SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't yet finished streaming Season 2 of The Fall on Netflix, stop reading now. As we await word on the drama's future — and if Fifty Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan would return as Paul Spector, the serial killer hunted by Gillian Anderson's enigmatic detective Stella Gibson, should there be a third season — creator Allan Cubitt dissects the show's themes and Season 2's ending.
Gillian Anderson recently penned an essay for Yahoo TV profiling Stella. She asked, "But what is it about Stella — and why me? It has been said that she is cold. Is she? Am I? Is this a trait that The Fall's creator-writer Allan Cubitt saw in me and gave to her? I must ask him." What's the answer?
[Laughs.] I don't think she's cold at all, and I don't think Stella is cold. I think what I was going for — and I think this is probably a quality that Gillian has in person, and certainly brings to the screen — is a kind of surface coolness, if you like, a kind of control. So given that the piece is in part about people who attempt to control things that are beyond their control, it's an interesting thing to me.
In a very obvious way, the police are always seeking to control everything that they're investigating — the process is one of trying to maintain a hold on what's happening around them. Very often, the people you encounter that do those sorts of jobs have to have a superficial sense of control of themselves, their emotions. It comes out in simple things, like you can't be seen laughing at a crime scene. You know there'll be people photographing, and so consequently, you have to have the right face on when you're in that situation, even though there may be things that might make you smile, which would be utterly inappropriate. Interviewing a suspect: Again, they have to be in such complete and utter control of themselves. The police become extremely adroit at reading body language and, of course, very aware of their own body language.
There's a sense that Gillian's very much in command of what she's doing as an actress. I've said this before, but it's a very deliberate thing that she's first seen in the first shots of Episode 1, Season 1, wearing a face mask. And then she washes the face mask off and is revealed to us in her vulnerability, but then when she arrives in Belfast, she's the sort of person who has also given some thought to the way she dresses and how she presents herself. Throughout the arc of the two seasons so far, my idea has been to gradually let that mask slip a little bit — but it's not something that she is keen to let happen. She does, of course, reveal more and more about herself, both in terms of her reactions to the particularly troubling things she sees, like the Rose Stagg case, or even when she's lost her diary, which is her innermost private thoughts, the way she talks to Burns about it. She does let the mask slip there as well, I think. When she's watching Olivia, and her heart goes out to Olivia... So my feeling is that she's not remotely a cold character. In fact, I think she's an extremely warm character but she takes pains to kind of keep that under wraps. I think Gillian has personally some of those qualities, but she's great fun and hasn't had the chance to be great fun, because the situation's been so grim.
At the end of Season 2, when Jimmy (the abusive husband whose wife Spector had counseled) shoots both Spector and Anderson (the young detective Gibson has slept with), Stella runs to Spector first. In your mind, why?
Well, I might be a bit cagey about that... On the surface, if I'd been asked to justify it to the actors on the day — though no one asked me — I would argue that it's because he is under their protection at that point. The first rule of any good police officer is the preservation of life, and does she assess in that moment that Spector's more badly hurt than Anderson? I'm not sure she can, to be honest. But he was in their custody, therefore he is supposed to be being protected by them, and he's just been shot. If you asked me to explore what the psychology below that is, I think she has a deeper connection to Spector than she has to Anderson. I think this is true, that if you find yourself in a situation where all your focus, all your waking energy, is going towards trying to identify and then trying to fathom this individual, then you end up with a very strong connection with them. And it is a connection that Anderson questions in the bedroom [when] he says, "Well, he has a strange allure," and Gibson says, "You might find him alluring. I find him repellant. I hate him with every fiber of my being." I think it's more complex than that.
Did you always know Jimmy Tyler (Brian Milligan) would shoot Spector, or was that something you thought of later wanting a cliffhanger?
He was always the person I thought capable of violence, should I want that, should I need that. Obviously, one of the things I'm interested in is gender differences within the piece. I think it's a feminist piece overall, but what that requires is that men's roles are redefined in some kind of way. Right from the very beginning, he is someone who is incapable of really coming to terms with the death of his child. So he's in a state of grief, but he can only articulate that grief in anger, which is quite a male trait. When his wife is having a go at him for not being able to articulate the way he feels, Spector says to her, "Men and women grieve differently. Try not to make judgments."
That's a very profound piece of advice from Spector, I think. It was always one of the things I wanted to do, to make sure that as a counselor, he gives, as he does to Annie Brawley in the second season, very, very good advice. It's just coming from a very, very bad person, and it's often self-serving. There are issues surrounding why he's so drawn to people's grief, why he chose that profession. But [Jimmy] Tyler is in real trouble having lost his son, then losing his wife, and he has no way of coping with the overwhelming emotions he's feeling apart from behaving in a violent manner. He was always the person I thought could be violent to Spector from left field, as it were.
It's quite an important part of The Fall in the sense that what's always interesting to me is trauma and how you either come to terms with it, or you let it rule your life. Whatever traumatic experiences Spector's had, they have turned into something extremely anti-social, destructive, and repellant — but lots of the characters in the piece are struggling to deal with trauma. It's all set up to explore those central themes, really: The nature of gender differences, and whether it's possible to survive those traumatic events and be a fully-functioning, loving, connected person when you've been through that.
This is true of Katie [the teen infatuated with Spector] as well. Can Katie come through the trauma of losing her father? What impact will it have on her? I think the problem for Spector is that the abuse, the things that have so scarred him, are really very, very far back in his childhood, and as we know, the most crucial time in your development is the very early years.
At the end of Season 2, Katie tells her friend that Spector is the killer. Does she truly believe that now? Did you always know the arc that character would take?
I think it developed in the sense that I was pleased with the way Aisling [Franciosi] played Katie in Season 1. The scenes were all there: her provocative dancing to him, she's lost her father, she's always been a good girl. She's not grieved properly for her father — perhaps has never really allowed her emotions out over that — and is immediately kind of fascinated by Spector, and drawn to him, and as we saw, was prepared to expose herself to him on the stairs, stole a photograph of him as she left, and so on. He then lied to her and told her that she was beautiful, and that was the point we left it in Season 1.
In Season 2, their relationship became infinitely more complex. I'm not sure quite what she thinks at the moment about whether Spector's really the guy or not: that could have been her kind of getting one up on her friend. She seems to believe the story about the hoaxing. Then he seems to have got her to destroy evidence for him. So she must be thinking that there's something really wrong here. But she creates alibis for him and seeks to protect him, whilst at the same time imagining that there's some very powerful bond between them, perhaps even that they're going to go away together at the end of Season 2, before Spector gets arrested...
One of the things that I think is interesting about Spector is that disarming thing. You get this all the time with people who are arrested for crimes, that sense that they've never shown you any side of their nature that's like that. Therefore, you find it extremely difficult to believe that they are capable of the things they're being accused of. You could say the same thing about Liz Tyler [the abused wife Spector counseled to leave Jimmy]: her experience is only of Spector being kind and considerate and helpful. It would be very hard for her to think that he's capable of the things that he's being accused of. Same applies, of course, to [Spector's wife] Sally Ann and the children. Who stands by someone under those circumstances — who feels that they've got the power to rescue them or heal them in some kind of way — is quite an interesting thing. But I think it fits Katie's emotional and intellectual and physical immaturity that she feels that way.
In her essay, Gillian also wondered what makes Stella so compelling and confounding: "Is it that Stella is at once in touch with her femininity in a way we have not seen, and yet still able to stand up for herself with strength, intelligence, grace, and self-containment? Could it be that simple?" There's that gorgeous night location in Season 2, with the city lights in the distance, and yet Gillian is still the most stunning thing in the frame. What is her secret?
[Laughs.] I'm very proud of the fact that she is the age she is, and I'm aware of the fact that leading roles for women are fewer and further between as they get older, and that most writers interest themselves for perhaps very obvious reasons in younger characters. I think Gillian brings a weight of experience to the part. Really, the age of the character is dictated by the rank she needed to have to be able to do the things I wanted her to do. She needed to be at least a detective superintendent, and it takes a while to get to that. She could be a tad younger, but she could also be older, of course. But Gillian is blessed, it appears, with great genes or something, because she looks amazing.
I was quite keen, actually, for her to look tired. She gets so little sleep within the investigation. I didn't want her to look kind of perfect, but one of the things about Gillian is that she always kind of looks stunning, just because she's got such an interesting face. There's such an intelligence going on in her acting, I think, your eye is drawn to her. Gibson has that quality because Gillian's playing her, but I always wanted [Stella] to have that sort of star quality, that kind of charisma that makes people want to do their best work for her, which, I think again, is just an aspect of her as a leader. She inspires in people the desire to please her in some kind of way.
Stella's private life has always been a part of the story. She has sex with younger men when she assumes there'll be no ties. When she invites pathologist Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi) up to her room, is that different?
Well, I think it's crucial that Reed Smith, as tempted as she is in the moment, turns away at that point, because she's married and she's got children. The idea that you go with the flow, as Gibson says, and have a hedonistic kind of one-off experience — she can't quite bring herself to be that, which would probably put her in a healthier place than Stella. I mean, I'm not judging Stella for her liaisons at all, because I think she's perfectly within her rights to do what she wants to do, and her sexuality is not something that I'd want to use against her. But it doesn't mean to say that questions won't be asked in a professional context or a social context about the way she behaves.
And again, I think it's partly an attempt to empower her character — that she has the right to do what she wants to, in terms of her sexuality, as long as she's not harming other people. She says herself to Burns the following day, "We all have emotions, physical needs that can only be met by another human being. The trick is to ask the right person." Burns thinks she's talking about him, but she's not. She's thinking, "I asked the wrong person last night. That was wrong of me to ask Reed Smith."
That's a really crucial line, about asking the right person, because we know that the following episode, we're going to go in to see Father Jensen, who's been asking small children to provide him with emotional and physical comforts, and that is utterly wrong. So Stella's got to find the right person to ask to meet those emotional, physical needs. Otherwise, she'll need to go swimming all the time. [Laughs.]
Some people, myself included, have had trouble sleeping with the lights off after binging the show. It's the idea that Spector visits victims' homes before he actually attacks them, and that he goes undetected in the basement, in the hallway, in the same room. You've said that was inspired, in part, by your desire for the audience to know the victims. When did you know how haunting it would be?
I think I always knew that it was going to be particularly chilling. I'm someone who's actually quite squeamish about on-screen violence and crime scenes that are brutal and bloody and disgusting. Take a film like Se7en: I find it extremely hard to watch that film, but I also recognize that there is something, as in episode three of Season 1, when he goes into Annie Brawley's house and moves a cup of tea. He's playing with her mind, so she's thinking, "I'm sure I put a cup down here." Eventually, if she finds it in the garden, she's going to be very spooked.
As you say, spoiler alert: He doesn't actually kill anyone across Season 2. He plays mind games all the time with people, and even when he's in captivity, he's playing mind games. That he maintains that sense of threat surrounding him, without actually resorting to anything very graphic, is one of the things that I'm most pleased about. I think that's a tribute to the way Jamie Dornan plays the part, but I hope it's also a reflection on the way the character was written. You know he's got that capacity — that was the important thing, to establish that there was no doubt in the audience's mind that he was capable of terrible things — and therefore, in any situation you find him, there's an underlying unease. So if he's in Gibson's hotel room, what the hell is he going to do? Again, what he does is psychological — he violates her by reading her private diary and writing in it. That's a very profound violation for her, but it's not the same as other dramas that might have had him attack her in some way.
I'm sorry that you had such a hard time after watching it. [Laughs.] Maybe I should take it as a compliment, but I don't know. It's a funny one.