'The Killing,' tense and gripping, back for year 2
NEW YORK—When "The Killing" returns for its second season on Sunday, it will arrive with just a fraction of the hoopla and hysteria that greeted another AMC show, "Mad Men," the week before.
But that's not to say "The Killing" won't be received with great interest, particularly by wild-eyed fans of its first season who still are seething over how, in their minds, it did them wrong.
Maybe you recall how, last June, this heavyhearted whodunit went to black after 13 episodes spent probing the murder of Seattle teen Rosie Larsen without revealing whodunit -- while, on the contrary, casting last-minute doubt on the guilt of the accused suspect, mayoral candidate Darren Richmond, just before he apparently fell victim to a vengeance-seeking gunman.
Along with the viewers crying foul, many critics were not amused by the season's lack of closure.
New York magazine's Andy Greenwald railed that the "jaw-droppingly horrible" finale "spat in the face of convention, logic and the audience."
Time magazine's James Poniewozik exploded, "I no longer counsel patience with `The Killing'! You may unlock the toolshed and get the pitchforks!"
Alan Sepinwall of the website HitFix seemed to invoke Richard Nixon from a half-century ago ("You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference") when he wrote, "I've been lied to by this show for the last time," adding he would never again watch it or review it. (As with Nixon before him, Sepinwall apparently has softened his stance.)
Just this month, a New York Times Sunday Magazine story on Veena Sud, the series' beleaguered creator-executive producer, put heavy stakes on the season premiere, which, declared writer Adam Sternbergh, "should reveal whether `The Killing' can stagger back to life."
Well, AMC Networks Inc. recently sent critics a preview of the two-hour season premiere (which airs Sunday at 8 p.m. EDT) and, in my view, it seems no worse for wear and all the back-biting. Sure-footedly, this episode resumes its mystery as it tracks the spreading scope of what appears less and less to be a simple human tragedy.
"The Killing" began last April as a grisly murder case investigated by pint-sized, glowering Homicide Detective Sarah Linden (series star Mireille Enos) and her gangly, skeezy partner Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman).
But pretty quickly Rosie's death up-ended the mayoral race as Richmond, the Seattle City Council president (played by Billy Campbell), was swept up by the crime. Meanwhile, the aftershocks of the murder on Rosie's parents (Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton) and two young brothers emerged as the third narrative strand.
Nearly every character but Linden was conceivably the killer. Even now, AMC's website displays more than two dozen potential suspects.
So who killed Rosie Larsen? I have no idea.
Don't get me wrong -- the question is of more than passing concern to me as a loyal viewer of the show. But, for me, the bigger mystery of "The Killing" is why its detractors got so hot and bothered when the perp wasn't nailed.
The Larsen murder investigation is the dramatic through-line. But I think "The Killing" is more pointedly a study of grief. It charts the spiraling trauma inflicted on a family, then a community, by a single violent act; the effect of an unfathomable death on the living. From the candidate's aides to a high school teacher to Sarah's son, neglected as his mom plunges into the case, there is no one who isn't in escalating pain. And the pain seems inevitably heading, step by anxious step, to a collective breakdown.
Revealing who killed Rosie (a disclosure the producers have promised for the end of Season 2 -- no, really!) will satisfy the audience's curiosity. Or maybe not.
But I think the show's real message, and power, lies in the likelihood that solving the crime will solve practically nothing. Long before then, the damage -- a great deal of it -- will be done, and be beyond repair, for its broad swath of victims.
This is a theme "The Killing" has dramatized better, perhaps, than any series that came before. TV mostly treats death as a convenient plot point and source of motivation. The emotional cost is given short shrift. But not with "The Killing," which immerses the viewer in Rosie's drowning death and its rippling consequences. It's melodrama, but with an authentic edge.
And the excellent cast is equal to the challenge of putting it across -- especially the superb Kinnaman, whose squirrelly, oddly endearing Detective Holder gives "The Killing" its welcome sparks of comic relief.
Looking at the show from this perspective, I never understood what the fuss was about over last June's finale. Yes, it left viewers dangling. But a certain measure of the audience saw this as more than a cliffhanger, taking it instead as a personal affront. As a result, Sud was pilloried for breaking a promise she never made. Before the series' premiere, she told me that her creative team had explored how the case should "organically" end. "So, whether it's this season or the next, or after that, remains to be seen."
Naysayers were having nothing of it.
In one extreme example, The New York Times' Ginia Bellafante saw closure in the finale where almost no one else did, but then blasted it as a "tenuous resolution."
Then, dismissing the fact that Rosie Larsen's murder isn't a real-life mystery subject to independent confirmation, but a make-believe yarn whose twists and turns are the province of its authors, Bellafante mounted her own exhaustive argument for why Darren Richmond was all but .0009 percent guaranteed to be the doer -- never mind that the show's creators seemed decisively stepping away from that theory.
Alas for all of us critics, fans, bloggers and tweeters: Even in the age of interactive media, artists aren't obliged to heed their audience, or even take our feelings into account.
I don't know if Veena Sud has made any changes in response to the uproar with which "The Killing" exited last season, or to complaints about how the mystery unfolded. (Right now, she's not talking.)
What I do know: The investigation is ongoing while losses mount, it's still raining, and I'm still hooked on the show.