Gender, Power, and Stella Gibson’s Captivating Sexuality in The Fall

(originally posted on 2/24/15)

Note: this post assumes you’ve seen the end of season two.

There’s so much to say about The Fall that I’ve put three blog posts in one. Happy reading!

Part I: Sexy Stella, stroppy Stella, railing against a world of men.

One thing is certain about Stella Gibson’s brand of femininity, power, and sexuality in The Fall: we haven’t seen it before on television (and very few other places, for that matter). She’s so matter-of-fact in the way she dresses down the men around her who seem not to recognize the subtle misogyny in their comments. She’s so nonchalant about proposing trysts with people she decides she wants. She’s so facile with manipulating power dynamics whenever the situation calls for it.

The show’s strongest moments highlight the parallels between Stella and serial killer Paul Spector, even while those moments also demonstrate the stark contrasts between them. They both know who they want, but Paul’s brand of domination and possession and his methods of transforming women into dolls for his pleasure are a far cry from Stella’s consensual one-night stands with colleagues. They are both mirrors, of a sort, but Paul seeks to reflect his own superiority and Stella reflects back to people their sexist assumptions. They are both single-minded, driven, and controlling, and they both lie when it suits them. The fundamental difference between them, really, is their gender, and the power that gender either gives or takes from them.

Stella’s a fascinating character in large part because everyone—men and women—around her is so fascinated by her. Farrington clearly looks up to her; Reed Smith is drawn to her (more on that later); Annie Brawley feels such a connection with her that she not only takes her advice about the hairband on her wrist, but she seems on instinct to protect Stella’s identity by calling her “a friend” to Paul. Olson and Anderson jump in her bed without hesitation; Detective Martin makes a crack about Stella wanting him all to himself; even Jim Burns, her boss, can’t stop going on about how much he wants her. He shows up drunk at her hotel room and refuses to take no for an answer until she bloodies his nose. One of my favorite lines in the entire series was when, the next day, she compares his behavior to Spector’s, admitting that it’s not the same but nevertheless firmly pointing out: “I was saying no, Jim.” It’s so simple. But it’s so rarely said, and with such clarity: “I was saying no.” The sad fact is, one of the reasons we’re willing to say that Jim’s behavior is different from Paul’s is that Stella had the training and opportunity to fight him off. In Jim’s case, Stella’s strength (physical as well as emotional) is part of the allure, which probably on some level made her safe for him to attack: he had to know he wouldn’t actually succeed in overpowering her. So, we can view his attack as a desperate attempt to feel physically the way he feels emotionally: weak, bereft, and impotent.

The only glimpses we get into Stella’s personal life are essentially bedroom views, considering she lives temporarily in a hotel room and often sleeps in her office. Even when she’s working alone in either location, the specter of her bed haunts the image. The show subtly (and not so subtly) sexualizes her without allowing anyone to judge her. And this is perhaps what makes this show stand out in the universe of cop procedurals (besides the way it humanizes all its female victims): the female lead gets to bang whomever she wants, and no one gets to judge her. When Eastwood tries, she gives one of the best speeches in the show: “Man fucks woman. Subject: man. Verb: fucks. Object: woman. That’s okay. Woman fucks man. Woman: subject. Man: object. That’s not so comfortable for you is it?” Eastwood becomes one of my favorite characters in the show when he recognizes Stella’s interest in Anderson, and then just smiles when it’s clear in the final episode that she slept with Anderson the night before. There’s no judgment from Eastwood in that moment—just self-congratulation that he saw it coming.

It seems a lot of lesbians out there have crushes on Stella Gibson. I’ve got to say, though, I’d rather be her than do her. Paul antagonizes her by suggesting during their interview that she’s got as much childhood trauma as he does, but I don’t buy it. Nevertheless, she remains the more mysterious character, and I hope she stays that way if The Fall gets a season three.

Part II: Paul, Raskolnikov, and god

Cop procedurals can be awfully predictable (which is why I don’t watch the episodic ones—the only two I’ve ever invested in are The Killing and The Fall). So when Jim Burns suggests that maybe Paul had been sexually molested as a child, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. But I ended up liking where they took that storyline about the pedophilic priest. I believe Paul when he says to Stella that the priest in question never touched him. Still, this little addition of the pedophilic priest provides a brilliant source for Pauls’ god complex; he spent formative years of his life watching an egomaniacal man of the cloth molest little boys. The scene between the priest and Burns mirrors in many ways the interview between Paul and Stella; neither perpetrator demonstrated an iota of guilt, but both waxed philosophical about living beyond a mortal life. The priest rambles about doing god’s work on earth, and Paul babbles some nonsense about his senses being heightened during his kills, and it’s all very reminiscent of Dostoevsky.

In Crime and Punishment, Rodion Raskolnikov essentially wants to assume a higher status than ordinary men—he wants to become Nietzsche’s Übermench, and he believes he can achieve this superman status by killing an old woman. Guilt eventually overcomes him, as does his disappointment at not feeling manifestly different—not feeling his greatness—and he confesses and is sentenced to Siberia for his crimes.

Paul (who, naturally, has read his Nietzsche) believes himself superior to ordinary men (and women—of course, and always, women), and therefore not responsible to the laws of man. The reverence with which he speaks of his crimes demonstrates this superiority. So does his bizarre behavior when his actual superiors (at least as far as his employment is concerned) question him about visiting Liz at home. His parroting, or mirroring, shows his continued contempt for the guidelines by which society has agreed to conduct itself.

Assuming Paul, and the series, survive for a third season, it seems unlikely that he will experience the guilt that undoes Raskolnikov. What’s more interesting to me is the degree to which he might have created another monster in his own image. Katie already shows signs of separating herself from society. The slick ease with which she tells her best friend that the man she’s obsessed with has murdered multiple women, the breaking and entering, and the refusal to abandon the fictitious alibies she’s trying to give Paul—these behaviors look like precursors to another ordinary person seeking to transcend ordinary life through violence. Raskolnikov was saved through faith and love. Paul has no faith, and his love for his daughter couldn’t save him. Where does this leave Katie?

Part III: Paradise Lost (or, why are we quoting Milton in our episode titles?)

That ending. Of course any post about The Fall through the end of Season Two would be remiss if it didn’t delve into that troubling yet oh-so-understandable moment where Stella watches two men handcuffed to each other get shot: her one-time lover and the man she has obsessively hunted for the past however long. She runs to Paul, not Anderson. She struggles to stop his bleeding and cries out desperately, “we’re losing him.”

The easy interpretation here is that Stella does feel, as Anderson suggested that very morning, some kind of attraction to Paul. This knee-jerk response is born, I imagine, from the tired yet seemingly inescapable trope of sexually or romantically uniting the female and male leads in every story, and this response oversimplifies the connection between detective and murderer. She clearly has much more invested in Paul than the recipient of her latest invitation for a “sweet night.” Viewing the connection between Gibson and Spector as sexual or romantic conveys a limited view of the ways in which people can connect. Stella’s undeniable fascination with Paul has its foundation in horror; to the extent that we might consider Paul similarly obsessed, his preoccupation derives from self-preservation and his sadistic desires toward all women. Point being: they’ve both voyeuristically invaded each other’s privacy, and expended massive amounts of mental and emotional energy imagining the other. The fundamental difference is: the origins and endgames of these fascinations are starkly different.

Watching Stella manage the many team meetings about the killer, I’m surprised no one (particularly Burns) mentions to her that she speaks of him with a kind of awe that might make listeners uncomfortable. The trope of the obsessed cop works here in part because, given the universe of possible suspects (any fit man in his 30s in Balfast), the only path to success must be navigated with a willingness to try to get into the head of the murderer, to understand what drives and sustains him. So of course Stella is drawn to Paul—she’s been steadily drawing closer and closer to him throughout the entire time we’ve known her, given that her objective has been his capture. So, Stella runs to Paul. And let’s also note that I am referring to him as Paul, and I can’t even remember Anderson’s first name.

Also, let’s not sugarcoat this particular parallel between Stella and Paul: this is her crime scene, and she wants it the way she wants it. Just as Paul worked to perfect his crime scene with Sarah Kay’s murder.

There are so many threads that a potential Season Three can pursue—do Rose, Paul, and Anderson survive? How freaky does Katie become? What happens with Jim’s career? How does Sally cope with the fallout of having a serial killer for a husband? Assuming Paul survives, what does his trial look like? But, I suspect the thread viewers are anticipating most involves this final moment of Season Two, and the interactions between Stella and Paul. This anticipation speaks to broader problems about internalized patriarchy. Why is the question whether Stella is fascinated with Paul, not whether Paul is fascinated with Stella? Why must we always link female characters with desire for men? I also think that there’s a specter of wanting to see a strong woman taken down a peg in everyone’s fascination with this moment. Steely Stella has emotions after all, see? But no—the only person in the show suffering from that kind of obsession with Paul is Katie, and Katie alone.

There’s so much more I want to say about this show. I could devote an entire blog post about the name Spector—what haunts, here? What lurks behind Paul, Stella, Burns, Smith, etc.? What ghosts Paul’s horrific actions, and Stella’s single-minded focus on finding justice for these four women, and Katie’s schoolgirl crush, and Jim’s inability to let go of his desire for Stella? How do these characters shadow each other? How does the “world of men” Stella rails against menace all women and implicate all men?

I also think I’ll spend an entire blog post on Reed Smith. Look for that one next. J

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