What does it say about a TV series when its best episode to date is also, by far, its least representative?
It’s not necessarily a bad sign. In some shows, it’s an indication that there is a difference between what makes a great single hour of TV and what makes a great several years of TV. An example I often cite is “Pine Barrens,” which regularly comes up as fans’ favorite episode of The Sopranos, yet is relatively isolated from the long-game serial story of the show. Whereas the best elements of The Sopranos as a series were often developed in those more sprawling, serial episodes (say, “The Knight in White Satin Armor” or tens of others) that would probably be considered “lesser” if you took a poll.
That last week’s episode of The Killing, “Missing,” was its strongest episode yet while almost entirely taking a break from the case that the series is about says good and bad things about the show. On the one hand, it was a reminder that the crime drama has a base of characters and performances that make it deeply engaging at its best. On the other, it pointed up that the show’s best aspects get lost when it seems to spin its wheels to make the murder investigation last the season.
The Killing, as you know if you’ve watched even one episode, is moody, deliberate and atmospheric. The easy criticism to make of a show like that is that it’s dull and not enough happens. But “Missing” contradicts that in a way. Very little happens in terms of Rosie’s murder, and even the plot of this episode—Linden and Holder search for Linden’s troubled son when he fails to come home—feels like a simple excuse to give the partners time together and tell us more about them. (Maybe I’m cynical, but I couldn’t buy that Jack might turn up dead, simply because that would make The Killing into a different show, a couple hours before the end of the season; it didn’t matter, because I did buy Linden’s terror over it.)
And yet it worked. What “happened” here was that we got an extended look at what The Killing has told us in dribs and drabs: that Linden has sadness in her life beyond her job, and reasons to hesitate to leave town and start a new life beyond the case. Meanwhile, although I never doubted we’d get great work from Mireille Enos, it highlighted what great work Joel Kinnaman has been doing depicting the skeevy honor of recovering addict Holder. Nothing needed to happen here beyond what transpired between them; their conversations in the car and the fast-food restaurant were more gripping than any foot chase in the series yet.
I don’t mean to overly knock the series overall. The first few episodes grabbed me, and Michelle Forbes continues to knock my socks off week after week. But if anything the show seems to suffer not from too little “happening” but from the pressure to make more things happen while it maintained mystery in an extended whodunit. The Wire could make a season out of a criminal investigation, but it had an advantage. We never had any doubt what Barksdale, say, was up to; the question was whether and how he would get caught (and whether it would do any good, of course, every other story that transpired along the way).
A whodunit, on the other hand, has to keep us uncertain, and in The Killing that has sometimes meant leading us down blind alleys or spending a lot of time with the Richmond campaign, still unsure what and how much it has to do with the murder. So I’m finding The Killing involving, but not compelling; I enjoy it when I watch it, but I’ll often wait several days to get around to it.
By its nature, though, a show like this is hard to judge until the season is over. “Missing,” on the other hand, showed us what it’s capable of, even if its getting-to-know-you strategy might have been more welcome several episodes ago. The Killing’s ratings, meanwhile, have been fairly stable, so it seems its initial audience is sticking with it. Are you?