There’s a certain thought process that seems to allow a connection between the minds of exceptional law enforcement hunters and the serial killers they chase. It’s a psychology television and film love to explore; a cop with the ability to think like a killer puts himself into a certain frame of mind, sees through the suspect’s eyes and catches on to some small fragment others have missed. Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal” takes this idea to the extreme with FBI Agent Will Graham’s empathetic, almost psychic ability to experience crimes as if he himself were the killer. In Allan Cubitt’s (“The Runaway, Prime Suspect 2”) excellent five-part series, Gillian Anderson (who also appears in “Hannibal”) stars as Detective Superintendant Stella Gibson, the supremely interesting lead investigator brought in from London to review a Belfast murder case gone cold. Set atop a pyramid of boys—headed up by Assistant Chief Constable Jim Burns (John Lynch)—Stella is all silky button-down shirts, and pencil skirts plopped into the gruff, male-dominated PSNI (Police Service Northern Ireland). Her appearance is a stark visual contrast, but Stella has more in common with the men who surround her than they’d care to accept, and she takes great pleasure in pointing out their incongruous, sexist attitudes. She quickly submerges herself into the murder case, meticulously reviewing evidence and interviewing officers, setting aside their worries she’s there to point out their mistakes with her intense focus on the killer. She instinctively knows something more is going on than an isolated murder, and even as Stella takes note of certain details that set off her alarms, we are simultaneously introduced to the next victim and the killer himself.
As the audience, we are privy to all the puzzle pieces before the players, so for us there is no mystery—we’re just heartbreakingly useless witnesses to events as they occur. And though we may have watched these sorts of cat and mouse games before, it’s the skillful way they’re played out by this group of excellent actors that takes us on a different, terrifying journey. We feel as helpless as the victim and the police officers—who are barely a half step behind when the next attack takes place. We are unhinged by our knowledge of the killer. As with “Broadchurch,” it’s not problematic for readers to know they’re going into a serial murder case; the series makes no secret of its premise and from the outset, there’s no mystery as to who is committing the crimes. We’re meant to travel side by side with killer and cop, to compare and contrast their methods and though history (both fiction and non) may lean to one side, we still feel unsure what will happen in the end. (If you really want no further information, stop reading here.)
As I’ve said, we know who the murderer is almost immediately, but the way we’re introduced to him is what’s so unsettling. Paul Spector (“Once Upon a Time’s” Jamie Dornan) is a bereavement counselor and family man—with two young children. His outward demeanor is relatively mild-mannered and quiet, his home life slightly chaotic as he and wife and neo-natal nurse Sally-Ann (Bronagh Waugh) juggle their schedules and tend to the kids. In the midst of cereal, school meetings and flying his giggling daughter through the living room air, Paul slips into a woman’s home, goes through her things and lays out her underwear on the bed—a disturbing precursor to terrible things. The series cuts back and forth between Paul and Stella’s worlds, like two sides of the same flipped coin. Cop and killer are both methodic and driven; both keep notebooks and pay close attention to the people they encounter. In each, we see something hard, cold, no-nonsense, and at the same time, vulnerable. Each character goes for exactly what she/he wants without reserve; each gets it and shows no remorse for decisions or effects. Still, nothing prepares you for the contrast between Paul’s demeanor at home and his unflinching brute force and precision in carrying out an attack—nor is anything so curious as his tenderness and care in the aftermath, save Stella’s own disconnected attitude, even in regard to her most personal affairs. The more we see of these two people, the more we want to know about them.
Anderson provides a strong lead, while Dornan gives a breakout performance. The supporting cast are all stellar, especially sad-faced Lynch, whose Chief Burns has a personal connection to Stella that allows her to make quick work of his judgmental attitude toward the victims and herself, and Niamh McGrady as Danielle Ferrington, a constable with sharp instincts who Stella brings onto her team. Archie Panjabi is quite good as the PSNI pathologist with whom Stella works closely and trusts. There are a few sideshow happenings, but they serve more to cement Stella’s competence and position than to distract from the main event.
Where “Broadchurch” was achingly sad, “The Fall” is a tense character study that may leave you feeling anxious and terrified, but still wanting more. Thankfully, a second series has been ordered. Series one is currently available on Netflix instant.
Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson and John Lynch as Chief Constable Jim Burns
Niamh McGrady as Constable Danielle Ferrington
Emmett Scanlan as Detective Constable Glen Martin
Ben Peel as Detective Sergeant James Olson
Archie Panjabi as Pathologist Tanya Reed Smith
Michael McElhatton (“Game of Thrones’” Roose Bolton) as Belfast Chief of Police, Rob Breedlove
Simon Delaney as Jerry McIlroy and Frank McCusker as Garrett Brink
Bronagh Waugh as Sally Ann Spector
Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector