No one expected a series titled “The Fall” to end happily.
[Spoilers for Season 3, including the finale, below.]
Starting with a brutal interrogation room confrontation where an unrestrained Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) brutally beats Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) and ending with a similarly blunt beating given to Dr. Larson (Krister Henriksson), the Season 3 finale squeezed in enough violent outbursts to fill a season. And that near-complete time frame doesn’t even include the morbid kicker: After strangling his fellow inmate, Paul used the same belt to asphyxiate himself. He died from it, too, just like his first victim, and similar to his mother.
Now, supporters with a deep appreciation for the complex psychology of the series will point to Paul’s death as a positive. Not only did he die in a similar fashion to his first victim (or at least the first victim Stella knows about, poor party girl Susan Harper, who thought she was healthily enjoying her youth through some simple, kinky group sex), but Paul killing himself meant Stella couldn’t get what she wanted: the Belfast Strangler living out his many remaining days confined to a prison cell. Rather, he took control and died in a fashion that brought even more attention to a narcissistic mama’s boy constantly in search of a woman’s obsession.
All this makes for a valid argument, and perhaps Paul’s death is preferable in execution to how we left him in Season 2 (dying in Stella’s arms). But the final season failed to justify spending so much more time with Paul, despite working overtime to make us believe his unlikely survival and even more unbelievable amnesia established a storyline worth the methodical presentation of a series that’s always loved reveling in elongated detail.
In the first episode alone, we spent nearly half an hour (not an exaggeration) watching as doctors swarmed around the dying man, spouting medical jargon unintelligible to anyone without a degree from Johns Hopkins. The purpose of such specific language and actions seemed to be authenticity, and the need for it became clear when Paul regained consciousness but claimed to lack the memories connected to his time as a serial killer. In any other show, this popular soap opera sidestep — “He’s got amnesia!” — would’ve been treated as such, with Stella flying into a rage befitting her name’s playhouse inspirations and psychologists being called in to verify and defend his condition, all while Paul began a brand new game of cat and mouse with the prosecution instead of the police.
Yet devout viewers knew “The Fall” would never slip into such showy territory. Instead, creator Allan Cubitt’s series recognized the need to validate the suspension of disbelief surrounding Paul’s amnesia (and his very survival). But even after setting up what could’ve been a traumatizing, public evisceration of Stella via Paul’s smarmy new lawyer (who hoped to prove Stella vindictively persecuted Paul due to an obsession; an obsession that wouldn’t have been hard to prove), the story shifted in its final hour to a series’ trademark usually spread more evenly over a season: violence.
It’s not that the devastating punches oh-so-suddenly landed on Stella were a problem on their own. As fitting with the show’s unsettling objective, Paul’s childlike fury over being put in his place by a woman illustrated the frightening power men have over women, as well as how helpless the patriarchal power structure of the interrogation itself proved in protecting her. (Why wasn’t he restrained? Well, because no man — namely, the ever-more-fumbling Jim Burns — thought to do so.)
Still, she took her licks better than her male counterpart. Dr. Larson was carted off in an ambulance to end the season, his fate unknown, after spending similar time challenging the physically dominant male in an intellectual setting. The two were set up as partners in psychological exploration earlier in Season 3: Stella fully aware of Paul’s danger because of how highly she identified with his victims (without becoming one herself) and Larson approaching Spector with “respectful skepticism,” despite appearing to hear Stella’s words of warning. (Guys! Come on! Why won’t we ever listen?)
Dr. Larson is an intriguing character because of how much respect he paid to Stella’s insights. While he did make progress with Paul, he was unable to make a similar connection. Was that failure only because he was a man and Paul’s trigger was the opposite sex? Or was it that Stella knew exactly what buttons to push? Whatever the answer, Stella was the only one to break Paul. She remains the sole individual smart enough to see past his demeanor, and she handled the cost of her insight and courage with more of both. Comparing their attacks is demanded by their similarities, and Stella’s better handling of it — at least in appearance — could be seen as a nod to her superior understanding of Spector and/or an example of her unflinching bravery in the face of the consistently destructive patriarchy.
What became frustrating looking back on the third season of “The Fall,” when it was all said and done, was how much of it felt like a waste of time. Explaining Paul’s motivations in such detail may have proven gripping for some, but we knew all we needed to know about the homicidal husband and father by the time he first sat down across from Stella. The fact Season 3 ended with a similar back-and-forth seemed as mandatory as it was repetitive. We always want to see Stella and Paul go toe to toe, but we’d been in that interview room before, at the end of Season 2. We’d lead up to a comparable point in the story, waiting to see what would become of Paul after Stella pinned him against the wall (figuratively, of course). So why did we need to see another season watching her best him, especially while circling around an amnesia storyline that led nowhere?
Sadly — for we’re as big of “The Fall” fans as they come — we didn’t. And after spending the whole season leading up to Episode 6, “Their Solitary Way,” in such dialogue-heavy, action-light episodes, the jarring violence felt like it was only there to distract us from realizing we’d just spent six hours circling questions better addressed in the previous 12. Paul’s outbursts relate to his character’s deep-seeded issues with women, but they fail to supply comparable significance to similar acts from the past two seasons. They feel extraneous, and thus repulsive in nature as well as depiction.
What was hard to watch became unworthy in Season 3, and that’s a fall we simply can’t bear.