Over the weekend I finished watching the first season of AMC’s series, The Killing. I’m about a year behind, as the second season recently completed, so I still have some catching up to do. In the meanwhile, I want to talk a little bit about why I like the show and why I disagree with the criticism of the series in its first year.
For those who don’t know, The Killing is based on a Danish television show called Forbrydelsen. Unfortunately Forbrydelsen is not available on DVD in the United States — though it can be had by other means, as you might expect — and so I can’t comment on how faithful of an adaptation The Killing is, but I can speak to The Killing as a standalone entity. I will try not to spoil anything involving the central mystery, though I do plan to talk about a couple of plot points, so if you haven’t seen the show, but want to, I suggest you not read on unless that sort of thing doesn’t bother you.
Forbrydelsen was a huge hit in its native country and during its first season The Killing averaged about two million viewers an episode which by network standards isn’t great, but is respectable in the realm of original cable programming. The Killing actually outdrew Mad Men, AMC’s flagship show, so clearly there was something about The Killing that people responded to. The show is about a murder and its investigation, the familiar beats of a television procedural paced out over many episodes, thus allowing for more false starts and dead ends and general mystery-type stuff. It also allows for us to get to know its main characters better, which is a plus for me.
I am terrible at writing mysteries so I’m always impressed when one is done as well as The Killing. The murder is complicated from the start, as the victim is found bound inside the trunk of a car that has been submerged in a lake. The car belongs to the campaign of a mayoral candidate, which immediately casts suspicion on the man or someone close to him. Things only get more knotty from there, with suspects everywhere and our detectives struggling to work out exactly what happened that night. It actually takes all thirteen episodes of the first season for them to firmly settle on a suspect who seems wholly, completely, unquestionably guilty, and I gather that the deliberate pace of the show put some people off.
Pacing is not so much of an issue for me so long as we’re getting something else to keep us busy. In this case it’s the detectives, Sarah Linden (Mereille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). Both are intensely complicated individuals, with Linden struggling with single parenthood and impending marriage/move/career change and Holder with the demons of his past. We start off thinking Holder is completely incompetent, having been transferred from his former job as an undercover narcotics investigator, but he eventually shines through what seems to be a permanent haze of attitude and confusion. Linden is more traditional in focus, being the investigative heart of the pairing, though she has a tendency to become involved with her cases to the point that everything else in her life is crowded out.
I regularly read The AV Club, The Onion‘s completely non-satirical media-review site. They feature recaps and analysis of various shows, The Killing among them, and as I watched the show I stopped over to read these year-old analyses and see what AV Club viewers said back when the episodes were fresh. I was genuinely surprised by the amount of negativity I found there. Though people seemed compelled to keep watching, they almost seemed to do so out of spite and when the first season’s cliffhanger happened they were vitriolic.
The primary complaint I saw was that people hated the show’s structure. I find this amusing because when you get right down to it, The Killing is structured just like any episode of Law & Order, except that instead of wrapping up the whole thing in a bow in 45 minutes, The Killing took its time. And I was puzzled by the bitterness felt toward the show’s many red-herring plot points, especially considering that every mystery ever is littered with the same. I might even go so far as to argue that The Killing is a deconstruction of the traditional television mystery, deliberately drawing attention to those plot devices that go into making up such a thing. If you’re not interested in that kind of rumination on plot and structure, you’re likely not going to be interested in The Killing.
Moreover, you might even say that The Killing isn’t necessarily about its mystery at all. It’s primarily the story of Linden and Holder, the evolution of their partnership, the damaged ruin of their lives and how they react to the machinations of the plot. There’s an episode late in the season that focuses entirely on Linden and Holder to the exclusion of the ongoing investigation and it’s excellent, excellent stuff. Holder has a history of substance abuse that once led him to betray those closest to him — the meat of an amazing scene earlier in the season, where Holder confesses his lowest moment as an addict to his Narcotics Anonymous group — and to see him consciously attempt to rise above his failings as a person and become a better man is truly moving. I’ll admit I got teary. Joel Kinnaman really sells his performance as Holder to the point that I see nothing of the actor in the role. You really believe that Holder is a living, breathing human being, and that’s a credit not only to his acting, but the writing.
Criticism was leveled at the depiction of Mireille Enos’ Linden, with many saying that Linden was a cipher. I will say that Enos’ acting job is much icier and restrained than Kinnaman’s, but that’s in keeping with a character with serious control issues. It’s only as the season evolves that we come to understand just how messed up Linden really is, and how grimly determined she is keep a handle on her life and her emotions. AV Clubbers constantly complained that the ongoing subplot involving her troubled teenaged son was lacking, but I felt it was just present enough to work to the character’s advantage in terms of development without becoming the overarching motivation. There’s nothing more boring than a female character obsessed with motherhood, and The Killing walks a very fine line in that regard. I remain impressed.
I haven’t even touched on the other two component parts of the show, which involve the aforementioned mayoral candidate — himself seriously damaged, as you may or may not expect — and the family of the victim. Early scenes with the dead girl’s family are heart-rending and during those I actually did cry. As someone who has lost a brother to manslaughter, I was profoundly affected by the respectful and realistic depiction of mourning after tragedy.
The point I’m trying to make is that The Killing is a nuanced and thoughtful program. Sure, the coincidences and false leads might grate on viewers who aren’t prepared or willing to let the show unfold before them in a natural way, but this obsessive focus on plot completely overlooks the great strengths of the show. And, really, as I said before, The Killing is plotted no differently than a hundred other police-procedural shows, only the scope has been altered. If you watched Law & Order and liked it, you should have zero problem with the way The Killing handles its murder story.
I have only just begun the second season — my wife is out of town and I’m forbidden to watch more without her — but I am pleased to say that the “new” episodes are more of the same: heavy on character, seasoned with plot. There’s a last-minute twist in the first season that casts Holder in a sinister light, but developments in the second-season opener show that this troubled man, desperate to prove himself as an effective detective the equal of his partner, has instead allowed himself to be used. His whole status as a homicide investigator is due to those above him manipulating him for their own ends, and the pain Kinnaman expresses with his expressions alone is palpable. Great stuff.
If you haven’t checked out The Killing because: 1) you’ve never heard of it before now, or 2) you heard bad things, take the opportunity now to acquaint yourself with it. If you have Netflix, the whole first season is available in HD streaming, which is how I watched it. My wife and I watched the show in three-hour blocks because we were so anxious to find out what happened next. I only wish there had been more episodes because in the end 13 did not seem like enough.