Friday, June 24, 2011

A Few Questions for AMC’s The Killing

flashlightsFive days later, I’m still not sure how I feel about the season finale of AMC’s The Killing. And the more I ponder the finale, the less sure I am of how I feel about The Killing’s entire first season.

AMC’s most recent foray into original programming billed itself as a cut above your average police procedural, similar to how last fall’s The Walking Dead was billed as a horror serial that you cared about for more than just the gore. This would be more than just an episode of Law & Order stretched out over thirteen episodes. This wouldn’t just be half a season with 24 with less than half the action.

The Killing promised to set itself apart from the Law & Orders and CSIs of the world by marrying the influence of its Swedish predecessor Forbrydelsen with the small-town mystique of Twin Peaks. The deliberate, meticulous pace of the early episodes felt so…European. Each frame bears the weight of a particular Mood. And the oppressive rainy skies and lakefuls of red herrings harkened back to Twin Peaks, the seminal serial drama of the early 90s. If you set a murder mystery in the Pacific Northwest, chances are you’ll warrant Twin Peaks comparisons.

To cut through all of the context and expectations, The Killing pressed ahead on the strength of a single question: “Who killed Rosie Larsen?”

After thirteen episodes, I have a few more.

[I’ve tried to keep it relatively spoiler free after the jump. I discuss the season-ending cliffhanger without revealing any specifics.]

“I Liked This, Right?”

I had no doubt after The Killing’s premiere that I’d be watching this season all the way through. I liked the idea of a slower-paced mystery. The outright refusal to clearly show Rosie’s body to the audience signaled an intelligence and craftsmanship that boded well for the episodes to follow. It was a promise that the show would stay one step ahead of us, and that there’d be enough along the way to make the stringing along worth it.

Enough cannot be said about Joel Kinnaman’s turn as undercover-narcotics-cop-turned-detective Stephen Holder. Kinnaman sports his 90s greaser look – gray hoodie, slick bedhead hair – with panache. Holder’s lingo is outdated, his methods unorthodox. His forced attempts at playing detective don’t jive with his scrappy background, and Kinnaman turns that struggle into an endless source of awkward laughs. His extroverted bumbling is a perfect foil for Mireille Enos, who appears to have won the role of Sarah Linden by winning a Miss Stoic America contest. More on that later.

the killing holder

Alongside the murder investigation and a slow-to-boil political plot, The Killing devoted much of its time to investigating the mourning process. Rosie’s parents Stan and Mitch (Brent Sexton and excellent Michelle Forbes) turn on dimes in their grief. They hide from one another only to unite in the memory of daughter before quickly accusing each other of every failure imaginable.

The Killing knows the severity of the tragedy at hand, and that our natural human response is sympathy to the bereaved. At its most daring, it challenges us to not like Stan and Mitch at times. Then it refuses to reward our efforts with a nice,  neat reconciliation.

Much like everything else in The Killing, grief’s messy, and it never ends.

“How Did We Get Here?”

Kinnaman and the Larsens stand out because they do not fit neatly into the police procedural formula. In fact, the show’s best qualities early on were the gestures away from formula. It’s not perfect, but the first half of the season is emblematic of everything The Killing does right. The delayed introduction to the actual murder, the all-encompassing malaise of grief, the seeming disconnect between the political plot and the murder: they all disguised the underlying structure so well.

Unfortunately, the attempts to disguise formula coalesced into a formula of their own. Showrunner Veena Sud’s particular flavor of red herring became increasingly obvious during the later episodes. So much so that one or two big reveals flopped for me because I could instantly see them for the misdirection they were intended to be.

Good mysteries engage the audience by encouraging guesswork, but the best mysteries use their dead-ends to reveal character or raise stakes. The Killing’s later dead-ends just sort of fizzle out, like that really clever kid from high school who ended up going nowhere in life.

“No Really, Who Killed Her?

jumping-off-a-cliff-22817Speaking of going nowhere, let me vent about something that might be considered a spoiler:

The Killing’s season finale does not reveal who killed Rosie Larsen.

In almost every way, it was a bizarre finale. With the stakes at their highest, Linden and Holder finally settle into a routine. It feels like a long-missing midseason stride in a way. The finale also dangles clue after clue in your face, giving screen time to secondary characters in an attempt to drum up suspicion that is just blatant misdirection.

Then there’s the matter of the cliffhanger. I won’t disclose it here, though I’m tempted to out of sheer incredulity. I will, however, say that it stinks – like a fish*.

There’s an inelegance to the finale that seems cut from wholly different cloth than the premiere. I expected and wanted falls of grace for Sarah Linden and Councilman Richmond. I didn’t expect one from the show itself.

“Where did Missing Come From?”

Lest my review come off as a drab as The Killing’s Seattle sky, I’d like to gush a bit about “Missing,” the show’s eleventh episode, written by Veena Sud and directed by Nicole Kasell.

Dour-faced Detective Linden spends every other episode stressing about her failings as a mother and her inability to leave the case behind and move to Sonoma with her new boyfriend. Her teenage son smokes and gets into petty trouble at school – not the best behavior for a cop’s kid. Linden’s ever-stonier disposition seemed like a season-long build-up for a breakdown, and “Missing” is the closest we get.

Just as a new lead surfaces, Linden receives a call: her son’s been cutting school. She races back to their motel room to catch him. Young Jack’s nowhere to be found. Holder, who would love to overcome his past failures and show up for an event in his own family, decides to stick with Linden. Her life now imitating her work: she desperately needed a friend.

I could probably count on one hand the number of shots in this episode that don’t contain Linden or Holder. It’s tight, claustrophobic. The camera felt forcibly, painfully tethered to the duo. When it wasn’t busy trying to pull damp wool over my eyes, The Killing strived to touch on the collateral damage of a murder. Never did it get closer to that ambition than in Linden’s search for her son.

Having failed to answer the biggest question posed in its first season, The Killing will need more episodes like this to stay afloat through its second.

* I didn’t want to say “red herring” anymore.