[1 April 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
—Stan (Brent Sexton)
“I’m sorry,” Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) tells her 13-year-old son Jack (Liam James). “Sometimes things just don’t work out.” She’s leaning over him, crouched on he floor in the airport in Seattle. They were supposed to be on their way out of town—away from their past lives, and especially, away from Sarah’s grueling job as a homicide detective. But, as everyone who saw last season’s finale of The Killing knows, their departure was interrupted by news that the murder case she thought she solved was not even close to solved.
Many viewers complained about this finale, claiming a need for closure, an end to the seemingly endless mystery. TV series are supposed to work a certain way. And this TV series did not. Jack’s glum anger here, his rejection of his mom’s apology or promise that “Things will be like they used to be,” as well as his frustration and impatience, might all stand in for what those viewers were feeling. As he ponders his new situation—which is the old situation—Jack peeps up at a TV set across the waiting area: “Is the real reason were staying because that guy’s dead?” he asks, gesturing to the news report that shows mayoral candidate Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) being gunned down.
As Sarah turns to look, her face is pale. Her face is always pale, an effect underscored by her frequent framing in the dark, wet, green and grey Northwest. Here she sees what may be consequences of the news she heard in the final moments of last season, that the photo she believed had placed Richmond on the bridge and in the car associated with Rosie Larsen’s murder was false. For all the upset at this revelation, it makes thematic sense, part of this TV series’ continuing challenge to TV series conventions.
Like all police procedurals, The Killing is about reading clues: it allows viewers to read along with the detectives, anticipating and guessing and putting pieces together. But unlike most police procedurals, The Killing also interrogates that process per se. Again and again, it frustrates and turns around, encourages speculation and then refracts exactly that. Its focus on Sarah’s efforts to read visual clues reached a sort of combinatory nadir-and-apotheosis with the false photo. You know that all images are subject to doctoring, that images only bear meaning in contexts and that contexts shift. But still, on a TV show, the clues are supposed to lead to a season finale, a resolution that delivers to your faith in—or at least your familiarity with—formula.
Sarah, your stand-in for all this reading and faith in same, spent much of last season looking at images—surveillance photos, snapshots, cell phone videos, and so-called news on TV. Her readings informed yours. Now, as she begins to reread everything, her trust in her own perceptive skills shaken, the first two episodes of the new season—premiering on 1 April—she tries to reassure Jack that she still has means to her end, that there is an end to be reached. Now she’s also distrusting the men around her, men who lied to her, from Richmond to her partner Holder (Joel Kinnaman), her lieutenant, Oakes (Garry Chalk) to Stan (Brent Sexton), Rosie’s dad. Now, as she reinvestigates, she does her best not to share with the guys, but instead to keep her new ideas to herself.
“I wish I had known the truth,” Sarah complains to one of these liars. But, that lament doesn’t get at the real problem, which is that there is no single truth. Yes, series developer Veena Sud has promised to reveal the identity of Rosie’s killer by the end of this new season, but it hardly seems crucial to know. The killer will be a surprise or not. Sarah’s is only partly a quest for “justice” in the standard sense. It’s more subtly, and more forcefully too, a quest for understanding, specifically an understanding of how the world works.
As Sarah pursues her case, you see what she doesn’t, as the men who mean to mess with her—accidentally or willfully—go through their machinations. They also misread images and the parameters of their entitlements, they rarely manage their schemes efficiently or effectively. The series is still uneven, plot-wise: the story that clears Richmond as this season begins lies somewhere between soapy and silly, and the misuse of his shooter, the excruciatingly slow-and-frantic Belko (Brendan Sexton III), is tedious (at least for now). At the same time, Richmond’s aide Jamie (Eric Ladin) is becoming something else, his seeming cluelessness now reflecting the elusiveness of truth rather than only acting it out. As he’s perpetually unable to do a right thing, even if he knew what it was, he’s framed repeatedly in windows, in the campaign office or at the hospital, removed and too close at the same time.
Of course, Jamie’s isolation is of a different sort than Sarah’s. No matter her erstwhile relationship with the ex-fiancé (Callum Keith Rennie) or her devotion to Jack, she has always in this series looked profoundly alone, driving on lightless highway or walking grassy expanses. This season, her investigation again takes her into dark nights, disorderly offices, and damp hallways, the camera hovering behind her or just in front of face, perplexed or horrified by what she sees—or more often, by what she’s imagining, perhaps about to see.
Imagining the worst—whatever that can be—Sarah persists with her work while trying to be a mother to a child who’s becoming a man. At one point, she leaves Jack with friends he calls the “Jesus freaks,” where, she promises he’ll be “safe.” His ready question—“Safe from what?”—goes to a recurrent dread in The Killing, which is that no institution, official, religious, or familial, is reliable. Jack and Sarah both get that, in different, sometimes opposed, ways. If their arguments are familiar (“Jack, you’re eating too much junk, you’ve got to read something real.” “Hello! Chips are like potatoes!”), they’re also symptomatic and ridiculous, and always about something else.
As such, the mother-son debates and conversations illustrate The Killing‘s interest in what’s unseen and unsaid. Whether or not there’s “something real” to be found here, it likely has little to do with who killed Rosie Larsen.