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The Fall – Netflix’s Most Brilliant Psychological Study



It can be said that the world we live in is a dangerous one. While it is impossible to really know what a person is thinking, dreaming, planning in his or her head, we all believe in the basic foundation of our society: our laws, our morality, our religion. Even the most rational, atheist among us believes in the rule of law. There are however, those few individuals who stand apart from our society, separate and above us. They walk among us but feel no connection to us. They camouflage as human beings, but in fact are merely beings. They are the serial killers.


It is not an overstatement to say that the television s​eries, ​”The Fall”, found in the U.S. on Netflix, created and written by Allan Cubitt and produced by Artists Studio, is a brilliant piece of writing in any medium. The title, inspired by the poem, “The Hollow Men”, by T.S. Elliot with specific reference to the line, ‘Falls the shadow’,​ denotes the fall of man into what Elliot describes as a middle ground between life and death, a purgatory in which man is afraid to live and die, in which he becomes nothing more than a shadow.


It is this mere sliver of existence that the main character, serial killer, Paul Spector rails against. Spector, played by Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shade of Grey) leads Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson (The X Files) through the maze of his crimes and so through the maze of his mind. He lives in a mental perception of extreme life and death. He says to DSI Stella Gibson that he has experienced life in a much more vivid way than she could ever imagine. “Sounds and colors are more vivid, more intense, my skin becomes sensitive to even the slightest of pressure. The outside world means nothing, only the interior world is real. It is utterly compelling, compulsive. No laws or threats of punishment, morality, religion, fear of death; all of those things are as meaningless as the life you’re about to extinguish.”


In the outside world, he attacks and kills women who have achieved a certain education level and success in their careers. In other words, modern, smart, independent, unmarried, young women who are about the age his mother was when she killed herself and left him alone in the world. And thus begins our journey into a sickly, brilliant mind, and a lost and truly tortured soul.


Writer, Allan Cubitt, gives us the “who” in the “whodunit” so that we may focus on the why. This psychological, crime thriller delves deeply into the psyche of a damaged man who is both a perpetrator and a victim. Spector has adopted the belief that the world is made up of ‘Hollow Men’ who hem and haw their way through life without any real thought or true experience. He quotes Nietzsche and uses philosophy as a way of explaining but never apologizing for his heinous actions. In his own way, he reaches out to DSI Stella Gibson, in a psychotic attempt to explain who he is.


For her part, Stella is fascinated by him, his actions and his thoughts. For it is not just how he does what he does, in order to catch him, but why he does these things. She becomes a part of the story as it unfolds. He chooses her as his worthy adversary and exposes her through her diary, reading it and leaving a note for her. In his perverse attempt at intimacy, he both punishes her and draws her closer.


As the first season winds down, Stella has arrested Paul Spector and he stands by, at the edge of a forest guiding her via radio, to the car he’s hidden the body of Rose Stagg in, a girl he had once had an affair with. He enjoys the control and power of the moment even as he stands handcuffed. But to everyone’s surprise, Rose is still alive, barely. Uncharacteristically, Spector had left some food and water in the trunk with her. What’s more, there is a mystery as to who has written, “I love you” carved into her arm. As Stella, who had wanted nothing more than to find Rose alive, emerges from the woods and sees Spector, there is almost a feeling of convergence written in the stars, his gift to her (Rose’s life) given and accepted, his version of love, declared and echoed back. Are we mistaken? Did Cubitt lead us down a dead end path? We become even more confused when he is shot by an angry ex-client (Spector is a grief counselor in his normal life). Stella holds him close, with his head in her lap as she screams, “We’re losing him!”.


A particular interest and focus of the writer, Allan Cubitt, is how Paul Spector manages to live in two worlds at once. Not the interior and the outside, but the life of a “normal person”, a grief counselor, and the vastly conflicting life of a serial killer, compelled to kill again and again.


Cubitt recalls that it was while reading a book about the BTK Killer (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) serial killer​, ​Dennis Rader​, that he became fascinated with the character’s ability to live in both worlds. As the series continues, we learn more and more about a psychological diagnosis for this condition. Dissociative Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a disorder    more common than previously thought, is a disorder in which an individual, by some early childhood emotional wound, becomes completely self involved and self protective. They are able to function as normal or average people when, in fact, they are usually quite above average in intelligence, manipulative, and talented in acting as a mirror to everyone’s personal desires. In short, they are whoever or whatever they need to be, whenever they need to be it.


They disassociate themselves from their own fear and self loathing, and project their insecurities onto others. They also disassociate themselves from other’s pain, incapable of true compassion except as it relates to them. Paul Spector demonstrates this quality when he draws the line at hurting children. He feels remorse after killing a woman who he later finds out was pregnant. He feels nothing for her, but feels absolute horror at harming her unborn child. Why? Because he sees himself as the child who was victimized by his mother and then as we later find out, by the priest who cared for the children in foster care. Children, unlike everyone else, are innocent.


And so as the Third Series, as the BBC calls it, comes to a close, we learn more and more about the inner workings of Paul Spector’s mind. As he recovers from being shot, a somewhat tedious and overly detailed operation, he claims not to remember any of the killings. In fact he is living five years in the past. He believes his daughter is two and does not know he has a son. This is an improbable development, but one we must consider. He is, like any narcissist, completely convincing. His personal nurse becomes devoted to him, the doctors aren’t sure what to think. Only Stella knows the truth. While he’s been convalescing, she’s been investigating him, getting to know the real Paul Spector, locking tight the case against him.


In one of the final scenes, Stella and her sometimes lover, Sergeant Anderson interview Spector about new evidence they’ve found, exposing his fragile psyche with the truth they’ve found about his life while living in “Care” as they call it. He begins to crumble, his unflinching facade showing cracks as he childishly teases her about hearing her say, “We’re losing him!” after he was shot. He ​does ​remember. Our question is answered, but he fights back at her rejection of him. He seeks to hurt her, physically, the way she hurt him when she said she wanted him to spend his life behind bars.


It is her unwillingness to be played that finally breaks him. In the war of words she wins. In the war of physical brutality, he wins. Both truths are undeniable. As Paul constructs his own demise, reminiscent of his mother’s, Stella reflects on a message he wrote to her on a twenty pound note. “He who does not love, abides in death”. His final message a quote from the book of Matthew, explains it all. I suppose he thought it appropriate that the last word come from God.




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Melody Stewart is the founder of act.land and President of iactingstudioskc.com. She is a filmmaker in Kansas City.