The Killing was supposed to be a hit. What could go wrong in an adaptation of an acclaimed Danish cop drama following a murder investigation in painstaking detail, starring Mireille Enos — who stole scenes as a pair of polygamist Mormon twins on Big Love – and airing on AMC, basic cable’s best bet for Quality Programming?
The first few episodes were satisfyingly dark and slow. We experienced the grief of murdered teenager Rosie Larsen’s family in agonizing relief, as though it were our own. If it felt like it was taking a while to get into the heads of even the show’s central characters — Enos’ Sarah Linden and her replacement/partner, Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) — we trusted that the delay would pay off in realistically gradual revelations.
But then things started to fall apart. It isn’t that we didn’t learn more about many of the characters; the problem was that, in a transparent attempt to add extra twists and turns to the plot, nothing we discovered seemed to hang together. Rosie’s dad, Stan (Brent Sexton), is a warm and caring father — and a guy with secret mob troubles capable of beating a teacher (Brandon Jay McLaren) who’s a suspect in the killing within an inch of his life, in a fit of rage. The teacher, meanwhile, is an inspirational figure who not only happens to write Rosie overly personal letters and be married to a former student but is also involved in a completely separate scheme to save a young Muslim girl from an arranged marriage and female genital mutilation. Stan has somehow gone decades without realizing that his dopey friend Belko (Brendan Sexton III) is basically Norman Bates. Initially squeaky-clean Seattle mayoral candidate Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) turns out to be pretty twisted — although perhaps not messed up enough, the final moments of The Killing‘s Season 1 finale suggest, to be the murderer. Rosie herself comes together as a faded copy of Twin Peaks‘ purposely surreal Laura Palmer, a smart, popular high schooler who has found her way into the world of casinos and high-priced call girls.
Despite the fact that showrunner Veena Sud populated Seattle with a troupe of deeply unstable, often violent people who nonetheless did not, apparently, kill Rosie Larsen, The Killing still could have been worth watching if Linden and Holder were well-developed and believable. For a few episodes, even as the show declined around them, this seemed possible. We learned that sloppy, impatient Holder is actually a recovering addict making an honest try at putting his life back together. It took most of the season to extract the meager discovery that Linden spent her childhood in foster homes, a background that complicates her relationship to both her family and her work. But it remained unclear whether, in the face of all their disastrous yet largely unexplored mistakes, they were supposed to be a team of passionate, misunderstood mavericks or just two troubled people screwing up a murder investigation. By the end of the season, the writers had pulled yet another character development-annihilating switcheroo, revealing in the last moments of the Season 1 finale that Holder had planted evidence.
AMC’s strong suggestion that the mystery of “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” would be solved in that same episode didn’t help matters, the seemingly duplicitous cliffhanger finale rallying angry viewers who had already grown tired of the show’s increasingly inconsistent plot and characters.
Although I switched off the finale vowing not to return for Season 2, eventually I decided to give the show another chance. AMC president Charlie Collier had issued a public mea culpa, saying, “We underestimated the passion of viewers have for closure within this season… It was never our intention to misguide the viewer. The audience has an important voice, we heard them and don’t take them for granted.” And a few months ago, the network promised that we’d find out who killed Rosie at the end of the second season. It sounded like AMC may actually have learned its lesson.
I went into the two-hour Season 2 premiere willing to forgive and forget and get sucked back into a murder mystery that I once found riveting. But what I found, to my great disappointment, was the same messiness that plagued the latter half of Season 1, exacerbated by a ten-month hiatus that has made keeping up with The Killing‘s enormous cast of characters and their many counterintuitive complexities even more confusing than usual.
Without “spoiling” the episode for those who still plan to tune in Sunday, I’ll say that characters are still the main problem. It’s going to be a rough season if the writers don’t eventually get a handle on their protagonist, Linden, who is all over the place in the premiere. Is she the only righteous and heroic detective in a corrupt department? Is she moving closer to the truth or losing her grip on reality? Is she just super-stressed out or legitimately mentally ill? Do we even want her to keep her son, or is she an irredeemably unfit mother? Will we ever find out more about that mysterious case from the past that we’re being led to believe drove her over the edge? Considering what she’s up against, it makes perfect sense for Linden to start falling apart, but her behavior is so different from scene to scene that it’s difficult to get a read on where she’s heading. (This isn’t an acting issue; Enos, like most of the other actors on the show, is doing the best possible job with the clumsy, puzzling lines she’s given.) Add to that last season’s inadequate exploration of her inner life and we see an unraveling character who is normally… who, exactly?
The pacing doesn’t help, either. Perhaps because The Killing has such a big cast, the premiere plays out in an endless succession of quick scenes. Major events unfold, but there’s no room for them to sink in. Instead, we hop from plot point to plot point, piling on the “aha” moments as our confusion about motivations, mental states, and, frankly, who certain minor characters from Season 1 actually are, grows. After two hours, no moment in particular resonates. With every story line shouting for attention at exactly the same volume, no single character’s plight sticks with us.
If Sud and her staff wanted to win back the viewers they lost after a disastrous season finale, they should have offered some brilliant scene or character breakthrough that we could latch onto. But The Killing remains as indifferent and alienating as ever, the tangled threads of plot serving only to reinforce the show’s difficulty, as though that mark of highbrow television could ever stand in for engaging storytelling.
Photo credit: Carole Segal/AMC