[3 March 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Did you ever have nightmares about monsters?” Thunder rumbles as little Haley (Sophie Guest) gazes up at her babysitter. You’re hardly surprised when Catherine (Chloë Sevigny) assures he child that she has indeed had just this experience, and her advice is less than soothing: “I’d try and scare ‘em,” she says, tucking the little girl back into bed. “I’d scream and yell until they were afraid and ran off. Then they leave you alone. You have to be worse than them.”
This scene comes early in Those Who Kill, and already you know that Catherine is a Pittsburgh homicide detective, in particular, one who’s just caught a creepy case featuring mummified remains. Her discussion with the coroner (Kerry O’Malley), also Catherine’s best friend and Haley’s mom, has led her to believe the victim’s arms were crossed over her chest by the killer, and that she died “clawing at something,” that is, at the hands of a monster. You know too that Catherine is dealing with her own monsters, something to do with a photo she takes from a dark house during the premiere episode’s first two minutes, a photo of herself as a teenager, posing with a boy who looks like her brother, as well as a man who appears to be their father.
And one more thing: you’ve seen Catherine seek help on the mummy case from bearded forensic psychologist, Thomas Schaeffer (James D’Arcy), whom she approaches after a gimmicky college lecture, where he adopts the voice of Jeffrey Dahmer, leading his students to imagine themselves inside the head of a monster, a move Catherine seems to make fairly easily, with a bit of a joke (What do you call the brains found in Dahmer’s refrigerator? Comfort food).
Catherine’s apparent affinity with monsters makes her simultaneously an ideal and deeply troubled protagonist for this show about the pursuit of serial killers (yet another show inspired by a disturbing Danish procedural, Den Som Dræber, this one based on Elsebeth Egholm’s novels). It also makes the show look predictable, at least in its first episode. That’s not to say it doesn’t pack in lots of investigation, characterization, and action: Catherine and Thomas both bring baggage, hers explicitly personal and his perhaps professional: from the moment his name comes up with her boss, Commander Bisgaard (James Morrison), it’s clear something went very wrong with a previous case: “He goes in too deep, he makes leaps of logic,” complains Bisgaard. In other words, he’s the perfect guy to work with Catherine as they pursue assorted monsters of the week.
That’s not to say they’re exactly the same, and their differences make Thomas and Catherine look a little like the partners on writer Glen Morgan’s most beloved show, The X-Files. At first it seems not to matter that the girl this time has the missing sibling and the boy has the tendency toward science (at least on paper, or in his day job), but their dynamic is quickly distressing, as they pursue the killer who’s forcing his victims to cross their arms over their chests: it’s a sign of his need for “control,” offers Catherine, a reading that Thomas shoots down as too obvious, even as the two killer-hunters devise their own ways to assert tenuous control over the darkness stretching before them, or maybe just each other, the “whose who kill” who reside out there and also, in here.
Of course, each of these partners has secrets and an unpleasant past: Thomas’ wife cautions him not to get back into this business, Catherine is inclined to overlook legal niceties. This first episode is chucky fill of plot, most of it utterly foreseeable: the killer is found, the killer escapes, the killer assaults Catherine not once but twice, the killer is unrepentantly monstrous. While Catherine and Thomas are both monstrous in their own ways, you get the idea, repeatedly, in lingering close-ups and reflections in glass, in conspicuous shadows and silly dialogue weighed down by odious piano: “Can’t you feel the residual energy of fear in this room?” asks Thomas in a victim’s home, “Left from the moment that she realized that the person she let in here, the person that she thought she knew, was a lie?” Yeah, yeah, you say, reading this description.
But then you have Sevigny, so strange, so striking, the camera on her pale, ghastly face as Thomas speaks. The show piles on plot and cliché. You know too much already. And yet, watching her, you realize you can never know enough.