Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Killing's Intensely Focused, Dark Drama

Some time ago, a member of my book club recommended the show The Killing to me, guessing that I would like it given its slower pace and psychological focus after I talked about how much I enjoyed the first season of BBC's The Fall. On her suggestion, I began watching the show and was immediately absorbed in its world.

Rather than the usual procedural TV show wherein a new case is tackled each week, The Killing's first two seasons are focused on a single mystery: the murder of 17-year-old Rosie Larsen. The daughter of a working-class family, Rosie's drowning death doesn't seem like a high-profile case but various leads soon (possibly) connect her murder to terrorism, city politics, and organized crime. As the investigation delves deeper, Rosie's death incites family tension, hate-based racial violence, and political corruption. This one case certainly has more than enough to grip the viewer for week after week with a total of 26 episodes devoted to the Larsen files.

While the case itself is plenty interesting, it's not the only thing holding the viewer's attention: that task falls on our leads. The Larsen case first appears on the desk of Sarah Linden, a veteran homicide detective who is about to retire when some of Rosie's effects show up in an empty field, and the police force must begin looking for a missing girl. Linden is joined by Stephen Holder, her soon-to-be replacement, who has just been promoted from County Narcotics to City Homicide. Holder, a former undercover cop who ended up getting hooked on meth, is willing to play hard and fast a little with the regular police rules and protocols, having no problem with roughing up a suspect or witness some or using rather indelicate language (to put it lightly) during interrogations. Detective Holder also seems to be channeling Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman to some degree, slumming about in hoodies and jeans, employing colorful ghettoized speech patterns, and in general belying his intelligence behind the charade of a stereotypical junkie.

Linden herself is another minefield of emotional and psychological depth. She's a single mother who is willing to do anything for her 13-year-old son Jack ... except put his well-being above her relentless pursuit of solving her latest case. In general, Linden seems to be hellbent on getting in the way of her own happiness. When the show opens, it is her last day of work before she heads down to Sonoma, where she and Jack will meet up with her fiance and presumably have a "happily ever after" life in sunny California. Rosie Larsen's murder changes her plans a little bit when her boss asks her to stay on an extra 24 hours to help Holder jump start the case. But soon it is Linden who is repeatedly missing her flights to California and choosing to stay for just a few more hours or days so that she can wrap up the case, despite her fiance's repeated protestations that there will always be another case, so she needs to learn to let go already. There are repeated hints from the fiance and others that a past case slammed Linden hard, and she suffered a huge emotional toll as a result. The unraveling of that mystery is another piece that keeps the viewer entirely absorbed in the show and wondering if Linden will get too involved in this case as well.

While Linden isn't the feminist icon that many see in The Fall's Stella Gibson, I found her to be an exceptional female lead in a crime drama. Linden's presence is so unlike characters in some TV shows where it feels like the female detective there is only to be a looker or simply to fill a quota (even though she does appear to be the only woman in the Seattle police force, though luckily not the only woman of substance on the show). She doesn't fall into traditional depictions of she's a good detective because she uses her female intuition and/or because she's more in tune with the emotions of the victims. Nor do the creators/writers swing to the other extreme and make her such a badass, almost despite her femininity (e.g., Ziva David on CBS's NCIS). Linden's characterization does fall a little bit into the stereotypical trap of she's a career woman so she doesn't have any other life, but to be honest this seems to be largely true of Holder as well. At any rate, Linden is not in any way one-dimensional nor does anything about her seem to be a reflection of her gender, any more than anything about Holder is a reflection of his gender. They come across as complex characters with complicated backstories and motivations trying to do their best in a troubling world.

Holder and Linden are both interesting characters in their own right but adding them together makes for an infinitely more compelling show. The pair in many ways seem like opposites to being with - beyond obvious physicalities (e.g., female v. male, short v. tall), Sarah is quiet and withdrawn while Holder is nonstop with the verbal diarrhea and seems to open up pretty quickly; Linden seems to initially have her life in order while Holder is a little more in flux; and so on. But these somewhat superficial details hide what the two do have in common: painful secrets in their past, abandonment issues, and feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. It's these deeper selves that allow Linden and Holder to find kindred spirits in each other, even if they butt heads often and occasionally lose sight of the trust they have in each other. In many respects, the two have a Scully and Mulder-type relationship that is endearing, with the way they look out for one another and each puts their trust fully in the other when no one else can be trusted. To go back to physicalities for a moment, they even look a little like Scully and Mulder with a short, red-headed female officer paired with a lanky male officer. And, of course, there's enough tension around the main characters to give plenty of fodder for shippers, who just can't have a man and a woman both be in a show without wanting something romantic to come out of it.

Besides the two leads, the show spends a lot of time focusing in on Rosie's family as they deal with the painful reality of losing a daughter/sister/niece. In your typical crime procedural, there's a maybe a minute or two where you get to see the family react to hearing the news of their loss. They cry, they wonder who would want to hurt their wife/child/aunt/brother/father/etc., and they provide one useful clue that the fearless crime fighters use to track down the killer. With The Killing, the Larsens are fully developed characters in their own right, who are layered with complex backstories and emotional epiphanies. While the Larsens aren't perfect, I really enjoyed getting to know all the family members and seeing how each chose to deal with their grief. This could change alternately from person to person (and day to day) from abandoning everything, expressing rage and violence, bargaining, revenge-seeking, questioning, and overcompensating trying to make everything wonderful for Rosie's younger brothers. Seeing the Larsens and how they tried to move forward with their lives from the day the teenaged Rosie disappeared was a huge part of what made The Killing's first two seasons such a success for me.

In addition to the police and the family, The Killing also spends a lot of time with the first good suspect that the police have. Rosie's body is found in the trunk of a car belonging to the mayoral campaign of Seattle City Council's president Darren Richmond. Even though it's quickly ascertained that the car was previously reported stolen, from this point on, we become intimately involved with Richmond and close members of his campaign staff. The politics of the race for Seattle's next mayor become inextricably interwoven into the fabric of the show and become one more reason to be invested in the series. These campaign characters are also given involved back stories and complex motivations, which are constantly causing the viewers to re-evaluate their opinions about them.

Although many were unhappy that the murder of Rosie Lawson was not solved by the end of the first season, I for one thought it was appropriate to extend that mystery and let the writers fully delve the deep of all those characters and the various plotlines that were presented throughout the course of the case. When the mystery was finally solved, I have to admit to being entirely shocked at finding out the identity of Rosie's killer. It was such an emotional rollercoaster all along and the ultimate reveal was like a gut punch on top of that all. A few loose ends are tied up with the remaining characters as we see everyone move forward after this traumatic murder. The show could have ended there on a high note and been a short-lived but fantastic drama.

But unfortunately, it didn't do that. Sometimes quitting while you're ahead is not understood by TV creators/writers/execs. The Killing went on for another two seasons, with each worse than the previous one. Season 3 starts out reasonably enough, with a year having past between Rosie's murder and the current events, giving Linden and Holder enough time to get a handle on their lives. Holder is in a serious relationship and doing well in the homicide department paired with a new partner. Linden has left the force and settled into a quiet job, has a new home, and is in a romantic relationship of her own. This all changes when a series of murders start occurring with links to a past homicide investigated by Linden. Of course, she has to get involved and once again becomes completely absorbed in her work to the point of losing everything she gained in the last year.

Season 3 lost a lot of the charm of the previous two seasons. The Larsens are gone as are all the members of the Richmond campaign. While this makes sense, I had been so invested in these characters and come to enjoy their part of the show so much that it was disappointing to hear nothing of them again. (We do have one brief cameo of Richmond eventually, but it would have been nice to have been given a few more Easter eggs, like a Larsen moving van in the background on the street somewhere at the very least.) This season presented new characters, but I didn't find them as compelling, complex, or interesting. For starters, there's the significant others of Linden and Holder, although Linden's would-be lover is hardly even given the time of day in terms of characterization. Holder's girlfriend is a little more involved in terms of characterization, although it's hard to see the attraction between the two of them without fully exploring her past. On the police home front, we meet Holder's new partner, the seemingly chump-like Carl Reddick who has manages to have quite the nose for investigations once his suspicions are aroused, as well as a new boss in James Skinner, who Linden apparently had an affair with years ago, although it's somewhat hard to buy the supposed chemistry between them.

Meanwhile, the original similar case that Linden had worked on had resulted in a conviction with a death row sentence, which seems a rather unlikely result to a case of spousal murder. The show spends a long time lingering on the wrongly convicted man's time in jail on the death row watch, including spiraling off to learn more about the prison wardens and their personal lives. It was interesting to see how the show could go off on these divergent storylines again and still keep the viewer gripped. However, it once again didn't work as well. While well played by Peter Sarsgaard, the character of Ray Seward, the man accused of brutally murdering his wife, was such an arrogant bastard in jail that you could only rarely sympathize with him. This may have been an effort to keep the viewer guessing as to whether his wife's death was truly part of the serial murders occurring now or not, but the end result was spending a lot of time with a character that just wasn't as compelling as those we had seen in the first two seasons. In addition, some je ne sais quoi about these long prison sequences often felt like they belonged to an entirely different show.

The serial murders are largely of young teenagers living on the streets, so we start to meet a number of homeless youth in this season, including characters with names like Bullet, Lyric, and Twitch. While it would seem like this would be a fertile ground for creating characters even more complex than those we saw in the first two seasons, this turned out not to be the case. Lyric and Twitch were largely one-note characters caught up in their personal teenaged angst dramas and occasionally remembering to be afraid of the serial killer prowling in their area. Bullet was more developed than the others and yet still somehow lacking. For myself, I think it would have been more interesting to learn more about how and why these kids ended up in the streets to begin with than in, say, needlessly having Bullet raped and seeing her react to that only briefly before acting like nothing happened.

By following the lives of these teens, the show took on an even darker underbelly of the city than that seen in the first season, introducing us to abusive/neglectful parents, drug dens, and child pornographers/rapists. While it was certainly disconcerting, there was nothing surprising about this. Youth with no support systems are taken advantage of in horrible ways; we see this play out across the globe in the real world every day. It's doesn't have the unexpected twists that the Rosie Larsen case took and it's just a reminder of how awful the world can be toward those that are considered easy prey. When the murderer was revealed for this mystery, not only was I not surprised, but I had pretty much predicted it early on in the season.

Season 4 picks up with the fallout of Linden shooting the unarmed murderer of the homeless teenagers and Holder deciding to help her cover it up. This was probably the weakest of the storylines as I just couldn't buy it. It seemed to me like they could have explained away the shooting (i.e., claimed that the murderer was in fact armed at the time) and moved on without it becoming a huge thing they needed to hide. The cover-up resulted in the two characters becoming so paranoid that they started mistrusting one another and turning their backs on each other. As the relationship between the two of them was such a vital part of the show previously, this development was incredibly frustrating. At this point, the show was becoming like the proverbial train wreck - horrible to see but somehow you just had to keep looking at it to see how it all plays out.

Even with all this going on, the creators/writers decided to also introduce yet another mystery - that of the murder of a wealthy family in which only the teenaged son survives. This story was so half-baked that it really was not only uninteresting, but it was also entirely bizarre, and yet the conclusion was so obvious that it was hardly worth calling it a mystery. This would not be a bad thing if the characters were interesting, but all of the new characters introduced were so lacking in any depth that they're wasn't anything worth noting about them. Add in that Holder and Linden were a mess, and there really wasn't anything redeemable about this season.

And, now that the show moved off of cable and on to a streaming format solely, the creators/writers decided to let lose with the language. As I've said before, I'm not a fan of when shows decide that the best way to push the envelope is to throw in a bunch of choice four-letter words. I'm not a prude, I'm not a saint, and I certainly don't have any beef with the occasional foul language. The Killing presents a dark world that is constantly full of abandonment and brutality, so it's reasonable that Linden, Holder, and others would spew out invectives some of the time. But when your finely tuned writing turns into scenes in which literally the two main characters just hurl "f--- you"s at each other, it's hard to argue that the quality of the show has improved by the lack of inhibition.

After everything shakes out with the season four cases, we get a flash forward to five years in the future, and the show ends with a tacked-on happy ending, which is so out of touch with the rest of the series that it's almost comical. Sure, it's nice to have the characters you've come to care about have a ending has some uplifting potential. But that would have been appropriate at the end of season 2 when there was more hope to spread around amongst the various characters. But by this time, so much more has gone on and happened between the lead characters that it doesn't seem in the least bit realistic, a damning charge for a show that was built on being tough, gritty, and no holds barred. It's almost like an element of magical realism being added in at the last minute.

In conclusion, watch the first two seasons of The Killing if you're interested in a tightly wound mystery packed into divergent storylines, replete with complicated, compelling, and deeply human characters. Then do yourself a favor and leave well enough alone but not wasting your time with the latter two seasons. You'll thank me later.

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