Critic’s Notebook: ‘The Killing’ provokes murderous response

Never mind who killed Rosie Larsen. The mystery I want solved is how AMC shows continue to have cultural footprints so much larger than their audience. It began with “Mad Men” and continues now with “The Killing,” the season finale of which left many cross-eyed and panting with rage.

Their words all but quivering in cancel-my-subscription frustration, critics, fan bloggers and tweeters could not believe that after all the show had demanded of them (13 whole episodes), after all the “red herrings” and shots of Seattle looking like a rain-soaked ghetto instead of the hipster birthplace of Starbucks and Nirvana, we didn’t even get to find out who the real bad guy was. Or at least not for certain. Although it appeared that detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) had nailed mayoral candidate Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) for the crime, the last-minute revelation that Holder falsified evidence seemed to indicate otherwise.

What?!? Thus was Father’s Day shriven with howls of protest from those who desperately Needed to Know. Some desired it to justify a show they had, apparently, found increasingly fragmented and slow-moving. Others, if the levels of fury were any indication, sought something deeper — a reassurance, perhaps, that our fascination with all things Scandinavian (“The Killing” is based on a successful Danish series) is still a legitimate trend.


Score another point for AMC, which managed once again to turn TV watching into obsession. For better or worse, “The Killing” season finale generated the kind of reaction usually reserved for the final episode of long-running shows. Reminiscent of the climactic scene in “Murder by Death,” in which Truman Capote’s Lionel Twain blasts famous literary detectives for withholding clues and introducing key characters at the last minute, the hyberbolic outrage over “The Killing” seemed aimed at a cultural phenomenon like “Lost” or “The Sopranos” that had disappointed or confused its viewers with a strange or inconclusive ending.

Some of this is a matter of medium rather than message — as criticism, especially TV criticism, grows more conversational and immediate, the language has become increasingly overwrought. “The Killing” was neither cultural phenomenon, nor was it, despite what you might read on the blogosphere, a crime against the art form and humanity. Creator Veena Sud promised an anti-police procedural, and that is what she delivered, dismissing, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes regrettably, the most basic conventions of murder on TV. As any lover of murder-mystery novels knows, the solving of the crime is usually secondary to the various secrets and subplots the investigation reveals.

Writers love a good murder because great violence is a clarifying agent, permission to peep into our neighbors’ windows. Each “red herring” of “The Killing” revealed something dark and disturbing — the need of a young girl to find acceptance through humiliating sex, the fine line between fondness and overfamiliarity many young teachers walk, the separate enigmas and glossed-over miscommunications that make up even the most loving families, the bestial violence that hunkers down deep in every father’s soul. The uber narrative of “The Killing” is not the death of Rosie Larsen but the revelation of Sarah Linden, a woman so obsessed with and damaged by her career as a detective that she is marrying a man she clearly does not love and moving to Sonoma to escape it.

“The Killing” was far from perfect. Sud did herself no favors by adopting many of the hallmarks of a procedural, especially confining the action of each episode to the corresponding day of the investigation; the Sonoma subplot was absurd, the escort service trope maddeningly trite. But the pacing and narrative detours were no more bothersome than those of “Mad Men” and for the same reason: If the moments did not string together in a perfect Add-a-Bead TV narrative, they were compelling to watch.

That Rosie’s mother, Mitch (Michelle Forbes), neither rallied nor collapsed; that Sarah’s mother figure is her social worker; that the investigation made its way through the insular worlds of a mosque, a reservation, teenage cliques and mayoral politics and sent all manner of messy truths to the surface as it did so; that Holder speaks a patois of street and recovery slang, all made up for the feeling that after stubbornly rejecting the rules and regs of TV crime drama, Sud occasionally had to simply keep walking until she got herself going in more or less the right direction.

No show is going to live or die by its season finale. When you try something new, you’re going to make mistakes; if you don’t, you’re not trying hard enough. For those who need closure, there are all manner of admirable crime procedurals on the networks.