The Killing: Death as Denial, Death as Distraction

All right, y’all have been civil. You haven’t said anything and it’s been a few months. You’ve waited while I came to grips with my mistakes, made a fearless and searching moral inventory, and admitted that I was powerless. I appreciate it. Let the healing begin.

A little over four months ago, I wrote the following about the pilot episode of AMC’s The Killing:

Veena Sud (and the director – Patty Jenkins, in the case of the pilot) is framing The Killing like a police procedural, yet at the same time breaking all the rules of police procedurals. If film has a language, then what is the message of this show so far? Abandon your expectations. Put aside your notions of what a police procedural should be like. Take nothing we show you for granted. Your eyes are lying to you.

Now that S1 of The Killing is over, we know that not to have been the case:

In an acclaimed first season filled with plenty of twists, AMC’s The Killing saved its biggest shock for the very end: The show’s murder mystery was left unsolved and will continue into season two.

Our heroes Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder seemingly finished Rosie Larson case in tonight’s finale, arresting mayoral candidate Darren Richmond for the murder of a teenage girl. But in the episode’s final moments, Linden learns her partner may have fabricated a key piece of evidence — putting their case in jeopardy, plus casting doubt on Richmond’s guilt and Holder’s agenda.

And:

AMC and showrunner Veena Sud didn’t necessarily get themselves into trouble by choosing to continue the Larson storyline into season 2, but by keeping that fact so tightly under wraps that their decision became the season finale’s biggest shock. Viewers want to be surprised by what happens inside a story, not by the structure of the seasons. If what happened Sunday night was last week’s penultimate episode, nobody would complain. Or if AMC had told the media to let their readers know ahead of time the finale would not solve the case, fans would still grumble, but they probably wouldn’t be throwing around angry terms like “bait and switch.” Viewers love to be tricked by a smart story. On Sunday, they felt tricked by the network.

And another country heard from:

Strap yourselves in, folks. Get ready for the angriest television-related screed I think I’ve ever written. I’m not sure how to start, except to say that I hated the season finale of ‘The Killing’ with the burning intensity of 10,000 white-hot suns.

It wasn’t just a bad ending to a poorly constructed, sloppy, disappointing season. It was a jaw-dropping instance of a show not just squandering its promise, but betraying its viewers. The tone-deaf arrogance of the writers and executives responsible for ‘The Killing’ is simply astonishing. And depressing, if you’re a fan of quality television.

Let me be clear, I hold the show’s executive producer and head writer, Veena Sud, responsible for a season-ender that not only DID NOT tell us who killed Rosie Larsen but turned Holder into a villain and did a number of other stupidly melodramatic, preposterously manipulative things. But I blame AMC executives as much as Sud — if not more.

So. Well. Don’t I feel like a jackass.

Yo, dog, I'm feelin' you.

Granted, the argument I made after having seen the pilot isn’t necessarily invalid. Showrunner Veena Sud did demonstrate, using her writing and editing tricks, that she was teasing our expectations. And the letdown season finale could also be read as an example of that. “Whaddaya want, closure? Just because a season takes 13 episodes doesn’t mean the murder gets solved in 13 days! We’re going to shake you out of your complacent little world, ma-a-an.”

That’s one way to look at it. Here’s another way: the writers of The Killing didn’t know what they were doing and made it up as they went along.

Here’s the weird bit, though: why is it shocking to us that The Killing ended on a cliffhanger? Or not even a cliffhanger, but the sort of mild frustrating suspense that every episode of the season ended on?

Consider the majority of television. We’re not dismayed when the season finale of Full House wraps up without resolving every thread introduced in the prior season. Hell, we’re barely even conscious of Full House having seasons. To take a more serious example, nothing distinguishes the season finale of Law & Order from any other episode of that same season, except perhaps a slightly bigger guest star.

I’m picking some episodic shows as examples, though. So let’s consider a show in the same genre, like CSI. Of the twenty-four episodes in season 7, eight of those are about “The Miniature Killer,” a serial killer whose M.O. is to construct tiny scale models of each crime scene. The story builds to a tense conclusion that puts the lives of one of Gil Grissom’s CSI team at stake. But if the “Miniature Killer” storyline hadn’t been resolved by the end of S7, we wouldn’t write the entire season off as a loss. There were still a dozen other episodes to entertain us. Like that episode where Roger Daltrey guest starred!

YYYEEAAAAAAHHHH ... sorry, wrong CSI.

Or consider F/X’s The Shield. Detective Dutch Wagenbach spent five seasons hunting for a serial killer. At first, no one but Dutch saw a connection between the murder victims, who died in different seasons. Then no one else believed a serial killer was involved. Then, once he had his prime suspect, he could never get enough evidence to close the case. However, the serial killer was at best a B-plot (maybe even a C-plot) to The Shield. The show was always about Vic Mackey’s brutal will and his war against the streets.

In fact, in a truly gritty series, there’s nothing that says a case has to be closed at all. Take the Adena Watson case from the critically acclaimed Homicide: Life on the Streets, the show which gave David Simon a springboard to produce The Wire. Detective Tim Bayliss obsesses over this unsolved case for six of the show’s seven seasons. Unlike his West Coast counterpart Det. Wagenbach, Bayliss never solves this case. It plagues him throughout the series.

We accept these loose ends, however, because they’re not all that the show is about. CSI is about process: watching a crack team of scientists pick apart physical evidence to find a killer. The Shield is about the internal war of good vs. evil, where we watch how dark a man must become to clean up the crooked streets and how that darkness affects his attempts at a normal life. And Homicide was about staying sane in a crazy world. An unsolved murder strung from episode to episode was a good recurring thread on which to hang these themes.

But The Killing was only ever about one murder.

The Killing wasn’t about how the investigation of a murder drives tension on both sides of the law (see The Wire). The Killing wasn’t about one city, with a murder as a decoration tying the story together (see Red Riding). The Killing was about a killing.

'We never said you'll get closure at the end of Season 1.'

Did showrunner Veena Sud know that’s what the show was about? Let’s see what she told Alan Sepinwall:

[W]hen you started out, you didn’t know for sure if there would be a second season. Was there ever an alternate version of the ending, just in case – like, Linden and Jack just get on the plane without incident, Richmond’s the killer, The End?

There wasn’t. From the very beginning, there was a long long long discussion with all the partners in “The Killing.” Again, let’s not do a formula, let’s not do the 45 minute formula, season formula, let’s let the season be what it is organically, and this is where we see it going, and that’s great. So there was no alternate ending written or shot.

Well, just anecdotally, I have a lot of readers who are expecting closure on Sunday, and they’re not going to get it. Is it fair for them to be expecting closure?

We never said you’ll get closure at the end of season 1. We said from the very beginning this is the anti-cop cop show. It’s a show where nothing is what it seems, so throw out expectations. We will not tie up this show in a bow. There are plenty of shows that do that, in 45 minutes or whatever amount of time, where that is expected and the audience can rest assured that at the end of blank, they will be happy and they can walk away from their TV satisfied. This is not that show.

Divorced from the context of a disappointing first season, this sounds admirable. It even touches on some of the things I observed in my first post: Sud is playing with our expectations; Sud is leading us on. The difference – and you can read the rest of the interview to confirm – is that Sud spends most of her time talking about what the show isn’t. She never tells us what the show is.

This isn’t just me being paradoxical. When there’s near unanimous critical disgust at your season finale, that’s the time to remind people of your essence, not to reject other labels. If people got disappointed in Mad Men for not being a sexy soap opera, Weiner could remind them that Mad Men is supposed to be a stylized, pessimistic look at how generations took sides in the fight for power in the 60s. When people get disappointed in Breaking Bad for bottle episodes like “Fly” or power plays by Skylar, Vince Gilligan can say that that’s what BB is meant to deliver: an Oedipal look at the things people do to live the American dream.

Sud puts a lot of weight on how the show doesn’t follow a set formula. “Let’s not do a formula,” she says, “Let’s not do the 45 minute formula, season formula, let’s let the season be what it is organically, and this is where we see it going, and that’s great.” So she threw out the rules and made it up as she went along. Which is fine! But just because you’re making it up doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules.

Fenzel or Wrather could talk about this better than I, but there are actually some rules (or at least well-loved principles) to improv theater. Viola Spolin, Keith Johnstone, Del Close and others wrote thousands of words and inspired millions of students with the principles that they lay down. While there’s a lot of variety among these principles, chief among them is the now cliched idea of Yes, And.

I’ll give you an example:

I’m in an improv show. I walk onstage, hands in my pockets, and stare at the ground. My scene partner comes in from the other side of the stage. She says, “Boy, it’s a shame to see someone die so young.” Now I had no idea my character was looking at a body. But I accept my scene partner’s input, so I say, “Yes, and here’s an ATM card with her dad’s name on it.” Someone else comes on stage to play the dead girl’s dad, who says, “Yes, and we gave it to her so she could get cab rides to and from her boyfriend’s house.” And so forth.

Yes, And is a core improv principle because it makes it easier for all the other players. You don’t literally begin each sentence with “Yes, and …” That would get tired. But you do validate the other person’s input to the imaginary scene (“Yes”), then build on it by adding something creative which doesn’t contradict (“And”). Doing this turns an empty stage into a vivid world, one brush stroke at a time.

Yes, And works not because it’s funnier. It’s almost always easier to get a laugh by completely invalidating another player’s input (“why are you criticizing my business presentation? you’re just the janitor!” HAHAHAHA). But doing this discourages everyone from jumping in and participating. If I know there’s a good chance that the loud asshole is going to shout me down, why would I enter the scene? Also, throwing too many No, Buts into the mix eventually confuses the audience rather than entertains them. The audience may laugh for a bit at an absurd contradiction. But if you callback a prior input as a means of tying a series of unrelated threads into one whole – which you can only do by validating and creating – the audience will be amazed.

Season 1 of The Killing plays out like a bad improv show.

Suspects are introduced and then flatly discarded without leading anywhere else. Rosie Larsen’s ex-boyfriend was molesting another girl on camera, not Rosie. Bennett Ahmed was misleading his students and the detectives because he was smuggling a girl to Canada to avoid genital mutilation. Rosie was making home movies; Rosie wanted to see the world; Rosie was tricking for an online escort service; Rosie was making large withdrawals from a casino ATM. All of these leads are summoned up, brooded over for an episode or two, and then discarded.

This would be worse than amateur improv, summoning up maybe a few pitying chuckles from the audience. For a show with a supposed script? It’s inexcusable.

Finally, to tie this discussion into the week’s apparent theme of plot (whether in video games or other media):

Sud defended this show (in interviews) as an exploration of character.

So if you’ve been operating by your inner compass, then what parts of these 13 episodes did you feel worked more strongly than others? What did you find were your strengths and weaknesses and how that might inform season 2?

Hmm… That’s a good question. The great pleasure for me, and I’ll couch it in terms of that versus positives and negatives, was for the first time as a writer of this genre to invest and really get to know characters. I love that, I loved the experience of that, I loved getting to know all these people, I loved creating perceptions of them, which is very true to life. That was a great pleasure for me.

[…]

I always wanted to do an episode where we would get to know our lead better, and would get to spend time, and in fact be forced to spend time in a situation with both these characters, and the sparing amounts of information we were given with Sarah, finally start to get some answers about who this woman is, why she does what she does, why she’s a cop, ultimately.

[…]

I find it fascinating to write. I find what happens to a family fascinating and tragic, and not something we get to spend any time on ever, in television, except for this show. Usually families are shuttled in and out, and they’re cliches. To be able to spend some time on a family and express their experience authentically, that was very important to me.

Sud appears to think that exploration of character is enough for a TV show. And the rise of shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Wire gives her grounds to think that. But that doesn’t mean she can neglect the plot. In fact, without plot, she doesn’t really have character.

Character and plot, in a conventional narrative, are inseparable. “Character” is nothing more than a person’s reactions to the events of the plot. If a person consistently reacts one way to certain events, we start assigning that person a character. If they react different to events that seem to fit an earlier pattern, we start to look for the exception that justifies it. This is how fans can label an actor’s behavior as “out of character,” even though the fictional person has no existence outside the showrunner’s copy of Final Draft. “Walt would never do that,” the fans scream.

Now this only holds for conventional narratives. Unconventional narratives that throw continuity out the window, like F/X’s Louie, don’t count. But The Killing, for all its pretense otherwise, was trying to be a conventional narrative! Sud structured each episode in beats based on when the commercials aired. She saved her red herring cliffhangers and spooky music cues for the 48-minute mark. That’s as conventional as it gets! To adhere to those aspects of convention and then say that you don’t have to reveal the killer at the end of the season because you’re discarding formula means you don’t know the formula you’re discarding.

There’s nothing that says Linden and Holder needed to solve the murder of Rosie Larsen by episode 13 of season 1. But the audience needed to know. If the final shots of ep13 were of the real killer gloating in an unlit room – revealed to us, but not to the cops – that would have been substantially better. It would have shown evidence of intelligent purpose. But without that, Sud has left us with nothing. No theme, no plot and – as a result – none of those character moments she loved so much.

So that’s where I went wrong. I was right in saying that Sud was playing with audience expectations. But I was wrong when I said that she was doing that in service of a vision. She was doing that to distance herself from an established genre. But distancing yourself from genre isn’t praiseworthy. It’s easy to not make a traditional cop show. Just make a sitcom, or a romantic comedy, or a sci-fi action drama! Making a show that looks like a traditional cop show but isn’t – that takes art.

12 Comments on “The Killing: Death as Denial, Death as Distraction”

  1. Kyu #

    Actually, Law and Order usually did have finales that were different, either because they changed up the format (there was one that had no case at all, for instance), changed up the cast (they got rid of a lot of ADAs in season finales), or tackled a more “important” issue than usual (like investigating the federal government).

    The problem with the Killing wasn’t that they didn’t reveal the killer; it was that the show up until that point was terrible, leaving anyone left watching with only enough goodwill to say, “Alright, I’ll watch these last few episodes just to find out the ending to the stupid story.”

    My theory is that, despite the showrunner’s high-falutin’ ideas about genre and defying expectations, she’s actually just following the original series episode by episode–and since that had a 20-episode season, the remake won’t reveal the killer until 7 episodes into next season.

     
  2. Jamas Enright #

    (Opening note: I haven’t seen The Killing.)

    First of all, all of you (whoever you are) that liked the ending of Lost but are now complaining about the lack of closure in The Killing… ha! suck it! Now you know how we feel! But the Lost failed to close things left right and centre, and often ended on a cliff-hanger that was “a game changer”. (And that’s another show where the writers had no idea what they were doing.)

    However, to stick with murder type shows, what about Millennium? It got cancelled before it even got to the millennium, and we had that really crappy X-Files episode instead.
    Or, more genre related, Profiler (which was Millennium with a gender change lead…) had the on-going serial killer Jack, although wasn’t the focus of every episode, did feature more than once in the season ender. (And the series itself was cancelled on a cliff-hanger.)

    But, you want a series that focused on one murder for the duration of the series and went over multiple seasons? Twin Peaks. Although it went off the rails, it was all about who killed Laura Palmer… and I can’t recall if they ever did give a satisfactory answer…

    As I said, I haven’t seen The Killing… but from reading this, good on Sud for playing it up like that. As long as it can be paid off…

     
    • AJ #

      The problem with Twin Peaks was that as soon as they provided the answer to the Laura Palmer question the show went down the toilet. Which is interesting, because I’ve heard that the showrunners didn’t particularly want to provide the audience with the answer. Ever.

      Maybe they were right.

       
    • Rob #

      It seems a little late to worry about spoilers for Twin Peaks, but here goes: Laura Palmer was molested and then killed by her father, while he was possessed by a spirit named “Bob.” They didn’t make that fully clear until partway through the second season, by which time some people had dropped off, or apparently stopped paying attention even if they did keep watching.

      If The Killing or Twin Peaks are doing something wrong, I don’t ever want them to be right.

       
    • Jsorell #

      Another interesting comparison to Twin Peaks, because a lot of people were comparing the ‘who killed Laura Palmer’ to ‘who killed Rosie Larsen’ but unlike the Killing, Twin Peaks tried to be about more than just one murder, with varying success. It had weaknesses in the second season and had episodes that were both good and bad (specifically episodes 1-9 of Season 2 were actually ok and solved the murder, and the last 5 or so episodes of the series I thought were a good closer) and some of that can be attributed to weak plot point and dumb characters that know one liked, but at least it tried different things in a way that remained consistent. Plot points didn’t leave you screaming, but there were some plots that left you bored.

       
  3. L6 #

    I was pissed at the finale because I thought it betrayed the basic premise of the show. I knew from the pre-pilot promotional articles that it was a remake of a foreign show, one founded on the concept that each season was a self-contained story about a different case. For the American version not to follow that was unexpected and jarring.

     
    • Rob #

      After seeing two fake-out red herrings in the first five minutes of the first episode, and red herrings in every episode pointing to wrong suspects then exonerating them, I don’t understand how anyone could have been unprepared for another fake-out in the season finale.

       
      • L6 #

        Twists, turns, and red herrings are to be expected in mystery shows. A total lack of resolution is not.

         
  4. RedDirt #

    Laura Palmer’s killer was not revealed in the end of the first season.

     
  5. robert #

    The Killing must have been okay if everyone watched it through to the finale. Good on the writers for trying something different and leaving us with a great twist. I will be tuning back in next season.

    Lost didn’t leave anything important unanswered. It never ruined my enjoyment of the finale and I thought it was one of the best show finales ever. Emotional and rewarding due to the island’s new caretakers and the flash sideways.

     
    • Ezra #

      “Lost didn’t leave anything important unanswered.”

      Oh, I agree. It just turned out that the answer to most of the mysteries was “Because it’s magic.”