I know I’m late to the party, but I finally found out who killed Rosie Larsen and why. This past weekend I finished watching the second season of The Killing, a moody police procedural set in Seattle but produced by a Danish director and crew. Though I really disliked the eye-rollingly tidy final episode, which was at least a twist or two too far (and maybe ten or more too far), the finish wasn’t really where the show fell apart. This denouement was just the final straw that broke the back of a strong beast overburdened with practically every piece of personal baggage the writers could pile onto it. The last episode also fell directly into the old trap of using long flashbacks to show us the crime as it happened. While not the most egregious misuse of this device I’ve seen, a dubious honor that still goes to the Jody Foster rape drama The Accused (1988), the effect was still to whitewash all those careful shades of gray the show had worked so hard to establish. The idea that the past is somehow perfectly recoverable and knowable not only comes across as blithely expository and patently false, but it completely undermines the contradicting subjectivities and moral ambiguity that are really what make dark crime fiction so compelling in the first place.
The characters and case in these first two seasons were quite interesting, but ended up having more potential than punch. Although some have complained that the story dragged on for too long, I found the opposite to be true. I think the idea of spending two full seasons on a case that most cop dramas would have solved in a single 50 minute episode is refreshing. In fact, personally I would have liked to wallow even deeper in the drudgery of police work. But while The Killing trusted its viewers enough to stay engaged with the slow character development this required, it punked out when it came to sticking with the long, tedious work of solving a crime and coming to terms with its consequences. Sadly this element that should have made the program so unique proved its ultimate undoing.
The painful thing here is that the show started out so strong. I loved the first season (or most of it), but by the second season I started to get frustrated with having so many twists and turns. They seemed to want a big new surprise at the end of every episode, so instead of feeling gritty and real, the show starts to feel forced and over-wrought. The problem arises that every stunning new reversal can’t help but tear another long snag of unintended implausibilities into the fabric of the show’s diegetic reality. At a certain point this tangled knot of deception becomes so Gordian that even slicing through it with a bright sword ends up feeling like a betrayal. I understand that some viewers might have struggled with boredom while confronting the long, painful process of not knowing what happened and not knowing how to find out; however, that real-world grind of police work and emotional marathon of seeing a case to conclusion seemed to be precisely what the show had earlier promised.
So, why not just make us squirm under this pressure? Why not stay committed to the aesthetic vision of the first half dozen episodes?
Instead, cliffhanger episodes and a new prime suspect every week maintained freshness for a while, but in the end it became its own sort of overstimulated tedium. And the show became a failed reiteration of the cop show conventions it had attempted to break with in its earlier episodes.
Yes, at times the show still made an honest attempt to wallow in the procedural grind. The slow exhaustion that overtakes Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) helps express this discomfort. So do the combined pressures of Linden’s past as an unhappy foster child and her present as a criminally negligent parent. Enos performs the role brilliantly, with her face growing more haunted and her nervous tics becoming more pronounced as the case wears her down. The pathos of Detective Holder (Joel Kinnaman) also offers great insights into the grueling aspects of police work. When the show mines his troubled past as a narcotics addict and the ongoing strain that history has on his family relationships, the pathos becomes palpable. We really start to understand why these two damaged homicide detectives cling to their waterlogged and sinking case like two fatigued swimmers who know they can’t quite make it to shore. But then Linden’s exhaustion becomes an excuse for the cabal of corruption to take her badge and have her involuntarily committed, a plot turn that transmutes character gold into dull dramatic lead. Suddenly the problem is not so much that she’s pushing herself too hard, eating and sleeping too little, or suffering from over-identification with the victim and victim’s family, it’s all just a big conspiracy to keep her from solving the crime. She’s fine once they can bust her out of the psych ward.
Similarly, Holder moves fluidly from desperately needing his Narcotics Anonymous meetings, to learning that his sponsor has betrayed him and feeling desperate enough that he steals drugs from a former underworld contact and hooks up with another addict from his meetings, to being miraculously cured of his addictions and perfectly redeemed from the taint of corruption that earned him his dirty badge in the first place.
Getting out of the weeds to take a longer view of these first two seasons, I now almost want to laugh at the clown car of false leads, innocent suspects, red herrings, and wild tangents. It all feels very dramatic when you’re moving from episode to episode, but in retrospect the story arc comes off as a scattershot of mystery cliches — teenagers with secrets, corrupt politics, tribal casinos and Indian land rights, infidelities and jilted lovers, past connections to the mob that can’t ever be overcome, vigilante justice gone wrong, street snitches, teachers corrupting students, a haunted widower, a creepy dude living with his even creepier mother, millionaires partying with call girls, a mayoral campaign, cops running afoul of long-term FBI investigations, a terrorist plot, human trafficking, bodies in trunks of cars, and on and on. This is just too much to cram into a single case and have it still seem like gritty portrayal of day-to-day police work.
In the end, I still very much enjoyed these first two seasons of The Killing. Or I will have once I learn to forgive and forget that miserable finale. But for the most part, I don’t regret the time I spent getting lost in rainy woods, dirty back alleys, and shadowy offices. The tale remains legitimately heart wrenching as it explores Rosie Larsen’s awful murder and the tragic effects that her death has on those who knew and loved her. With their deep personal scars and uneasy chemistry, Detectives Linden and Holder are the sort of likably pessimistic cops that you find yourself wanting to follow through hell and high water. I do want to spend more time with them. I’m sure they will remain as compelling as whatever case they’re working.
But, that said, I still need to take a break before I dive into season three.