Follow-Up: It Was Called THE KILLING, What Did *I* Expect?

So THAT happened.

I came out early on this blog to defend AMC’s latest drama The Killing, an Americanization of the Danish “Nordic Noir” series Forbrydelsen, from claims that it was too slow, too bleak, too maudlin. I expressed a desire to see a story like this played out at a slower pace than your typical TV procedural. I have always enjoyed deliberate pacing, particularly when combined with darker, more atmospheric stories. And there’s no denying that “atmosphere” was a major component, practically a top-billed character, of the series. So allegations of it being slow I understand, but that never bothers me. Bleak, or as I called it, “atmospheric,” I also get. But again, it was part of the charm of the series for me. I’m originally from Seattle, so I’m drawn to stories set in those environs. And I’m a diehard Twin Peaks fan, and The Killing is, if not a spriritual brother to that kitschy 90’s classic, certainly a distant cousin.

As for maudlin? Well yeah. It’s called The Killing, so what exactly did people expect? However, in the wake of the season finale this past week, having experienced the story as a complete narrative (only not really, am I right?), and feeling my own frustration and disappointment with the show, I have to ask myself the same question…

It was called The Killing, what did *I* expect?

Well I could start with the obvious and direct your attention to the photo at the top of this article. That right there was a big part of the network’s marketing campaign. Print and television ads asking the question, “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?” It was deliberately meant to evoke a certain nostalgic connection to Peaks‘ own, “Who Killed Laura Palmer” campaign that sucked in so many viewers back in the day. Yes that earlier series had a lot more going for it than just the whodunnit aspect, and so there’s no reason to presume this new series wouldn’t also have a deeper plot than just finding the little girl’s killer. But that carrot was dangled in front of us from the very beginning, and brought with it websites dedicated to tracking clues, suspects, investigation paths, alibis, etc. There was never any effort to downplay the focus on “there’s a killer out there and this show wants us the audience to help figure out who it is” game.

That could have been fun, or at least compelling. Except that the writers methods of presenting clues, suspects, investigation paths, and alibis consisted almost entirely of burying us under one red herring after another. There are only so many times you can ask an audience to follow a completely pointless, dead end lead to an absolutely worthless, uninteresting suspect who ultimately proves to have nothing whatsoever to do with anything (or worse yet to be involved in what might’ve been a fairly powerful story if given the chance to breathe on it’s own, but which doesn’t relate to this plodding murder case and so is introduced and dropped in the span of one-and-a-half episodes). By their very nature, red herrings become more frustrating and less effective the more you use them. And for some reason 90% of this narrative relied on cheap misdirection and lazy red herrings to keep us from figuring anything out too quickly.

But even THAT wouldn’t necessarily have killed this series for me. I’m completely open to, and have enjoyed, stories that follow unconventional structure. And I’ve never been as easily annoyed by misdirection in storytelling as many people are. So while the crimson fish smell is all over this problematic series, that’s not the reason I’m left holding my nose by the end.

No, the real reason I grew ever more frustrated with this series, and why it will take some pretty serious chicanery to get me to come back for a second helping, is the characters. I know, I know, I’m in the minority on this one (and it’s only going to get worse as I get more specific.) But after 13-hours spent with these men and women, I can say in all honesty that there was not one single character that I actually cared about. Some (not all) of the acting was admittedly great. Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman, the detectives ostensibly trying to catch the killer, are of course the obvious stand-outs. The problem being Enos’ Det. Linden was an emotional cypher for most of the series. It wasn’t until the final couple of episodes that we got to see any kind of life to her, which may have been a deliberate storytelling decision, and it may have served a purpose, but it doesn’t change the fact that after the first hour or two I just tuned the hell out and stopped expecting anything from her. Kinnaman had it slightly (only slightly) better in his character of Det. Holder, who began the series looking like the creepiest, skeeviest kind of pervy cop, and very gradually began showing some human emotions, some hidden depths… before having that seemingly shattered by the final scene of the season.

I get that we haven’t seen the entire tale told yet. I understand (expect even) that what LOOKED like was going down in that car in the closing scene is probably not what was ACTUALLY going down. I get it, and that’s fine. But if (when) that proves to be the case… well that’s kind of another red herring, innit? As is the shot of Belko walking up on is-he-the-killer-or-is-he-being-framed politician Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) and putting a gun to his head. We didn’t see him shoot, nor did we even cut to black on the sound of a gunshot. So when the show returns I fully expect that he will have never even gotten to squeeze the trigger before being tased and beaten into a coma. Just one more fake-out.

And let’s say that Richmond IS innocent, which we’re kind of lead to believe he is by the end. So that’s just one more man falsely accused for the crime who then has his life threatened/ended by the Larsen family (or a surrogate of the Larsen family.) The beating near to death of Mr. Ahmed was, I’m sure, meant to be a powerful and emotional moment for the series. And it was, because it powerfully turned me off completely to the plight of the Larsens. Having the same kind of situation play out a second time (if Richmond DOES get shot… which he won’t) would be redundant and manipulative and, I’m sure, pointless.

But let’s talk about the Larsen family for a minute, because they are at the heart of why I’m not pleased with this series. Stan Larsen (Brent Sexton) does, for the most part, a fine job of being a sympathetic character, at least for the first half of the season. He shows grief AND growth in reasonable measure. He seems realistic, tragic, flawed, without being overbearing for me as a viewer. I felt appropriately uncomfortable at all the right places and in all the right ways watching him. That is until the just ridiculous notion of making him a mobster. Really? The Seattle mob? *sigh* And while his eventual mental snapping point and near-mortal beating of an innocent man wasn’t out-and-out unbelievable, it was by that point in the narrative blatantly manipulative storytelling. I wasn’t moved so much as I was disgusted… and not by the acts of the fictional man on screen, but by the games the writers were trying to play with my head.

And head games leads me straight into my number one reason for not planning on coming back for more of this: Michelle Forbes as grieving wife and mother Mitch Larsen. I confess upfront that I’m biased by already hating Forbes as an actress before I ever watched this series. In my opinion (a very deep, dark, and lonely minority apparently) she always plays the same damned character in everything, or at least is the same basic character archetype. She always plays damaged, angry, destructive, bitchy, or evil… or some combination of all the above. And I’ve been tired of that character for years prior to this. But when you put that character into an already morose and upsetting world, and then crank those ugly characteristics up to 11, I have to work really, really hard to maintain any kind of empathy or compassion for her. By probably the fourth or fifth episode I really began to loathe every single second that she was on screen. I lost anything even remotely like sympathy for her and became nothing but annoyed by her. I try really hard to understand that this show is, among other things, about the debilitating grief after the loss of a child. But as much as I try to intellectualize that, emotionally there’s only so much of her vacant gazes, depression, and passive-aggressive outbursts I could stand before wanting her to fall down some stairs. Some really long, steep stairs. No matter what the writers intentions, when you seen nothing of a character for thirteen hours except her being completely withdrawn, shut down, non-responsive, punctuated only with the occasional guilt-trip to get her husband to beat a guy to death, and then turning away from him when he goes and does it… well that’s a hard road for an audience to follow. The character of Mitch Larsen is 75% of the reason I plan on staying the fuck away from this show when it comes back.

HOWEVER…

There was a scene towards the end of the finale that shows promise. Stan finally got out of jail and went first to visit the little house he’d secretly purchased, seemingly just to bask in the sadness and lost promises of it now that his life had changed so dramatically. But there was a moment, as he looked out into the back yard, specifically at the now-never-to-be-used swing set, when an odd look, maybe of some kind of decision or epiphany, crossed his face. And from there he went home, saw his dehumanized wife skulking in the window, went in and had what could have been a cathartic talk with her, wherein she finally broke down and admitted that she couldn’t live in that apartment anymore. Cut to sister-in-law Terry coming home sometime later. Stan is there by himself, and when Terry asks where Mitch is he gives her what *I* found to be a very odd look, with what may have been a slightly cracked (as in crazy) smirk and told her simply that Mitch left. Cue shocked and confused look from Terry. End scene.

Now that might have been nothing. It might have been that Mitch left as in left him, left them, ran away, separated, divorced, whatever. And it might have been just another in an endless series of misleads, red herrings, fake-outs, etc. But what I genuinely, truly, with all my heart HOPE that was was Stan finally losing his shit altogether and killing the fuck out of his wife and burying the pieces underneath the swing set in the back yard of his family’s new house!

Probably not. But if that is in fact what happened, well then I just might have to come back to the party next year. Because party it will definitely be.

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