As the creators of Homeland, The Americans and Utopia will tell you, sometimes getting a second series isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. These shows, and many more besides, have struggled to match the critical and commercial heights set by the initial runs. It’s not hard to see why: expectations are much higher, original ideas are harder to come by, and, crucially, there’s the simple fact that a show rarely feels as fresh and exciting the second time around.
BBC2’s superlative crime drama The Fall is another series that seems to have fallen foul of this poisoned chalice. After thrilling and unsettling viewers with its sexualised depiction of murder and putting a unique twist on the police procedural – turning a whodunit into an absorbing whydunit by devoting equal time to Jamie Dornan’s devilishly handsome serial killer and the icy DCI (Gillian Anderson) trying to catch him – it’s fair to say its second series has been a frustrating disappointment.
The drama has been sluggish and stretched perilously thin as the show struggles to regain its narrative footing, starting with Paul Spector limply exiled in London while Stella Gibson makes only incremental progress in tracking him down, and it really doesn’t get much better from there.
One of the biggest problems in series two is that the show has noticeably lost its dark sheen. The first season of The Fall was frightening because of the way Belgian director Jakob Verbruggen lingered uncomfortably on glossy images that tied sex to the murder of women and made the audience complicit in Spector’s crimes.
This troubling act of voyeurism made for upsetting yet absorbing viewing, but this time writer Allan Cubitt, clearly chastened by criticisms of misogyny in the first series, has chosen to direct the new episodes himself, and in doing so has stripped the show of all its guile and fear factor.
In Cubitt’s hands, The Fall is a very different series, slipping into the ordinary procedural territory it once deftly eschewed. As yet there have been no murders – that we know of; instead, we’ve been given a deep-dredging psychological drama that focuses on examining the complex motivations of Spector and Gibson, and the effect he has had on his victims.
This shift in tone can be seen in the way Spector has been depicted as more monstrous – spending the entire series systematically corrupting a 15-year-old schoolgirl – while Gibson’s cold demeanour has been softened to make our sympathies less ambiguous, highlighting just how far The Fall has drifted from the challenging drama it used to be.
That’s not to say The Fall is no longer enjoyable or entirely gripping; it is, but it just doesn’t have the same hold anymore. Things have admittedly perked up in recent weeks as the PSNI’s net continues to close around Spector, culminating in last week’s breathless manhunt through Belfast’s botanical gardens that finally saw the villain captured. But while Gibson has gathered damning evidence against Spector, he is the only one who knows Rose’s whereabouts, and, more importantly, whether she’s still alive, leaving events perfectly poised ahead of tonight’s feature-length finale.
By far the biggest question that needs to be answered, though, is whether Cubitt can actually stick the landing and complete his story after botching the first series finale. With so much still to wrap up, it’s also essential that the writer-director avoid the narrative dump that derailed the most recent series of Line of Duty.
Considering Spector is not expecting to survive the ordeal – he likened serial killing to a form of slow suicide, after all – and he has plainly made Gibson his primary target this series, Cubitt could possibly follow the blueprint of The Bridge, a Nordic noir that borrowed substantially from David Fincher’s Seven, and have Spector finally corrupt Gibson.
He has manipulated and taunted his enemy throughout the series in a very personal way, such as reading her dream diary, and Gibson is certainly emotionally invested in seeing Rose returned safely to her family, so it could be interesting to watch the two duke it out in an interrogation room while the police scramble to find Rose before it’s too late.
However Cubitt decides to bring the series to a close, it’ll have to be one hell of an ending to justify an additional run of storytelling. Fans have invested too much time and had to endure a series of diminishing returns to endure to another disappointing end. And if the mistakes of the first finale are replicated a second time, many will say The Fall has hit rock bottom, leaving a very steep climb for an inevitable third series to overcome.
Click here to watch series two of The Fall on BBC iPlayer