Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Killing - Season 1

This will have spoilers, because I'm not sure I can express my thoughts while dancing around them the whole time.

I'm not really sure where to start with The Killing. It sort of took the opposite trajectory to last year's Rubicon. That show was fairly dull at first, and lost a lot of attention before it eventually actually became a pretty high quality program. Unfortunately the ratings didn't recover and it was canceled. The Killing on the other hand started off great, hooking an audience that then watched it slowly slide into mediocrity with bad writing and a number of stumbles, before a pretty awful final few minutes that left a lot of people angry. It managed to hold its audience though, so it gets a second season to try to bounce back.

There's a lot about the show that I still think is quite good. It has a strong hook in the beginning, pulling you into the mystery of who killed Rosie Larsen. The production quality is good, starting with the great opening sequence and carrying into the way the city of Seattle is shot. The music can be overbearing but generally works, and the gloomy atmosphere of the show pushes the main story along effectively. The acting is also good. The main character Sarah Linden is a bit dull, but she has interesting chemistry with her new partner Holder, who is a pretty fascinating oddball. The man who plays Rosie's father Stan is great as well, and the show's portrayal of grief is mostly intriguing. So the show has a strong base in the way it's presented and the mood it has. The problem is that the plot is a fucking mess.

In the 37 or so hours since the finale first aired, plenty of people have posted screeds about where the show went wrong and how much of a mistake it was the end the season without resolving its central mystery. They have already gone over the logical leaps and holes in the plot more carefully than I could. All that really matters is that it definitely seemed like they intended to tell us who the killer was by the end of the season, and they didn't. The other cliffhanger regarding whether Belko shoots Richmond doesn't bother me, because most endings like that don't bother me anymore. The other thing though both felt like a betrayal and didn't make any sense. Despite Richmond still being hung up on his dead wife and sleeping with numerous similar-looking prostitutes and creepily talking to one about drowning, he didn't kill Rosie. Or maybe he did, but the suggestion seems to be he didn't.

That's fine, because he didn't really have a motive. Sleeping with women who resemble a wife you can't go makes sense, but killing one seems like kind of a leap. The problem is that they throw this wrinkle in at the last second, when the common understanding was that they'd solve the murder in this episode and the writers did nothing to stop people from thinking that. The Danish show this was based on resolved the murder in its first season, after all. It also just doesn't make sense for the characters - both Gwen and Holder are apparently framing him for some reason, and there's no clear reason for either to do so. Holder didn't go about it particularly well either - ignoring the fact that his doctored picture wouldn't have held up in court, he couldn't have thought he'd get away with it when he used Linden's badge number to get the request in. I'm sort of just wandering into plot-hole-dissection territory here, but it's hard to avoid - it's one of those twists that seems like a shocker on the surface but doesn't make any kind of sense with what came before.

It's telling that making Richmond the killer would have been a better ending than what we got, because that was already a terrible resolution. All season long, the show has mostly been about four things: the murder investigation, Holder's personal life, the effect of Rosie's death on her family, and the fallout it has for Richmond's mayoral campaign. This whole time we've been wondering why Richmond's campaign has gotten so much attention, and it certainly wasn't because they thought it was a great storyline. It's an absolutely lifeless political story, almost never actually touching issues, and somehow making the whole thing hinge upon projects and circumstances tangential to actual debate. Apparently a dead girl in your campaign car is worse than a secret affair, but not worse than your building project interfering with a Native American burial site. So the only reason for this whole thing was apparently to position Richmond as the killer, and in the end he is... or he isn't... but either way it's a whole lot of wasted time.

This show drew a lot of unfortunate comparisons to Twin Peaks, which had plenty of problems of its own, but was still an entirely original and influential work which still has tons of cult appeal today. Both feature the murders of high school girls with seedy secret lives, but while Twin Peaks immediately made it clear that the show was about more than finding a killer, The Killing didn't. Pretty much every character on the show is either a suspect or close to one, which makes the series less of a mystery and more of a waiting game until the cops stumble on the one who actually happens to be guilty. Or not. Whole chunks of the season were wasted on red herrings and false leads, and meanwhile the investigators are waiting until the end of the season to check simple things like the gas left in the car and Rosie's Internet history. It's not a show about a realistic investigation and the grief an untimely death causes, which it wanted to portray itself as. It's a show about a string of unlikely actions and coincidences leading a couple of bad cops by the nose to a stupid plot twist, with a mother character who goes from sympathetic and tragic to completely unlikeable in a snap.

There are so many bits of this show that worked great, it makes it really unfortunate that the actual story turned out worse than the average episode of a standard cop procedural. I'm being harsh because the show should have been a lot better than it ended up being, and I'm going to watch the second season, not because I want to know what really happened, but because I'm giving them a shot to capitalize on all the potential the series still has. This was a seriously flawed season of television, and maybe I'm only not giving up because I'm delusional about what the show was supposed to be in the first place. But this is AMC, and I can't imagine they can get all the feedback from the show so far and not figure out a way to fix most of the kinks next year. Not that an abomination of a resolution is just a "kink", but if they could find a way to gracefully tie this up and start fresh on a new dead body, it could win back a lot of good will, at least from me.

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