In the space of a week, AMC’s The Killing was renewed for a second season and wrapped up its first season. And the conclusion was mightily unsatisfying. Most TV critics and discerning viewers gave this show a shot based on both its pedigree and its strong start. AMC has launched a small group of highly intelligent original series over the past few years, including Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and the unjustly-ignored, now-canceled Rubicon. At first, The Killing seemed to fit right in with that lineup. It was dark and uncompromising, purporting to follow a murder investigation over the long term, with each episode covering another day in the case. But the show wasn’t just going to stay with our intrepid detectives, the dour Linden (Mireille Enos) and the twitchy Holder (Joel Kinnaman). It was also going to follow the mayoral campaign of Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell), the candidate in whose car Rosie Larson’s body was discovered. Most importantly, the show was also going to track the grief process of Rosie’s family, as they first learned of her death, through the funeral arrangements, and going forward.
This all worked beautifully for the first three or four episodes of the show. But things started to go astray in the middle of the season, as the detectives circled around Rosie’s teacher Bennet Ahmed (Malcolm David McLaren), a Muslim with a thing for pretty young students. Ahmed’s alibi for the night of Rosie’s death didn’t add up, but viewers knew that he wasn’t going to be the killer. So we spent a whole chunk of episodes as the show tried to convince us that it really was him, only to find out that of course it wasn’t. Things picked up again as the series entered its final stretch, with plot twists that seemed organic and actual headway being made in the case. An episode-long detour in the 11th episode, “Missing”, turned out to be valuable character development time as Linden and Holder spent the day searching for Linden’s truant teenage son. “Missing” was a great episode, far removed from the main premise of the show, and it would’ve fit nicely about halfway through the season to help us get to know our leads better. But coming two episodes away from the season finale, it almost felt like too little, too late.
The break in the case at the end of “Missing” and into the 12th episode “Beau Soleil”, featured some great revelations about Rosie, not the least of which was the answer to the question, “What was Rosie doing after 10pm on the night of her murder?” But these revelations also felt like questions that the police should’ve been asking a long time ago but never bothered because they got hung up on Ahmed. Why didn’t the cops look deep into Rosie’s internet history until after they discovered she was working as a high-priced escort for a secret online site? Why didn’t they bother to check the mileage and gas tank data for the campaign car right away? Why didn’t they EVER press Rosie’s parents about why they went away for a weekend camping trip and made no attempt to contact her for the entire weekend? Seems like that’s an important parent-child relationship question that needed to be asked, and it never was. The show wanted us to believe that Linden was a very, very good detective, and yet basic, nuts-and-bolts detective work seemed to elude her in favor of chasing down tenuous leads over minor suspects. Meredith Blake over at the A.V. Club has a great rundown of the various plot holes left dangling by the show in her review of the season finale.
Finally, we get to the season finale, in which all leads are finally pointing towards one suspect, the mayoral candidate himself, Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell). Our heroes finally do some real detective work and figure out the timeline for the night of the murder, track down where the car filled up with gas, talk to a gas station attendant who was completely unconcerned that there was a screaming girl at his station after 1am, and actually arrest Richmond. “But wait!”, the show practically shouts. “We’re not done yet!” And with one final, explosive twist, we find out that Detective Holder faked the crucial piece of evidence to put Richmond away, and that he’s secretly working for some unknown person. Meanwhile, the episode ends with Larson family friend (and creep) Belko pulling out a gun to assassinate Richmond just as he’s being put into a police car. Cut to black.
The Killing is asking us to please come back for season two to finally find out who really, actually killed Rosie Larson. “We know you waited all this time, but guess what? We’re not going to tell you.” Truthfully, though, it’s not the lack of final answer that galls me about the season finale. It’s that final twist. Despite all the plot holes, I was onboard with the final episode’s investigation right up until Linden received a phone call essentially telling her that Holder’s piece of evidence was faked. The show worked very hard to make Holder a compelling character, and having him turn out to be lying at the end feels like the ultimate betrayal. We weathered all the different red herrings and the meandering middle of the season only to be told, “Nope, this guy that you’ve gradually grown to like is not what he seems, either.” If the show hasn’t been truthful about anything all season, why would I keep watching it? There’s no satisfaction in cheaply dragging out the mystery like this. Really, the best thing for the show may have been to start fresh next season with just Linden and Holder and an all-new case and an all-new supporting cast. Instead we have lingering questions that are much more frustrating than they are intriguing.
In retrospect, maybe this is our fault, the TV viewers and critics, for jumping into this show headfirst, and buying into the AMC pedigree. Because running the show behind the scenes is Veena Sud, a veteran TV producer whose most prominent credit is running the CBS procedural Cold Case for years. Sud clearly had some big ideas in translating The Killing, based on a critically-acclaimed Danish series called Forbrydelsen, for American television. but she and her writing staff seemed to have real trouble making the transition from doing a weekly procedural to the more nuanced, long-form storytelling of a serial. The conceit that each episode of the show was a day in the investigation did them no favors in terms of pacing. But really, should we have gotten our hopes up like this? The last time a prominent TV producer made the jump from episodic to serial, we ended up with Tim Kring’s Heroes. Sure, Heroes had a strong first season, but Kring’s right-hand man, serial veteran Bryan Fuller, left before season two. And the show plunged right into the toilet, with Kring endlessly promising to fix what went wrong during the previous story arc and inevitably creating new, worse problems. Sud, for her part, seems either completely oblivious or worse, in deep denial about the problems plaguing her show in this interview with Alan Sepinwall.
Which is not to say TV producers transitioning from the episodic format to serial storytelling never works. J.J. Abrams went from Felicity to Alias and did it with aplomb. But the trainwreck of The Killing‘s first season is an object lesson for discerning TV viewers. Sud’s lack of self-awareness dampens any enthusiasm I may have that the show will get it right during season two, so I probably won’t stick around. In retrospect, the correct approach to a serial show being produced by a procedural veteran was probably caution, not overwhelming enthusiasm. Now I’ve ended up feeling burned for a three-month commitment with no payoff, only frustration. Oh well, at least Game of Thrones stuck the landing over on HBO.