BBC Two’s The Fall (available on Netflix) is one of my new favorite TV shows. It follows the life and crimes of serial killer Paul Spector and Stella Gibson, the detective in charge of bringing him to justice.
Paul Spector (actor Jamie Dornan) is one of the most fascinating characters portrayed on TV, so he makes an excellent case study for good character development — whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay or anything in between.
WARNING: Lots of spoilers for The Fall, “series” (seasons) 1-3, so read on at your own discretion.
From monster to sympathetic villain
In series one, we immediately learn who Paul Spector is. He’s a killer, no mistake about it, as we follow his perspective throughout the show. We also learn that he’s a husband and loving father. But his docility around his children only makes his actions that much more heinous and frightening.
By series three, Paul is in police custody and undergoing psychiatric evaluation. The evidence against him is overwhelming, not to mention he’s made a full confession. But as he’s suffering from amnesia (either real or pretend), we see a new side of Paul, a different kind of intimacy. There’s the intimacy of watching him strangle and beat his victims. Then there’s the intimacy of learning about his childhood and how he views himself.
He’s complicated, and the beauty of his character development is that complexity makes him impossible to pin down. As the audience, we can only speculate about what’s going on his mind, the same way that Stella Gibson can only speculate (sometimes, perhaps wrongly) about what drives him. Paul continues to surprise us.
Targeting women, not men
It’s simple on paper: Of course, a demented serial killer would target women. That’s all we ever hear about, isn’t it?
Paul’s story isn’t so clear. One would think that his hatred would be geared toward men: As an orphan, he moved from home to home, winding up in the care of a priest named Father Jensen, who sexually abused children. Paul was one of his “favorites.”
Why, then, would Paul take out his anger on women? For one, he never truly recovered from his mother’s suicide, essentially her abandonment of him. We learn in series three that he would sometimes lay out his mother’s clothes in the shape of her body, which he later did with his female victims. He even went so far as to dress in women’s clothing and pose mannequins in submissive positions.
It’s possible that his obsession with stalking and killing women, a pattern of strangling and releasing and strangling again, stems from wanting to understand what his mother experienced when she hanged herself. It’s taking back control where he had none. His feelings about women are obviously misogynistic, but as Rose (one of his victims) and later Stella Gibson (actress Gillian Anderson) point out, it’s not about them. It’s about him.
Protectiveness of children
Paul is, appallingly, a father of two. But he is caring and protective of children, albeit sometimes negligent in the face of his obsession. (There are a few instances where he ignores Olivia when caught up in his thoughts.)
Early on, we have no idea why Paul only hurts adults and not children. After all, why would any life be precious to a cold-blooded killer? But Paul expresses self-disgust upon learning that one of his victims was newly pregnant when he murdered her. Series three reveals that this compassion may originate from his own abuse in childhood. He and many other boys were victimized by Father Jensen and otherwise abandoned throughout their lives. It’s caused them irreparable psychological damage.
This empathy becomes more confusing when Paul divulges his personal ideology to Katie Benedetto, his babysitter turned protégée of sorts. He admits that other people’s pain brings him pleasure. But Paul’s actions sometimes say otherwise. By day, he works as a bereavement counselor. Though he secretly sketched one of his patients, Liz Tyler, in the nude — just like his other eventual victims — in series two, he goes out of his way to safeguard her from her abusive husband, Jimmy. He convinces her to seek police protection even though it means betraying her husband by putting him back in jail.
Paul’s empathy for children and the abused is in direct conflict with his own criminal behavior. After all, isn’t he abusing his victims? But this ambiguity makes him a far more compelling character.
Amnesia, real or fake?
In series three, Paul recovers from a near-fatal gunshot wound and experiences significant amnesia, where he can’t remember the last decade of his life — including the murders. He’s visibly upset and overwhelmed when he learns what he’s done.
This obviously puts a kink in the court proceedings and makes the police’s job harder all-around as it renders his confession suspect. They scramble to build an air-tight evidential case against him while attempting to disprove his alleged amnesia. Stella Gibson is convinced that he’s faking it as a cover to escape punishment, and while this is likely (there are subtle moments where Paul seems to slip), I wasn’t 100 percent sure.
Paul’s amnesia is believable. In a way, this is a play on the audience, a manipulation of our own naïveté and willingness to trust that people are inherently good. Paul is charming. It’s how he’s manage to fool people, including his own family, for years.
But there are sparks of truth in his claims. For one, we learn about “Good Paul” and “Bad Paul” in his diary, and he speaks of being an observer, possibly to the point of total dissociation — a split personality. We know that he would distract himself with “projects” to keep himself from killing. Those “projects” might have been stalking women, but he didn’t start his career as the Belfast Strangler until he was into his thirties. He established a career, got married, and reared two children.
It’s possible that the docility we see in him when he first experiences amnesia turns to violence again because memories are returning (as Paul himself hints, there are “flashes” and thoughts). “Bad Paul” is overtaking “Good Paul” once again. Perhaps, on some level, he abhors his own compulsions and that’s why he hits himself after watching his own tape of Rose begging for her life. His anger at Stella’s assessment of him may betray an inability to communicate his own suffering, and hating not her but her mercilessly describing the monstrous picture of himself. Or maybe, as Stella thinks, he’s just hiding behind the mask of amnesia.
Obsession with death
Paul’s obsession with death goes further than murder. In the end, he takes his own life, just like his mother.
This is where the story gets especially complicated. By Stella’s count, Paul was faking amnesia to escape responsibility and continue to be the center of attention. That may well be true. But no matter how hard Paul’s lawyers try, amnesia and the excuses they invent don’t wipe clean the crimes he’s committed. It’s hard to disprove guilt when there are survivors, hard evidence, and a confession that say otherwise.
What, then, does Paul actually achieve by faking amnesia? What does he stand to gain?
The answer isn’t so clear, but one thing is certain: Paul wants to die. We see it on his face, that passive acceptance, when he’s bleeding out from the gunshot wound. We see it in his dream, when he lets himself fall from the top of a building. We hear it in the poem he recites for another patient. And we see it when he wraps the plastic bag around his head and hangs himself.
Why he wants to die is another matter. Stella would believe it’s so he can escape punishment. He’s a child, always striving for infantile attention. But Paul might have chosen death for another reason — the amnesia wearing off, and remembering what he’s become, knowing that fighting against “Bad Paul” is futile. Or maybe it’s an addict’s realization that a life without his addiction is no life at all.
No one answer
I don’t think there’s one answer, one source, to Paul’s disturbance. As Paul’s psychiatrist, Dr. Larson, points out, childhood traumas — even of the smallest kind — are not so easily swept aside in adulthood. At some point, there are too many traumas to even know where to begin.
Paul is an example of successful character development because we could follow the rabbit hole for hours and only find ourselves more lost. We can speculate on what makes him tick but never truly know him. In fact, understanding him is realizing we don’t understand him at all.
The ambiguity of his character and motives is a testament to his deep development. The contradictory facets of his design aren’t plot holes. Real human beings are hypocritical. They aren’t clear-cut, black and white. They’re so many shades of gray.
One more thing …
One final note on why The Fall is amazing: It’s a crime drama about women fighting for women, when on the surface it appears to be about men.
Certainly, the egomaniacal Paul Spector would want you to think the show’s all about him. But it’s not.
The Fall is about justice for women. It’s about Paul’s victims, and how they survive their abuse and their own anger. How they endure a man tearing their lives apart.
It’s about Stella Gibson, and how she doesn’t let Paul Spector ruin hers, no matter how hard he tries.
It’s about how she maintains a clear head and objective eye despite all the men around her hurling accusations and having emotional meltdowns — the exact thing they would expect a woman to do.
It’s about how she — in a patriarchal profession, where the men around her constantly seek to stain her reputation — keeps fighting for the evidence, and to bring the killer down.
That’s why I love The Fall most.