It is rare for one cable channel to come up with the best two programs on TV at any one time, but AMC seems to have done just that with “The Killing” and “The Walking Dead.” Some might argue that TNT’s “Southland” should replace one of those two, and perhaps, per episode, that’s a good point, but for sheer adult intelligence, “The Killing” and “The Walking Dead” are never, in a given week, worse than numbers two and three.
Today’s subject is “The Killing,” surely the most morose, in-depth examination of a murder investigation in the history of American television. Unlike most American crime dramas, this project, based on a Danish TV series with a world-wide following, delves quite deeply into the effect of one teen’s murder on all concerned – the victim’s family, the detectives investigating the case, and various others, including a Seattle city councilman who’s running for mayor. In other words, the killer isn’t caught before the top of the hour…or the next hour…or the next.
The show’s leads, the detectives on the case, are played by the haunting redhead Mireille Enos and the semi-anonymous Joel Kinnaman. They play, respectively, the haunted, obsessive and severely beautiful Sarah Linden, the lead detective on the case, and Stephen Holder, who looks far more like a long-in-the-tooth skateboarder than a police detective. And to say that these detectives have baggage when the murder of Rosie Larsen lands in their laps is to put it very mildly.
Because of timing, Linden is reduced to living out of hotel rooms with her 13-year-old son while conducting her investigation; Holder, on the other hand, is a recovering drug addict. To say that Linden never smiles is also to put it mildly although there are still photos on IMDb that indicate that Enos can. Holder, who is hanging on to sobriety by his fingernails, rarely smiles, but he does inject a morbid joke or a vaguely Zen-like remark here and there. Linden fends off attempts by an ex to take away her son; Holder induces teens to give him information on the case by offering them what they think is pot (but isn’t, apparently). And because the show is set in Washington State, it never stops raining – although no one carries an umbrella.
However, the show’s strength, character development, overcomes the gloom. Not only are Linden and Holder exquisitely drawn, so are the second rank characters, Rosie’s parents, Stan and Mitch (Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes); the city councilman, Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell); and the councilman’s political operatives, Jamie Wright and Gwen Eaton (Eric Ladin and Kristin Lehman). Character development also overcomes significant plot complications within days of the murder, including but not limited to the interruption of Richmond and Eaton’s love affair by an assassination attempt that leaves the mayoral candidate/falsely implicated suspect paralyzed from the waist down; Stan Larsen’s taking the law into his own hands when he believes one of his daughter’s teachers is the murderer; and Mitch Larsen’s losing her marbles.
The development of the principal characters is not particularly uplifting, but seems true to the obsessive and damaged personalities of both Linden and Holder. The further the show goes on, the more isolated and potentially self-destructive both detectives become. Neither seems to check in with superiors that much – surely a TV lapse, but it feels right – and the more isolated Linder becomes, the more she endangers her hold on her son. Her bosses may not be able to find her, but weirdly, Seattle’s child protection agency is able to track her down. In Holder’s case, in the most recent episodes, he is all too ready to move into the world of Native American casinos (where his badge means nothing), and more or less take a vicious beating he may well be courting as the “bad” (and deservedly punished) partner of the ultimately clean, but somehow inadequate cop Linder and he feels she is. Is he actually courting (their joint) failure, or will they together rise above their flaws? It’s impossible to say.
This is a show that could be called a soap opera, but that probably should be soap opera noir done spookily right. When all’s said and done, it will rank up there with “Homicide: Life on the Streets.”