BBC2’s The Fall returns next week and the psycho-killer tale is not so sexist

Also Downton Abbey, Doctor Who and Boardwalk Empire come to an end

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The Independent Culture

In Defence of “Women-hating” Crime Drama

Next week, BBC2 drama The Fall will return for a second series and with it some well-worn concerns about the “misogynistic” crime dramas which glamourise violence against women. It stars Gillian Anderson as DSI Stella Gibson, an enigmatic and elegant Met officer drafted in to investigate a series of murders in Belfast. The culprit, we already know, is Paul Spektor, a bereavement counsellor and father of two played, disconcertingly, by the handsome actor Jamie Dornan. 

Why must thrillers like The Fall always depict the rape and murder of women when the majority of murder victims are, in fact, men? Why include so many gratuitous scenes of nude female corpses lying on mortuary slabs? And couldn’t the tough female detective investigate an armed robbery for a change? She could, but then the women which, study after study has shown, make up largest and loyalest proportion of the audience wouldn’t be quite so enthralled. 

One theory on why female viewers consume crime fiction so voraciously is that, in a counterintuitive way, it’s comforting. Our worst fears are contained within the TV set and can be safely worked through then switched off before bed. Often, as in The Fall or Happy Valley or Law & Order:SVU, there is satisfaction in seeing a strong female character ultimately prevail over the perpetrator and ensure he is properly punished. Perhaps it’s not the sensationalism, the nastiness or the gore that draws viewers to these dramas, but their relative simplicity. Because, sadly, in real life, violence against women is not so easily resolved.

Women aren’t the only demographic who can experience this kind of catharsis. In another new BBC crime series The Missing, the victim is a small boy and the on-screen suffering is mostly done by his father (James Nesbitt). Viewers of that distressing show will agree it’s no more palatable for the lack of a female corpse, but it is quality television all the same. Its quality has nothing to do with the nature of the crime and everything to do with how that crime is depicted.

Like The Missing, The Fall is a drama in which the most compelling mystery is not a whodunnit, but the character psychology. Those scenes which writer Allan Cubitt has since admitted may have “lingered too intimately” were uncomfortable because we were made complicit in Spektor’s voyeurism. We saw the victims as he saw them, eroticised and objectified. Crucially, though, this is not all we saw. Sarah Kay and Alice Monroe were not just anonymous additions to the ever-increasing body count, but individuals with personalities, backstories and mourning families.

In the first episode of The Fall’s second series, DSI Gibson is addressing a meeting of fellow officers when she articulates what should be a guiding principle of all drama which depicts violent crime. “In order to do the terrible things that he does, the killer dehumanises his victims. Let’s do the opposite.”

 

Finale fails: Why don’t the last episodes satisfy us

What do fans of Downton Abbey, Doctor Who and Boardwalk Empire have in common? Under usual circumstances, not a lot, but this week all are united in their grief as the current series of these popular shows come to an end - in the case of Boardwalk Empire, forever. The components of a satisfying series finale vary from genre to genre. In romance or comedy it’s nice to have a wedding (we get one of those in Downton). In a fantasy or sci-fi it’s helpful if some of the mind-boggling mysteries start making sense (no promises of that in Doctor Who), but however well-judged, the series finale can never give fans the one thing they truly desire; another episode, available to watch immediately.  

 

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