“Why didn’t you call her? I mean, all weekend?” Terry (Jamie Anne Allman) is upset when she poses this question to her sister Mitch (Michelle Forbes), and Mitch doesn’t have an answer. Terry’s crouched on the floor of Mitch’s kitchen, sweeping up a broken vase, left after a police search of the premises. The women are looking for a way to talk about what’s happened — namely, the murder of Mitch’s 17-year-old daughter Rosie. Mitch turns away, her face broken.
The scene comes late in the two-hour premiere of The Killing, premiering 3 April on AMC. And it expresses, in gaps and questions, how impossible it is to make sense of such a crime, so brutal, ugly, and apparently random. The show opens just moments before the assault, or more accurately, in mid-assault. Rosie (Katie Findlay) is running through dark woods, screaming and tripping, the monster behind her indicated by a flashlight, implacable and imminent. The scene crosscuts to another woman, Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), jogging. A train sounds in the distance, as she cross a bridge, makes her way over dirt paths, and comes to a lake shore. Her cell phone rings. She has one last case here in Seattle, before she moves to Sonoma with the man she means to marry.
Directed by Patty Jenkins, who made the film Monster, this first episode of The Killing offers a circuitous introduction to Sarah and the investigation that will waylay her plans. If the premise is standard — an excellent cop is dragged back in, just when she’s headed out, in this case, from the Northwest’s renowned rain to California’s sunshine — the details are insistently odd and creepy. The light is grey, the camera is restless. As Sarah walks through a long green field of a crime scene or interviews a potential witness, her manner is cool, her gaze steady. She’s good at what she does but hardly enjoys it, her instinct tending to take her in directions she’d maybe rather not go.
On her ostensible last day on the job, Sarah meets her replacement, a former narcotics UC named Holder (Joel Kinnaman). Scruffy and eager, he brings a street mentality to the new gig, calling the victim a “hot piece” and smoking dope with a couple of her friends, in order to get them talking. Sarah observes him, her eyes barely squinting at the worst of what he says.
Complaining that his narco work was routine, Holder suggests homicide will yield more results. “At least you got a bad guy,” he points out as he rides with Sarah out to the site where a girl’s sweater has been found. Sarah nods, barely, “Yeah? Who is that?” Holder poses his smart answer as a question: “Is that why you’re running away, Linden, ’cause you don’t know no more?” If Sarah ever did know, she’s less inclined to believe what she knows: a veteran, she’s seen too much, and, the series hints early on, she’s ever grappling with her own traumatic past. She understands the inexplicable loss felt by Mitch and her working class husband Stan (Brent Sexton), even as it’s her job to keep a distance, to sort out horror.
As Sarah’s wide, expressive face reflects it, such sorting out is not a matter of knowing. It’s more about guessing and intuiting, about feeling and also seeming not to feel. When she questions Mitch, when she looks through Rosie’s pink-appointed bedroom, she’s not unsympathetic, but she’s not reassuring either. She and Mitch look at each other for a long moment when Sarah asks, “When did you talk to her last?” Mitch thinks back, pausing, then says it was Friday, before she and the rest of the family — Stan and their two young sons — left for a camping trip. “Why?” she asks, the soundtrack strings pitched high and the camera passing over her face from just over Sarah’s shoulder. The camera cuts back to Sarah, who doesn’t need to answer before the scene cuts to commercial.
There’s no question that The Killing, based on the popular Danish series, Forbrydelsen, is a crime show, that it focuses on investigation and establishes tensions. It provides an array of suspects, including Rosie’s rudely wealthy ex, Jasper (Richard Harmon), whose father (Barclay Hope) arrives at the high school just in time to cut off Sarah’s questioning and then slap his kid, hard, across the face (“What have you done this time?” he demands, after everyone else has left the room) and the Seattle City Councilman, Richmond (Bill Campbell), who’s running for mayor and whose campaign owns a car that’s linked to the murder.
But the suspects and leads in The Killing are only a beginning. As much as the case invites you to invest in its solution, the show is more about Sarah’s reluctance — to stay or to go, to intuit or to keep her distance — than it is about what she’ll find. The question that bothers Mitch — why didn’t she call — shapes the mystery. The question takes another form for Sarah, also a mother, to Jack (Liam James), who doesn’t believe her when she tells him, more than once, that moving to California will be great. She “gets it,” she says, that he doesn’t want to leave his friends and his life is turning upside down. She gets that, as her fiancé Rick (Callum Keith Rennie), “He’s 13, it’s his job to hate us.”
But like Mitch, Sarah’s working at being a mother. And this helps to make The Killing unlike other crime shows. No matter how much she understands Jack’s frustration, why he’s smoking cigarettes at school or not leaving his new address with his old friends (“Hello? Facebook. Kids don’t write letters anymore, mom, that’s retarded”), Sarah can only do her best to manage working and mothering. She brings Jack along to the office, where he listens to her discuss the case with Holder. She draws a line at some of Holder’s language (he likes Jasper for the murder, he says, because “The kid’s a douche”), instructs Jack on the proper vending machine food to get (corn chips, not candy), and appreciates that her lieutenant can boy-bond with him, smiling from down the hallway as they faux-box and laugh.
Sarah does get it, as she says, just as Mitch got it that her daughter needed to break away, applying to out of state colleges even when Stan wanted her to stay closer. They’re moms in a world they know is dangerous. Kids are at risk from every corner. Faced with iniquity, Sarah doesn’t expect to “know no more.” But she doesn’t back down either.