The last words of "The Killing's" third season – its big shot at redemption – are "no, no, no, no." That is perhaps more poetic than intended.
Famously hailed at its start, bemoaned after its Season 1 finale, canceled after Season 2 and then resuscitated for a Season 3 that started promisingly, this case ended as a sad repudiation of Det. Sarah Linden's hopeful remark to Lt. James Skinner near this season finale's start: "I think we can be different." But it's the same – excellent acting, fine direction and thick atmosphere, all undermined by unsatisfactory writing.
This season had some strong episodes – the Jonathan Demme-directed "Reckoning" was especially powerful – and the cast members impressed time and time again, making the most of the material they were given.
But the material ultimately failed them and viewers. Though it did, at least, solve the case, Season 3 lacked resolution.
The two-hour finale's first part, "From Up Here," begins with Linden running, seemingly dealing with the frustration of seeing Ray Seward executed for the murder of his wife, which she believes was instead the work of the serial killer known as the Pied Piper – apparently Joe Mills. She worked the Seward murder case three years ago with her then-partner, then-lover, now-boss, Skinner, who's on her front steps when she gets home.
He says he just wanted to make sure she was OK, she did all she could for Seward – oh, and his wife asked him to leave. She doesn't exactly invite him in, but leaves the door open. Inside, he says he hasn't been able to tell his wife anything for years: "She doesn't want to know about a kid our daughter's age I pulled from a pond, neck sliced open, half-eaten by animals." Are people like he and Linden supposed to be alone, he wonders. She kisses him. And the next morning, she's all smiles and hope and "I think we can be different." Poor Linden.
Bullet, who'd been vividly played by Bex Taylor-Klaus, gets a proper farewell with a funeral. When Danette, mother of Bullet's missing friend Kallie, sits down next to Det. Stephen Holder, apparently having forgiven and/or forgotten how mean he'd been to her, he says Bullet fought for her daughter "like a little pit bull. Just a little kid. They all were." (And, yes, Bullet would've hated the photo by her coffin.) Do you miss Bullet? I do too.
To get to the meat of what happens – and to keep from stretching the reading of this recap to two hours – here's how this season's supporting characters' story lines end:
-- Prison guard Francis Becker, who sees himself as a sort of prisoner, takes his pension and goes home. His colleague Henderson (possibly the most interesting surviving character this season – hats off to actor Aaron Douglas), who put the shroud and noose on Ray Seward after Becker hesitated, is staying on.
-- Twitch, stressed by adapting to domestic life and frustrated by his inability to properly crack an egg, flirts with resuming heroin use but dumps his stash and settles for nicotine as his coping substance.
-- Lyric, after attending Bullet's funeral, works a shift at a fast food joint, where she runs into Danette, who recognizes her from the service. They briefly share their sorrows, and Danette offers to style her hair, any time, for free. The teen, walking home to Twitch, may or may not have gone back to prostitution – it's hard to read the smile she gives the potential john who pulls up alongside her.
-- Danette is beginning to consider that she'll never see her daughter again (hats off again, this time to Amy Seimetz).
-- Caroline (a charming Jewel Staite) takes Holder back – it was just a fight, and though he thinks he's "five steps down" for her, she says he's a "half-step up" for her after dating other lawyers.
Linden and Holder – apparently full-time partners again – catch a case: a burned body in a car. Some good partner banter. "You look nice," she tells him. "I see you changed your thingie [indicating his hoodie]. And shaved, kind of."
At the station, Holder finds Det. Carl Reddick, his ex-partner whom he recently visited at home to punch in frustration over Bullet's death, packing up. He's retiring rather than partner with the "fat Hitler"-looking Jablonsky. Reddick tells him that his wife complained to Skinner about the assault, but he smoothed it over – "I guess I'm old-school. Cops don't rat on cops."
In his office, Skinner tells Linden that Joe Mills will be charged, and that he's in a position now to be "cherry-picking the big cases, the headline-makers" and couldn't have done it without her. Oh, and hey – want to join him at the lake house this weekend? She and Holder caught a body, she says – and there's her partner knocking. The coroner has something for them (that was quick).
On the ride over, Holder drops his line of the night after asking what's up between her and the boss: "I don't got to be my sleuth par excellence to see that the cat's got the hand in the jelly jar, and it ain't the first time neither." As he continues to tease, she says, "Jealous?" Exceedingly drunk recently, he had tried to kiss her. "Well played, Detective Linden."
At the coroner's, they're informed that the victim – a female – had all her teeth taken out post-mortem. Holder notices a missing ring finger, and the coroner says that injury is a couple weeks old. The detectives realize it could be Angie Gower, who had escaped from the Piper – minus that finger. The No. 1 suspect, Joe Mills, couldn't have killed and torched this victim – he was already in custody. Holder advances the idea that the killer is a cop, that the rings of victims were planted in Mills' storage space. Holder is ready to charge ahead, but Linden isn't so hot on the idea, and wonders about what stopping the charging of Mills might do to Skinner's career. "What do you want to do, let the state hang another guy who didn't do it?" Holder asks her.
Back at the station, as Holder grabs a file, Linden looks around at cops, including Reddick – and Skinner. Holder, considering how Angie had said she was placed in the Piper's car, says it's like someone in the back of a police car, that the killer might have started with an arrest. So they head to the first victim's home.
While talking with that first Piper victim's father, Holder sees a photo on the wall of the girl in a junior officer police program, posing with Reddick. Her dad says Carl used to live next door.
After the detectives leave, Holder tells Linden that Reddick never mentioned knowing a victim; Angie might have fled the hospital after seeing him there; he's the one who took Bullet's message on the night she was killed. Linden sees a tree house and it clicks for her that the Piper wasn't after Trisha Seward – the one victim who wasn't a teenager – but her and Ray's young son, Adrian. She recalls Ray saying he'd built his boy a tree house, and she deduces from where the family lived at the time that it must have been near the killer's dump site. A trip to the woods and a shaky climb up to a tree house with "ADRIAN" carved in the bark confirms her suspicion: Adrian could've seen the killer leaving a body, and the killer could've seen him.
Adrian, dribbling a soccer ball like a basketball on his walk home from school, is followed by a car. At one point, the car is approaching him head on. The boy stops and drops the ball, staring at the driver.
The detectives are knocking on Adrian's foster parents' door as his foster mother walks up. They discover that the boy is missing.
Skinner picks up his daughter from ballet class, who asks if he loves the woman from work, and asks why he's leaving (so maybe he lied to Linden about his wife initiating it). Dad tries to console his daughter. He's called to Adrian's house.
The detectives tell him the killer is a cop, and Holder says the signs point to Reddick and runs down the evidence. Skinner says to keep this quiet among the three of them – and he doesn't care about the bad timing.
At one of Adrian's classmate's houses, the mother says she gave Adrian a ride home when he stopped by saying someone was following him, but she didn't see anyone.
As Linden and Holder head back into the police station, internal affairs investigators stop him and ask him to come with them. He obliges.
Linden is trying to get in touch with Skinner for help with IA. A uniformed officer delivers her traffic camera photos of Adrian with a gray car following, and says that Skinner was eager to get out of the office, citing a family emergency.
The IA guys ask Holder if he's been harassing Reddick – making numerous phone calls, expressing a fixation on his ex-partner's daughter. Holder tosses his phone over – it's a misunderstanding, he says, talk to Reddick, bring him in.
Linden finds Skinner at home – packing a bag. He says he'll take care of IA, and that car in the photo could be anyone's. "So after all this, it really does come down to your career, your reputation?" she asks. He calls the case against Reddick weak. "Accusing a fellow cop?" he asks. "Without hard evidence? I'm surprised at you, Sarah. You used to be a thorough and careful detective." He apologizes, says it's a horrible day, he believes her. As they go down the stairs, Mrs. Skinner and his daughter come home. Awkward. He tells his daughter he's just leaving for a little while. As they embrace, Linden sees Kallie Leeds' ring on Bethany Skinner's finger. And it clicks.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Pied Piper is James Skinner.
How did our heroine discover this? Not by great detective work. Not by any detective work. By sheer luck.
In my Suspect Derby after the Season 3 premiere, I wrote, "Skinner? That'd make Linden look terrible." And it does. It doesn't make actress Mireille Enos look terrible – she plays everything here expertly. But the plotting … [shakes head].
He was never much of a suspect, but you could never count him out, largely because of the casting. Other than Peter Sarsgaard – whose Ray Seward couldn't be killing new victims – Elias Koteas was the highest-profile new cast member. And there was that moment earlier in the season of his daughter staring at the board full of photos of victims her age, which had stuck out.
Outside the house, Skinner sees something in the way Linden is looking at him; she draws her gun. "You want to see him alive, you'll come with me," he says of Adrian. After confiscating his weapon and searching him, she tells him to get in the car. This is – in and of itself – a fine scene, but there's the lingering feeling that maybe the reason he brought her on for the Pied Piper case is because she didn't catch him the first time, that he thinks she's not a good detective. And it's hard to argue that she is. She should be. She should be as good a detective as Enos is an actress. But this show will not let her be.
After being told that Skinner, not Reddick filed the complaint against him, Holder comes up with a ruse to get out of the IA office, telling them he planted a bomb in Reddick's car that morning – and it's going to blow in 35 minutes. When Reddick is alerted – interrupted by cops searching his car as he's heading out with his family to go bowling – he chews out the IA guy and tells him to cut Holder loose. They do (though I imagine Holder could be arrested for making a false report), and Reddick promptly punches Holder.
Linden isn't answering his calls, so Holder heads to the Skinner household, where he learns his boss and partner left together; he asks Mrs. Skinner where their lake house is.
In the car, Linden is understandably distressed that she spent the night before with a man who's killed at least 21 girls (the 17 found at the retention pond, Ashley Kwon, Angie Gower, Kallie Leeds, Bullet). "You and I are nothing alike," she tells him.
Skinner tells of his first kill – an accident, he says. Linden says her name – Brigette, the girl in the junior officers program. He says the girl didn't show up, so he went looking and found her on the street high and turning tricks. She spat at him, and he hit her. Thinking she would bring him down, he took the girl to the woods. "She didn't cry, she didn't scream. She just looked at me. Their eyes, when they know that it's the end, they look at you like no one else. When you go past the pain, past the animal terror, there's nothing else, nothing else in the world like it."
Linden says he's a father, that Bethany is no different from the girls he killed. "Junkies, whores, they're burdens to their families," he says. He calls them "human garbage" and says, "I save them from the inevitability of their lives." She calls him a monster. "Maybe. Maybe." It's a haunting performance from Koteas.
He says Adrian didn't remember him, so he knew he was free – but then Linden said the boy was starting to remember things. "You left me no choice." When she asks if he killed Adrian, he says, "I don't kill children." Linden loses it: "They were all children!"
"Are you here for Adrian or is it because you need to understand how you could have made love to me just a few hours ago?" he asks. He says she loved him, and that part of her knew something.
Understandably, she starts punching him.
After avoiding a near head-on collision, she gets out of the car and vomits.
And, in the most oddly creepy moment of the finale, he offers her a handkerchief. She declines, of course. He doesn't try to take control while she's down, and instead puts a hand on her shoulder. They're not far from where they're going, he says.
Holder is also getting close.
After they approach his lake house, Linden asks if this is where he put Kallie, if there are more girls in the lake. "And other places," he says. "No one will ever find them."
He confesses to a tearful Linden that he planted the rings and Bullet's body (though Linden has to tell him the girl's name) to frame Joe Mills.
"I should have seen," Linden says.
"You didn't see because you didn't want to see," he responds.
Outside the car, Skinner says Adrian is in the trunk, but he won't give Linden the keys.
Reddick has correctly guessed Adrian's true whereabouts – the boy is in the cemetery near his mother's grave, alive. The detective calls Holder, who's on foot near the lake house.
Skinner, meanwhile, is now clearly talking himself into suicide-by-cop. He claims he's killed Adrian. She shoots him.
Holder, hearing the gunshot, runs over. He tells his partner that Adrian is alive and to put the gun down. "He wants you to do this," Holder says. And if it didn't feel like the end of David Fincher's "Seven" before, it does now.
She lowers her weapon.
"Look at me, Sarah," Skinner says. "It's got to be you. You loved me. You loved me."
Blam. She shoots him right in the head.
Cue Holder: "No, no, no, no."
And that's it.
But where "Seven's" ending felt darkly poetic, this – despite fine acting – feels hollow. I like ambiguous endings. But this didn't feel so much ambiguous as cut short.
All season, I spelled the late Mrs. Seward's first name as "Tricia." Her grave says "Trisha."