Spoilers for last night’s season finale of The Killing below:
It’s a familiar story that, when a cable network debuts a deliberate, slow-to-unfold serial like The Killing, viewers start to worry that it’s not going to pay off. And TV critics like me, or other viewers who are enthralled with the promise of the series, counsel patience: let’s see where this is going, let’s have some faith in the storytellers, let’s hope that the strong performances add up to something more.
Well, you’re off the hook, folks! I no longer counsel patience with The Killing! You may unlock the toolshed and get the pitchforks!
Last night, The Killing ended its first season with a stunningly contemptuous psych-out of its audience. After a season of storytelling (and marketing) that strongly implied, if not promised, that the whodunit would tell us who did it, we instead saw that the arrest of Richmond for Rosie Larsen’s murder was one more fake-out in a long string of them, abetted by a frame-up job by Holder and other unknown conspirators.
If the responses I’ve seen online are any indication, fans are furious, yet AMC already committed some time ago to a second season. So let me suggest some creative rebranding: the network should market The Killing as a brand-new kind of crime procedural, in which every week, Sarah Linden finds a new way not to catch a killer. They could change the title from The Killing to Nope! As in, the killer’s Bennett, right? Nope! It’s Richmond, then? Nope! “How will Sarah Linden identify an innocent suspect as Rosie Larsen’s killer next? Find out next week on… Nope!”
In an interview with Alan Sepinwall, creator Veena Sud defended the decision by saying it was never her intention to make a “formula cop show.” And look: I can totally get behind the idea of a police show in which solving or not solving the crime is not the point. The problem is, Veena Sud did not create that show. The Killing was not a series like The Wire, which began as a crime investigation and then pulled back to be about the people investigating, and the people being investigated, and whether the investigation was even worth doing. If The Killing had done something like that, I would have been glad for Rosie’s killer never to be found.
But The Killing didn’t grow into something greater than the Rose Larsen whodunit. Other than Linden, the Larsens (to some extent) and Holder (who then changed in a 24-style switcheroo)*, the broader cast of characters were never fleshed out. (Nor did the mayoral campaign ever evolve beyond generic midnight-basketball political issues, and the Muslims/terrorism subplots made 24 seem like The Wire.) Instead, The Killing did just the opposite: it fetishized the solution to the murder, leading us down one false path after another but never giving us a reason to feel the journey was more important than the destination. It was written, rather, as if the destination were all important, but that the audience would somehow enjoy not getting there.
*(One aspect of the finale that I can make the devil’s advocate case for is the Holder twist, which may have been disappointing because his character had become so appealing but was foreshadowed earlier in the season with his mysterious phone calls discussing the investigation. The problem is, I now have no confidence the show won’t simply find a way to re-twist everything and make him a good guy again now.)
If you want to read a long, passionately argued takedown of the finale, I strongly recommend Mo Ryan’s. Myself, I can’t even work up the enthusiasm for this show to slam it now. Except to say this: the finale, and Sud’s defense of it, makes me most angry because it tries to wrap itself in a legitimate criticism of boring police procedurals—and in the process, it makes that criticism sound like a blueprint for frustrating, unsatisfying TV.
Whatever The Killing was about, it emphatically was not about creating an alternative to police procedurals. It actually was a procedural—just a procedural that happened to be about not solving crimes. How long can it keep this up and draw an audience? Find out next year on the season premiere of… Nope!