Pride Goeth Before “The Fall”
Television audiences can’t get enough of TV shows about serial killers. Besides the ongoing popularity of Criminal Minds, crime procedurals often dip their toes into the serial killer genre. Thanks to all of this attention, the serial killer trope has now entered the realm of fantastical archetype, something which seems to contradict the actual numbers. According FBI crime statistics, serial killings “account for no more than one percent of all murders committed in the US.”
It’s also worth noting that even the some of the more infamous serial killers have only been convicted of a small number of murders and suspected of fewer than ten (for example, Albert Fish). The kinds of serial killers who have been convicted of committing dozens of murders (such as Ted Bundy) are not that common. The most prolific serial killers are not usually the ones on which popular culture tends to fixate. Columbia’s “La Bestia” was convicted of 138 murders but suspected of more than 300; even TV’s iteration of Hannibal Lecter didn’t commit that many.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE FALL, SEASON 3, EPISODE ONE!
The BBC production The Fall, which just finished its third season, also focuses on a fictional serial killer, Paul Spector, dubbed the “Belfast Strangler.” The show is unique in that it gives us nearly unfettered access to the killer’s life as well as those of the members of the team investigating the murders.
Rather than setting up a dichotomy between a over the top villain and a saintly police force, however, the show exposes the flaws of members of the investigating team, such as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson). Her outstanding investigatory skills are matched by her sexual confidence and staunch feminism; the latter two aspects of her personality threaten her career, particularly because she chooses fellow police officers. The Fall does not fetishize Spector’s victims or glamorize his four murders. It doesn’t ask us to feel sympathy for his pathology, either; if anything, he remains an infuriating mystery, albeit a misogynist one.
At the beginning of the show’s third season, Spector has been captured by police, but due to an unexpected turn of events, he has been shot and critically wounded (but not by a police officer). Although over the course of the first two seasons, Spector’s arrogant manipulations have literally made my skin crawl with revulsion, the nail-biting suspense of his emergency surgery and subsequent hospitalization in Season Three’s first episode, “Silence and Suffering” is undeniable: I don’t want him to die. It’s not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because the idea that he needs to answer to his crimes in a court of law is not only omnipresent, but also vitally important to everyone who has been impacted by those crimes.
The gruesome visual details of Spector’s surgery are as tension-filled as the scenes in which he terrorized women. There’s even a series of lingering shots of the emergency room after he’s whisked off to the intensive care unit: torn clothing, used bandages, pools of blood on the floor. One boot that was removed during the course of treatment sits lopsided on the floor. It’s like a different kind of crime scene, and no less awful to witness. This doesn’t mean that there is a false equivalence between Spector’s wounds and those of his victims; rather, it shows that violence of any kind is ugly and that it would be a mistake to imagine that his suffering equals some kind of vengeance.
The show also exposes the dark underbelly of being fascinated with real-life murderers through the character of Katie Benedetto, a teenager whose infatuation with Spector leads her to not only destroy evidence to protect him, but also to assault a woman who she sees as both a traitor and a rival.
During the show’s second season, one of Detective Gibson’s colleagues had suggested that she herself might be fascinated by Spector, to which she responds:
"A woman, I forget who, once asked a male friend why men felt threatened by women. He replied that they were afraid that women might laugh at them. When she asked a group of women why women felt threatened by men, they said, 'We're afraid they might kill us.' He might fascinate you. I despise him with every fiber of my being."
It would be easy, like Katie, to be fascinated by Paul Spector. His manipulative ways have allowed him to indulge in his most depraved fantasies without paying the price for his crimes. The character is portrayed by Jamie Dornan, who audiences will recognize as Christian Grey from the 50 Shades of Grey film. This imbues his role as Spector with an uneasy, metatextual quality.
The idea that women who are in charge of their own sexual activities – such as Anastasia Steele in 50 Shades of Grey or Stella Gibson in The Fall – are somehow bad or dirty is at the heart of why rape culture is so prevalent. As Gibson warns in another episode, “The media loves to divide women into virgins and vamps, angels or whores. Let's not encourage them." There is a difference between sexual assault and consensual sex and it’s one that’s often ignored. When the husband of kidnapping victim Rose Stagg expresses frustration that his wife didn’t fight back, Gibson is quick to remind him that submission does not equal consent: “If she went with him quietly, it was because she was afraid for her life.”
It’s that kind of fear that fuels the fascinating narrative twists and turns of The Fall and it’s one that is all too easy for women to understand. The irony of Gibson’s success in catching and arresting Spector is that she is now being interrogated and investigated because Spector was wounded and shot while Gibson was trying to save the life of his most recent victim.
The phrase “pride goeth before the fall” is a shortened version of a line from Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall.” On The Fall, the question is not whether or not pride will lead to destruction and a fall, but whether Paul Spector will take Stella Gibson down with him.