Empty twists: On frustrations with The Killing

I haven’t written about The Killing in a very long time and I think you can guess why: It quickly devolved into a boring mess. I still enjoyed a number of the performances — most notably Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton — but the middle part of this season focused way too much on a character we all knew wasn’t going to end up being the killer and not enough on developing any of the leads. By the very nature of the murder mystery, we knew it was never going to be Bennett and when the series finally admitted as much, it had absolutely nothing else to move towards except a new suspect. It wasn’t until last week that the series took the time to really make Linden and Holder more three-dimensional and the penultimate episode finally brought us new and useful information about who Rosie was as a person before she died while also kicking the case into overdrive.

But despite the improved quality of these last two episodes, I really have only one thing to say: Who cares?

When The Killing began, I think it is safe to say that many of us assumed that Darren Richmond had something to do with the murder. You don’t hire Billy Campbell to play Richmond and have this intense focus on the character if he’s not going to play a major role in the murder-related end-game. There’s just no reason to use the character in the way The Killing used him unless he killed Rosie or knows who did. This is one of those instances where my outside knowledge and history of an actor and how stories develop clearly altered how I viewed the series and I’m very certain that I am not alone in this assertion. And unfortunately, the series’ production team never made much of an attempt to throw us off the scent. Sure, they spent an otherworldly amount of time on Bennett as the primary suspect, but even then, that character had a connection to Richmond and nearly every episode dedicated time to the campaign and the character’s history. He never left our sight.

Yet, he — like every single one of the series’ characters — didn’t quite develop either. We learned a few new things about Richmond along the way, but for the most part, The Killing kept plodding along with the archetypes it started with. Therefore, by the time Sunday’s episode finally revealed that hey, perhaps Richmond actually does have something to do with Rosie’s murder, I couldn’t help but sigh and chuckle just a bit. I have no problem with a series providing answers to big mysteries that I predicted 10 weeks before the answer was given. But I feel that way with the qualification that the time before the reveal of that obvious answer is going to be well-spent, with characters and other stories developed in entertaining, propulsive ways. If you’ve been watching over the past eight weeks or so, you know that “entertaining” and “propulsive” are not words that most people would use to define The Killing.

As the general audience frustration has mounted, I’ve seen various folks come out in defense of The Killing by noting that the series “isn’t about the murder,” or how “it’s really about the characters.” I see where those people are coming from, but my frustrations with the underdevelopment of the murder mystery are similarly present in the series’ so-called “character development.” Just as it took too long to turn Linden and Holder more forcefully on Richmond, it took too long to develop those two as people.

“Missing” was my favorite episode since the two-part premiere and it did a wonderful job of showing us who these two detectives are and how they could presumably learn to be an effective pair of investigators and allies. The more directed focus on just the two of them allowed the series to return to the emotional rawness and intensity that defined the first three episodes and reminded me of why I liked The Killing so much to begin with. But there is absolutely no reason why the series needed to wait until episode 11 to tell that story. Putting that episode much earlier in the season — say, episode 5 or 6 — would have not only given us more insight into the characters up front, but it probably would have allowed the series to build up some more trust and patience with the audience. With more knowledge of who Linden and Holder are, I could have dealt with more episodes of them working the case because at least I was spending time with people who had compelling, complicated personal histories. But the way the series approached it made the characters seem like thin blank slates moving through the mechanizations of the investigation.

This lack of character development was present elsewhere as well. Although Forbes and Sexton have been very good all season, they’ve been stuck in a fairly predictable rut of anger, grief and confusion. I understand that they are still only a few weeks separated from the death of their daughter, but the series hasn’t really figured out how to play slightly different variations of the obvious beats the characters should be going through. It’s become slightly grating, so much so that I can see why people have suddenly turned on Mitch Larsen and decided she’s a terrible character. This trend continues downward through the cast. We’re just now learning about Terry and her influence on Rosie, Jack and his father are randomly more integral now and perhaps most egregiously, details about Rosie are really only now flooding in. The series has spent tons of timing talking about where she’s gone and who she knew, but not enough time on who she was. I have trouble truly caring about the Larsen’s grief or the investigation as a whole if I know very little about the person who passed away. Flashbacks don’t fit into the format, but the series needed to do something to make Rosie feel more real.

And maybe the format is the problem to begin with. AMC announced today that The Killing will return for a second season and I’m really hoping that the series is generally retooled in-between seasons. AMC is a channel that pays attention to what critics and the media has to say about its series, so I have to imagine there will be some changes in play. Elements that appeared to be useful in the beginning — the one-day-per-episode framework, the focus on grief, no flashbacks– ended up harming the series after a few episodes. I would be willing to watch more of The Killing if I knew it would be less rigid its formulaic-ness, but there’s also always the possibility that the people working behind-the-scenes just aren’t very good. I know Veena Sud has been rightfully criticized for her background in formulaic procedural storytelling, but interestingly, the episodes she’s written — the pilot, “The Cage” and “Missing” — have been the best. I’m not exactly sure what that says about her abilities as a storyteller or as a showrunner, but it is clear that The Killing has problems to solve in between seasons one and two. I might review the finale, but no matter how good or bad it is, these issues will still exist.

Quick plug: Friend of the blog, Les Chappell wrote a similarly-themed piece on the series today. Please check it out.

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2 thoughts on “Empty twists: On frustrations with The Killing

  1. Pretty much my thoughts exactly. I think the concept of a 13-episode long whodunit is just fundamentally flawed. “Veronica Mars’s” first couple of seasons did pull it off, but they always gave Veronica mini-mysteries to solve every week in addition to the central mystery (not to mention the show had much better dialogue).

    That being said, the show still has some things going for it. I love the acting. You single out Forbes and Sexton (who are terrific), but I think Enos and Kinnaman are also very strong. The way the series is shot is just sublime. But it won’t be enough to keep me watching next season (particularly as someone who doesn’t get AMC and has to buy the episodes at $2 a piece) unless there are some drastic changes.

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