Review: AMC's 'The Killing' returns, slightly improved, for season 2
The plot is still a mess, but at least the characterization is getting better
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Late in the two-hour season two premiere of "The Killing" (Sunday night at 8 on AMC), the show's heroine, Seattle cop Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) laments several mistakes she's made and says, "I wish I had known the truth."
"The Killing" is not a particularly self-aware or meta show, yet that line fits nicely with the narrative that's been constructed (mainly by people who work on "The Killing") around the way the first season ended. The mystery series had been sold with the tag line "Who killed Rosie Larsen?" and spent an entire season following Linden and partner Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) as they tried to answer that question. When the finale closed with the duo arresting local politician Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) for the crime, followed by Linden realizing that Holder had framed Richmond and the case was no closer to being solved, viewers (this one included) went ballistic.
The way that "Killing" showrunner Veena Sud and various AMC executives have explained the furious reaction is that they failed to manage viewer expectations by not making it more clear the mystery might continue over more than one season. They wished, in retrospect, we had known the truth.
But my problems, and the problems of many "Killing" fans, went much deeper than any kind of impatient desire for answers. To us, "The Killing" had fallen down in so many other areas — in using the extended storytelling time to give us a richer sense of the characters, in finding ways to advance the story that didn't lean on red herring after red herring, and in trying to be anything other than a formulaic police procedural stretched out to a much greater length (but with the formula intact) — that the only reason we were still watching was in the hope that discovering the identity of Rosie's killer wouldn't make the 13 hours we watched feel like such a waste. And not only did the show not provide us that, but it had to play us all for suckers one last time — and seemingly ruin the one genuinely complex, compelling character it had crafted in Holder — before it disappeared for nine-plus months.
I was so angry, in fact, that I swore off the show forever shortly after watching the finale and conducting an interview with Sud in which she seemed oblivious to what I saw as the show's many failings. But months passed, anger took a back seat to professionalism, and I decided to at least give the season two premiere (which, like the season one premiere, is really two episodes grafted together) a shot. I'd seen shows worse than "The Killing" — if not quite as in-your-face with their flaws as this one — get better over time, especially with a long hiatus to ponder what worked and what didn't. I wanted to at least allow for the possibility that even as Sud and AMC insisted that expectations, and not execution, were the problem, they all recognized that there was a lot of work to be done before the show came close to living up to both the hype and the standards set by "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."
And having watched the premiere, I will say this: "The Killing" is better. It's still not anywhere near the ballpark of the earlier AMC shows, and the plot itself remains incredibly frustrating, but there are other aspects that feel closer to the show Sud said she was making last year, rather than the one she actually made.
Specifically, there were a number of moments in the premiere — which covers the two nights and days after Richmond was arrested, then shot by an unstable friend of the Larsen family — where it feels like the show is actually adding depth to the various characters entwined in the investigation.
Richmond's mayoral campaign felt like an enormous waste of time last year, mainly because Richmond was kept deliberately opaque as our prime suspect (if not Linden and Holder's) while his top aides Gwen (Kristin Lehman) and Jamie (Eric Ladin) were open books without many pages in them. As Gwen and Jamie sit in a hospital waiting room, wondering if Richmond — Gwen's lover and Jamie's old friend and revered mentor — will survive, they start to actually come alive as people, and not just cogs in a storytelling machine.
Another bad idea, handled poorly last season: the fiction that Linden was always on the verge of heading to the airport with her son Jack(*) to move to California wine country with her fiancé. It's among the oldest tricks on the crime story book, and one presented with the same solemnity as the rest of "The Killing." (Not that this needs to be a light show, given the subject matter, but the only way you can get away with that tired "just one last case" nonsense today is if you're making fun of it.) The premiere abandons the idea almost instantly, and instead focuses on the emotional impact the case is having on Linden. We were told frequently last year that Linden gets too wrapped up in her investigations —yet another ancient cop show trope, by the way — but this year "The Killing" actually shows it to us, and Enos' performance gives fragile life to the cliché.
(*) Played by Liam James, Jack is part of an unfortunate plague of annoying underage male characters seemingly grafted onto adult dramas without any thought given to him beyond his age and generally pouty demeanor. (See also Leo on "Smash," Tyler on "V," Carl on "The Walking Dead," etc., etc., etc.) It's something of a coincidence that the best episode of the first season was one where Jack was missing for nearly the entire hour, but only partly.
Really, the performances were never the issue last year. Sud and company have assembled a terrific cast, and directors like Agnieszka Holland and Daniel Attias continue to get very strong work out of them. The difference is that the material feels better than last year — or, at least, not as monotonous.
Kinnaman was the real find of the season one cast, and my understanding is that Holder is one of the bigger departures from the characters in "Forbrydelsen," the acclaimed Danish drama that "The Killing" is based on.(**) Where many of the other characters remained ciphers, or were defined by only one emotion, Holder was surprising, and complicated, and charming despite his cockiness and bad manners. Seeing him set up as an apparent villain by the finale disappointed me greatly, and one of the big reliefs of the premiere is finding out that his motivations are much knottier and more understandable. Kinnaman's terrific, and Holder inevitably wakes up what can be a sleepy show whenever he appears.
(**) Sud defended her reliance on red herrings in the first season as something she borrowed from the original. Not having seen "Forbrydelsen," I can't say whether the Danes simply deployed them more elegantly or if I would have been just as annoyed with how they used them. All I know is that their repetitive use here quickly sucked any suspense out of the show, because it became clear if a "Killing" episode ended with an arrow of suspicion pointing brightly at one suspect, that guy didn't do it.
There's also better material involving Brent Sexton as Stan Larsen, the grieving father of our murder victim. On the other hand, the show continues to struggle to make Rosie herself matter as anything but an excuse to get the story going.
And it's with the story that I remain terribly wary of "The Killing."
Having strongly implied Richmond's guilt in the season's final episodes(***) before pulling the rug out from under the audience yet again, the show moves onto another tried-and-true method for stalling: the conspiracy theory. Without going into the details of who might have wanted Richmond framed, why, and how they continue to interfere with the case, it's about as obnoxious as the red herrings became. Maybe the show won't always be reversing direction in the exact same way it did last season, but it'll keep on doing it until the finale, since Sud has said we won't find out who killed Rosie until then.
(***) There was even one scene at the start of the finale — an ominous confrontation between Linden and Richmond where he was practically photographed to look like Hannibal Lecter — that was only going to be acceptable if he turned out to be the killer. Oh, well.
On the one hand, Sud was pretty much boxed into making such a public declaration. So many people were angry about the finale's non-resolution, and even if many of us had a longer list of grievances, the whole "When are we going to find out who killed her?" dialogue was going to strangle the show. Whatever other improvements were being made, expectations did have to be managed, and they couldn't just leave that issue hanging out there.
On the other, when you go in knowing that, it makes the plot even more irrelevant. When you couple the schedule with the show's weirdly linear, one-suspect-at-a-time approach, it means that any information revealed in the first half to two-thirds of this season is going to be largely irrelevant.
And yet, that knowledge, plus my growing disappointment with the show as the first season went along, helped recalibrate my expectations in a good way. Not only do I know not to care about the investigation, but the bar for the show is now so incredibly low that it didn't take much for the season two premiere to clear it. The performances are still good, and now the characterization is a bit better. When you add that to the fine atmosphere (even if the frequent downpours seem comical even for a show set in Seattle) and you view the mystery itself as a kind of necessary evil that allows you to see the parts of the show that do work, then it's not bad. It's not great like AMC conditioned us to anticipate with its first two shows. It may not even be good yet. (And is certainly not good enough to return to the weekly blog rotation.)
But it's better. It doesn't quite live up to a promise made to Linden by a superior that "I think you're going to find things are quite different around here from now on," but it's better. And after my rage over the season one finale, that's something.