Beautiful Monster

The return of stately serial-killer show The Fall.

 Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan in The Fall.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy of Netflix.

How many rules of the crime show can one crime show flout and still make for riveting television? The serial-killer drama The Fall, which arrives on Friday on Netflix, aims to find out. The stately new season unfolds as though it has never heard the phrase “hurry up,” closely tracking a serial killer who is no longer killing, a police department that makes no mistakes, and a narrative that contains no red herrings. Like its two central characters, The Fall is a control freak, aggressively policing its own thrills.

The new season begins a little more than a week after the first season’s conclusion, in which the Belfast Strangler, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), his identity still unknown to the police, called the woman in charge of the investigation and told her she would never catch him because he was leaving town. But that woman, Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), remains certain that the Strangler will return, that he’s a murder addict and he won’t be able to stop. Her instincts align with the demands of television, and Paul soon returns to Belfast to attend to some loose ends and act out the early stages of his grotesque fantasies, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, begin to include Stella herself. Paul and Stella are engaged in a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game, but the roles of cat and mouse reverse from moment to moment.

As killer and cop, Paul and Stella are two of the most icily even-keeled versions of these archetypes ever put onscreen. Both of them present nearly unruffable exteriors but seethe with anger beneath their surfaces. Paul is compulsive, practiced, and methodical: He studies his victims, hunting them over a period of time, then slowly strangles them and poses their bodies in his own sick pornography. In the new season, he uses his job as a bereavement counselor to visit his one surviving victim, telling her, “Nothing you did, nothing you could ever do made you responsible for what he did. It’s down to him alone,” a bit of comfort he can give happily, because it gives him succor as well, feeding his fantasy that he is an omnipotent Ubermensch.

Dornan will soon star in 50 Shades of Grey as a dominating lust object inaugurating a virgin into the thrills of S&M, and his looming role adds a new frisson to The Fall. The series is unambiguous about Paul’s monstrosity, but it is easy to imagine scenes and images from the show that illustrate said monstrosity being remixed by 50 Shades fans into little more than proof of hotness. A scene of a shirtless Paul video-conferencing with a 16-year-old girl he is brainwashing, for example, seems bound to get recontextualized as a “damn, he’s sexy” GIF.

It’s easy, in fact, to imagine certain characters in The Fall making that very GIF. The new season goes out of its way to explore the uneasy ripple effect of Paul’s good looks. Early on, a fairly accurate crime sketch of Paul is published in the newspaper. A woman holding the paper takes a seat across from Paul on a train—she takes the seat in part because she has noticed how handsome he is—and he asks her, point blank, if he looks like the man in the drawing. She concedes that he does yet never considers for a second that he could actually be that man. She goes so far as to tell him that she’s actually a brunette who dyed her hair blonde to avoid the Belfast Strangler and to show him her driver’s license, complete with address, to prove it. Paul is essentially too good-looking for people to consider or, in the case of the aforementioned 16-year-old, to care that he is a threat.

Stella is not immune to the appeal of good looks—her taste in men skews toward the ridiculously handsome—but she is also aware of the additional power Paul’s appearance gives him. In Stella, Paul has met his match. She, too, is compulsive, practiced, and methodical. She, and the police working for her, rarely make mistakes. The bureaucratic cockup, such a feature of murder mysteries, rarely appears on The Fall. Slowly but surely she and her staff encircle Paul. He may be a genius serial killer, but at some point the unlimited resources of a well-trained police department can overpower even a superman-in-his-own-mind.

As it did in the first season, Anderson’s self-possessed hauteur serves the series exceedingly well. The Fall follows its familiar premise—the ritual murder of young women—to a conclusion that is simultaneously logical and rare in the many other series about this same subject: that the battle of the sexes is real, you can tell because of the casualties, and it is a rout. (An alternate title for The Fall could be The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s original Swedish title: Men Who Hate Women.) The series showcases a parade of men who, intentionally and unintentionally, abuse their physical superiority. Stella, the show’s mouthpiece, has to deliver a wide variety of sweeping lines noting this phenomenon. Served up by an actress with less gravitas, they might sound simplistic. As uttered by Anderson, they sound daring. Telling a male police officer that Paul Spector is not, in fact, an aberration but a man on the continuum of men, who like all men is capable of crossing certain lines with women, takes real ovaries.