So, you like to watch a handsome, shirtless Jamie Dornan do the whole torture thing? Well, then, we’ve got the perfect drama for you—and it’s not Fifty Shades of Grey.
If you want to see Dornan gag women, tie them up, bathe them by candlelight, and cause them grievous bodily harm, you’re better off watching the first season of the BBC’s gripping thriller The Fall. (Catch up on Netflix before season two airs. The trailer premiered yesterday, just in time for 50 Shades madness.) The Fall is a suspenseful and scary thriller, and, unlike Fifty Shades, it’s honest about the slippery entertainment appeal of violence against women.
Dornan plays Paul Spector, a doting father and loving husband who also happens to be a really hot serial killer. Where the 50 Shades trailer makes sadism look aspirational—just let him hurt you, ladies, and you can have it all, the Nicholas Sparks romance, the fashion-mag clothes, and rides in fancy, phallus-shaped planes!—The Fall shows that glamorizing male sexual power over women can also be dangerous. “I was at pains from the start to make sure that there was nothing gratuitous or exploitative in the drama,” its creator, Alan Cubitt, told the Guardian last year. “Sexual killers eroticize violence, power and death, so it’s a challenging line to walk.”
Half of The Fall‘s story is told from Paul’s point of view (we’ll get to the other half in a second), and he’s definitely a voyeur. (His last name, Spector, even hints that he likes to watch.) So it’s necessary that there’s an element of voyeurism in the way the show frames his murders: The victims are young, beautiful, and often left naked on their beds. Their deaths are gorgeously shot, with romantic lighting and tasteful make-up. Paul even bathes his victims and paints their nails before he leaves them. But this isn’t the straight-forward S&M glamor that 50 Shades trades in. It’s all part of the drama’s plan to implicate its viewers in the same objectification of women that excites Paul. And that’s a fair thing to do: Viewers are tuning in to watch a show about a literal lady-killer, aren’t they?
Another way that Cubitt avoids the exploitation trap is by letting us get to know these victims before they die, so that the women are actual human beings to us, not just another sexy corpse that you might find in a dumpster on Law & Order: SVU. It helps that the first victim we meet is also an outspoken feminist. When we’re introduced to Sarah Kay, her coworker is trying to flirt with her, and Sarah, who couldn’t be less interested, responds by talking about the Mosuo people, a matriarchal society where women raise children communally, without any real attachment to men. Just try to imagine 50 Shades‘ Anastasia living in that society. How would she survive? Who would tell her how to wear her hair?
But the real reason The Fall doesn’t feel like a cheap thrill is that it messes with the conservative gender roles that Fifty Shades reinforces. The show’s real hero is Stella, a cool-tempered detective played by Gillian Anderson. She provides the point of view for the scenes that aren’t from Spector’s perspective, and together, the two of them upend all sort of assumptions about women and men. He’s the loving parent; she’s the ladder-climbing careerist. They’re both clinical about their life’s work, but she’s that way because she’s hugely ambitious, and he’s that way because he’s a sociopath. (Is The Fall intentionally flipping the idea that men who aren’t ruled by their emotions make great leaders while women like that are just crazy?) Stella favors one-night stands while Paul obsesses over women he only meets once.
Still, Stella isn’t just a male archetype in drag. In fact, she complicates the whole idea that any women can be so easily categorized. When one of her colleagues refers to the serial killer’s victims as “innocent,” Stella corrects his use of the word. “What if he kills a prostitute next, or a woman walking home drunk, late at night, in a short skirt?” she asks. “Will they be in some way less innocent, therefore less deserving? Culpable? The media loves to divide women into virgins and vamps, angels or whores. Let’s not encourage them.”
At risk of making the same mistake, I should probably avoid judging Fifty Shades fans too harshly. As Lena Dunham once said, part of being a feminist is giving other women the space to make choices you don’t agree with. So go ahead and pre-order your Fifty Shades of Grey tickets if you like. But if this piece hasn’t convinced you to add The Fall to your Netflix queue as well, then let me try another approach: Jamie Dornan has never been hotter, even though he’s playing a serial killer. If you, like Anastasia, prefer your fantasy life to be just a little bit wrong, you can’t do much better than that.