In the austere offices of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) pitches her voice as though confiding a secret. The camera holds, intermittently, on her dispassionate expression, but it’s the steadiness of the sound that compels your attention. As Gibson explains the modus operandi of a serial killer midway through the season premiere of “The Fall,” Anderson’s calm, controlled performance comes to reflect the hypnotic force of the series, patiently reconstructing the murder mystery as an ink-black portrait of the human psyche’s most terrifying recesses. (Spoilers for season one ahead.)
Created, written, and directed by Allan Cubitt, the second season resumes the PSNI’s search for “the Belfast Strangler” ten days after the botched attack that concluded the first. The narrative hews to an almost claustrophobic timeline (the six episodes cover perhaps a week in the investigation), and for the most part eschews dramatic set pieces in favor of cerebral stoicism. Anderson’s intelligence transforms the deliberate pacing into an asset, however, as Gibson, on loan from London’s Metropolitan Police, develops her psychological profile of the malevolent Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan). With each new insight into his “deviant fantasies,” she also finds herself wading deeper into a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.
The perpetrator’s identity long since established, the series turns to the relationship between everyday sexism and violence against women, examining gendered power dynamics with the same blunt vigor as “Top of the Lake.” Inspired by both Clarice Starling (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and Jane Tennison (“Prime Suspect”), Gibson tacitly connects the double standards and micro-aggressions that women regularly face in their personal and professional lives to the horrific extremes of Spector’s spree.
“You were a married man when you spent a night in my bed,” she tells colleague Jim Burns (John Lynch) when he castigates her for sleeping with Sergeant James Olson (Ben Peel) in season one, a critique she sharpens in a series of discomfiting interactions with Burns over the course of the second season. “[T]he basic human form is female,” she comments at one point. “Maleness is a kind of birth defect.” “The Fall” may be less than subtle in its treatment of the matter, but it also, rather astutely, refuses to depict Spector as a lone wolf divorced from circumstance and culture. As Spector himself cautions, “too much history, too much remembering, can ultimately destroy the present, and the future.” In other words, evil is not an inborn trait. Evil has a past.
In its density of ideas, then, “The Fall” perhaps remains, as Slate’s Willa Paskin wrote of the first season, “the kale salad of crime shows,” more affected than affecting. Yet even at its most coolly detached, the series mesmerizes, in part because the unhurried narrative allows the most chilling details — a Barbie doll’s ankles bound in twine, a child’s tongue-twister — to linger in the air, as heavy as the Irish mist. Indeed, the aesthetic reaffirms Gibson’s description of modern life as “an unholy mix of voyeurism and exhibitionism”: what fleshly pleasures there are derive either from admiring Dornan’s sculpted physique or from assuming Spector’s point of view, such that “The Fall” frames titillation as a choice between desiring the villain and becoming him. It’s tainted.
Despite dispensing with the whodunit element that propels similar series, including “Broadchurch,” “The Killing,” and “True Detective,” the second season of “The Fall” deploys Gibson’s acumen, and Spector’s cruel cunning, in the service of an impressive crescendo. Though this faster, looser approach carries some risk — a subplot involving the Spector family’s babysitter, Katie (Aisling Franciosi), already poised on the edge of the contrived, curdles completely — the final two episodes hurtle so swiftly toward the extraordinary climax, a 20-minute sequence as commanding as Gibson’s hushed voice, that their shortcomings fade from view.
The closer Gibson comes to understanding Spector, the closer we come to understanding her. She is, or imagines herself to be, the black box in the wreckage, recording each ghastly detail for further analysis, but the strength of “The Fall” is its acknowledgment that Gibson’s composure is no more innate than Spector’s monstrous addiction. Beneath the stony veneer, her blood runs as hot as anyone’s: “He might fascinate you,” she reproaches a co-worker. “I despise him with every fiber of my being.”
The second season of “The Fall” premieres Friday, Jan. 16 on Netflix.