A Slow-Burning, Wet Match of a Show
“You know I’m not one for words.”
Zombie-like in its unkillability, the TV cop procedural has by this point just about been done to death. Things weren’t so bad for a while, even with wall-to-wall Law and Order reruns. Million stories in the naked city and all that. But then came the Bruckheimer flood of series like CSI and Without a Trace, not to mention their many imitators. The baroque entanglements of murder spiral into ever-increasing complexity, the reliance on happenstance and technology becomes more important, and the ironic distancing from the victims increases in direct proportion to the microscopic attention paid to the grisly details.
By the time one gets to a show like Bones, the (admittedly witty) character work operates almost in a different universe from the scalpel and rubber-glove forensic fetishizing. These don’t seem to be murdered people the cameras are zooming in on as much as freakshow exhibits. Shows like these are as divorced from the murdered bodies that litter American city streets as the farcical fights on TLC and VH1 “reality” shows are from the dysfunctional paralysis of so many modern families.
It would be wonderful, in light of all this, to say that The Killing is the perfect riposte to all this painless butchery. That finally cable television, in something of a creative slumber after a phenomenal pat few years, has chalked up an honest-to-god masterpiece, a piece of tough poetry which puts the broadcast networks to shame. That isn’t quite the case with this show’s first season, and perhaps it’s too much to ask of one collection of 13 episodes. But that doesn’t mean The Killing‘s arrival is not still cause for some quiet celebration.
A slow-burning wet match of a show, The Killing takes its time, wonderfully so. The television murder procedural has so stuck in the paradigm of wrapping up a case by the end of an episode’s 40-odd minute runtime, that anytime someone breaks from that mold it can feel fresh. In this case, each episode follows one day in the case of murdered teenager Rosie Larsen, found drowned in the trunk of a car driven into a lake. That said car just so happens to belong the campaign of a city councilman running for mayor, and nobody seems to know what Rosie was doing the weekend she went missing, provides ample opportunity for the show to send tendrils out into all different corners of its cloudy, grief-ridden, and rain-sodden setting.
The show comes to these shores via Denmark (a curious place of origin, since American’s seem these days to prefer their detective fiction from Scandinavia and quality television from the studios of the BBC). It’s impossible to say what has inevitably gotten lost in the translation, but the setting of Seattle seems created convincingly enough. At the very least, it’s obviously shot somewhat on location – British Columbia instead of Washington state, which is at least closer to the mark than most broadcast network shows, which use the same generic Hollywood backdrops to stand in for everywhere from Las Vegas to New York to the District of Columbia. The particulars of local politics and ethnic and class distinctions that come to the fore are organically introduced, even if they could for the most part be easily translated to most other American cities. It rains a lot and everybody drinks coffee around the clock, just like we like to think of Seattle – at least so far there have been no airdropped references to grunge.
Mireille Enos, a short, pale strawberry-blonde with a Gillian Anderson-esque spiritual intelligence to her, plays the lead detective, Sarah Linden. Called in on her last day in the department (she’s moving to Sonoma to start a new life with her fiancé and teenaged son), Sarah’s caught in the quicksand case that is Rosie’s bafflingly clue-free murder. Much as she tries to get out to her sunny new life, Sarah keeps circling back to the case – the two men in her life receding away even as Rosie’s specter looms larger.
The only other figure besides the dead girl, and whoever her killer is, who takes on any significance in Sarah’s eyes is Stephen Holder (a haunted-eyed and predatory Joel Kinnaman). A skeevy-charming, onetime narco undercover who was supposed to take Sarah’s job but finds himself playing backup, Holder isn’t so much the rook to her grizzled vet as the rough and raw chaos of life that reminds her of the past that she’s tamped down. Her putdowns are memorable – “You doing math is like a dog wearing a hat,” or knocking him for “dressing like Justin Bieber and eating pork rinds for dinner” – but there’s a clicking and mostly silent chemistry there that pulses through a show foggy with isolation.
There’s unfortunate potential here amidst the gloom for some “one last case” clichés, and the show’s writers don’t completely avoid that (they even throw in a gruff lieutenant to bark at Sarah about once every episode). But the procedural tropes that surface every so often can be given a pass for what the show does right, one aspect in particular: it makes a more honest attempt than nearly every other show currently on television to deal in a bracing and forthright manner with the grueling attrition of grief.
As Rosie’s mother Mitch, Michelle Forbes breaks down that iron control seen in Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Next Generation for some of the most grueling, penetrating acting that television saw in 2011. As Mitch goes from guilt over letting her daughter go missing for a weekend to sinking horror over her death to rage over assumed police inaction, Forbes finds impressive depth in what could have been a movie-of-the-week cliché. This holds true for most of the cast, who are nimbly put through their paces by a squad of crackerjack directors, several of whom (like Agnieska Holland and Dan Attias) put in time on character-driven shows like The Wire. Brent Sexton, as her blue-collar husband Stan with the organized crime past, is able to skirt the same potential pitfalls, as does Billy Campbell in playing Darren Richmond, the all-too-charming city councilman.
The mystery itself in The Killing is teased out with care in each episode. The pacing is pointedly careful and deliberate. While not being stately (there’s a little too much real-life grit under the show’s fingernails), this is hardly for the thrill-a-minute crowd. That doesn’t mean that the show never resorts to some tried-and-true pillars of the TV cop procedural. Episodes are stitched together by aerial establishing shots of Seattle, and Sarah and Holder find it surprisingly easy to get suspects to talk without being arrested and no lawyer present. They also seem to live in something of their own cocoon. For all the exacting attention paid to Sarah as a person – and indeed, she’s one of the richest and most surprising female characters to have graced the small screen in years – there is little sense of her in the larger police department.
That doesn’t mean the show doesn’t understand its setting. In other words, the cops here pull and use their sidearms about as often as real cops do: hardly ever. It would have been helpful to learn a little more about the background research that had been done, but the DVD release provides little along those lines but for a standard press-kit making-of piece. There’s a gag reel as well (hard to imagine with such a dark-hued show) and also a batch of deleted scenes, which are worth watching for the last few. In fact, the final deleted scene, if used, would arguably have capped the season on a more appropriately jangled and frantic note than that which was ultimately used. It may have mollified those who were frustrated with the conclusion for not providing more answers (to which one has to ask: did they know there was going to be a second season?). But answers, to some degree, are not the point of this mystery. Rosie will still be dead, Mitch and the rest of her family will still grieve, and Sarah’s life will most likely remain captive in some degree to the chaos of her past.
There might be an ending after all is said and done, but no promise of catharsis or closure. The sadness might fade, but it doesn’t disappear.