It’s been almost two years since Jamie Dornan’s Paul Spector was shot in a dramatic (if slightly disastrous, from a policing point of view) climax to the saga of The Fall. For 12 episodes, spread over two series, serial killer Spector had been waging a war on the (pretty, young and brunette) women of Belfast, thereby tormenting Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), the Metropolitan Police superintendent in charge of the investigation. All that came to an end in the sixth episode of the final season and now the ridiculously handsome murderer is on the brink of death in a forest somewhere in Northern Ireland.
When the show resumes on September 29, that’s where it will pick up, the drama continuing in the tense moment-by-moment style we’ve come to expect from The Fall. Our protagonists will have been frozen in that forest scene for 20 months or so, while the rest of us have been reading think pieces about the show’s gender politics and developing other TV obsessions (hello, Stranger Things).
The Fall returns to an audience likely to be on the lookout for misogyny, as accusations that the series glamorised violence against women were rife when it was last on our screens. It’s a charge that actors Anderson and Dornan find easy to dismiss when I meet them in London, but the show’s creator, Allan Cubitt, is clearly rankled by it. He says it was always his intention to “explore male violence against women and refract that through the prism of a female central character who would discourse on this theme endlessly … that was the thing that made me feel I could go into the territory of depicting violence against women at all". And yet many still feel uncomfortable with its execution – the gorgeous young women, murdered in their high heels; the flashes of bra from Stella; the schoolgirl sex symbol Katie, who is improbably attracted to Spector and his sexual nastiness.
Did Cubitt not anticipate that response when he created the show? No, he says. “Because I was always very clear about what it was I was setting out to do … the first conversation that we hear in The Fall is Sarah Kay talking to her friend in the bar about a matrilineal society in Northern China, a society with no words for rape, or murder, and no prisons… It’s fairly obvious what I'm trying to do there – which is set up this notion that what we are going to be addressing is the patriarchal context for violence against women.”
But while Spector’s abs are obsessed over, it is arguable that Gibson’s silk blouses have garnered even more attention
He admits that he doesn’t expect to “be applauded for the fact that there are woman killed in The Fall”, but says “you can watch one episode of Luther and see more female victims than you see across the entire series of The Fall”. He thinks perhaps the accusations of misogyny arise because of how long we spend with Jamie Dornan’s Spector; that by giving the murderer 50 per cent of screen time, he has “humanised” him.
The camera does linger on Jamie Dornan, and his lips and muscled torso, and there is no denying that this is a show that encourages the viewer to see Spector as a sort of “sexy murderer”. Cubitt says that he made the decision to cast Dornan – who was a very successful model before becoming an actor – because he wanted to challenge the notion that serial killers look dodgy from the outset. He was also keen to explore “the difference between appearance and reality” and the dangers of objectification. “[Stella] says in season one that Spector objectifies his victims to a considerable extreme; in the end, they are not human beings to him even – they are dolls, mannequins,” Cubitt explains. “But, equally, she's guilty of objectifying the police officer in the street who she thinks might be an appropriate quick fuck.”
He quickly points out that “female objectification of men and male objectification of women is not the same thing. One is part of a patriarchal structure, the other is something that inevitably happens because we all objectify to some degree”.
I wonder if Dornan, who is now 34 and was cast as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades after his Fall appearance, agrees and put the question to him: does he think that we are starting to objectify our male actors – and their abs – to an uncomfortable degree? “I think that’s definitely true,” he says, almost bristling. “It does take away from the drama, from the actual reason that something is made – scenes like that are written with an eye of attracting attention and gaining viewers. I’m only thinking of Poldark here because, on the train yesterday morning, there's a whole bloody thing about Aidan Turner's body and I've been in that situation before myself, with people focusing on that above everything else. Yeah, it's not ideal, but it definitely exists for men as well as women; there's no denying that.”
But, while Spector’s abs are obsessed over, it is arguable that Gibson’s silk blouses have garnered even more attention. “People have become obsessed by her blouses,” Cubitt says. “On the one hand, I think that's cool because it's catching people's imaginations; on the other hand, I think if that's all you think about the character of Gibson, it's doing the drama a disservice, and it's doing the character a disservice, and doing Gillian a disservice.”
Anderson (in close range, the 48-year-old is beautiful and tiny and animated and fun) seems unperturbed by the preoccupation and is happy to discuss the costumes, explaining that she and the costume designer quickly decided that “it wasn't trousers and it wasn't dresses, so therefore it was what they call 'separates'”.
“The minute I put those clothes on in the dressing room, there's Stella,” she says. “It's so weird. Even if I've come in in a ponytail and my combat boots and whatever it is that I'm in, once I've put those things on, all of a sudden it ties.”
Anderson is adamant that Stella is a feminist, arguing that her singleminded determination makes her so: it’s “just about her beliefs and who she is and how she shows up in the world. She only really behaves for herself and within her own set of values and there is nobody that she is looking up to for answers or permission or forgiveness".
Researching the role, Anderson did speak to real police officers – but none were female. “We had a wonderful on-set policeman, actually, who was there quite a lot that we could ask procedural questions of,” she says, but “not women [officers]; I don't think there are many in Northern Ireland.” But, while there may be a dearth of women working in the PSNI, they will be better represented in season three. We are unsure what will happen to Spector – can he survive that shooting? – but it’s clear that Gibson will be as commandingly smart as ever. She’ll no doubt have to deal with Spector’s wife, Sally Ann, as well as the delusional and dangerous Katie, but Anderson says she might meet a couple of women she sees as equal along the way. “Stella has a scene with a female senior investigating officer in the third season. And that's really the first equal female that she's had any dealings with whatsoever since the beginning, so that was fascinating to play.”
The Fall returns to BBC on September 29