler".

Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector, the "Belfast Strangler".

After being shot in the closing moments of Season 2, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) is taken to the hospital for life-saving surgery, and for what feels like the entire episode, the show transforms into a medical drama. The hospital’s goal is to treat Spector as they would any other patient, despite the horrific crimes he’s accused of.

The episode demonstrates an attention to detail for medical procedures that exceeds many shows set full-time in a hospital; the camera lingers on the scraps of bloodsoaked cloth and sliced-up garments on the floor of the empty emergency bay, and on the mop of the orderly as he cleans up the trail of blood left as the stretcher was wheeled from the ambulance. After this, we see not one, but two different extended surgery scenes as the doctors race to keep Spector alive.

At first you might think, “What’s going on here? Get back to solving the murder!” But the construction of the episode is impressively deliberate. In focusing so keenly on the act of saving a life, The Fall is showing the flipside of the invasion, torture, murder and taunting behaviour that feature so prominently in the earlier episodes. The act of saving a life is compared with the act of taking one, and it actually sparks a more complicated discussion than Spector’s murders: how do the doctors and nurses square themselves with treating a person like Spector?

Thankfully, where lesser shows might introduce a member of the medical staff who would use their authority to try and enact some vigilante justice on Spector, The Fall restrains itself. And as soon as it’s clear that Spector’s life is out of danger, the show starts up the investigative side of its story again.

The investigation culminates in a finale that has left many fans feeling a little cold. After Paul has a violent outburst during an interview with DSI Gibson, DS Anderson (Colin Morgan) and Paul’s lawyer (Aidan McArdle), he’s brought back to the psych ward for further assessment. Then, without much warning or motivation, he manipulates a fellow inmate into causing a disturbance, assaults the senior clinician, murders the inmate he provoked, and then kills himself.

Aisling Franciosi as Katie Benedetto.

Aisling Franciosi as Katie Benedetto.

At first, the sequence of events is surprising, because it feels like the show is setting up a cliffhanger where Paul escapes the ward and must be captured again. But when it’s clear that Paul’s story is at an end, we’re left to question the effectiveness of the entire season. Why set up a potentially grinding trial in the intervening episodes only to have Paul take the proverbially “easy way out”?

Part of me shares the frustration that some writers did about this approach – in a way, it does smack of showrunner Alan Cubitt writing himself into a corner and relying on an age-old narrative device to punish the villain and wrap things up. But I also believe that Cubitt was trying to deliver a finale that remained in keeping with the rest of the show: a story that did not follow the usual detective drama beats, even going so far to deprive the lead character (and by extension, the audience) of the catharsis we’ve been yearning for since we first peered into the depths of Spector’s soul. (Side note: the scene in the first season of Paul storing evidence of his crimes in the ceiling above his daughter’s bed deserves a place in the Screen Villainy Hall of Fame).

While it’s not accurate to say that The Fall needed a finale loaded with realism (the show overdosed on that at other points), there’s an authenticity to the “non-conclusion” of the series. It acknowledges that not all crimes get tidy, dramatic endings, and that detectives can spend the rest of their careers regretting the loose threads in an old case. Spector’s suicide was his final method of denying a woman something she deserved (Gibson getting the case to trial and sentencing). It’s a twist that if interpreted correctly, suits a show that has defined itself by being a brilliant, anti-formula detective series. More importantly, we end our experience of The Fall feeling as thwarted as DSI Gibson, sitting alone in her London home, evidence that The Fall was more insidiously successful than we may realize.

What did you think of the ending of The Fall? Are there multiple ways to interpret the final episodes? Where does it rank with your other favourite detective shows? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this post, share it with your friends and followers!