There are plenty of obsessive detectives, corrupt politicians, grisly murders, and freshly lit cigarettes—tobacco and otherwise—on The Killing, AMC’s excellent, if still somewhat unreadable, new mystery series, but I would hesitate to label the show “noir.” With skies that are heavy with rainclouds rather than crisp blackness, interior shots that are more overcast than shadowy, and homicide cops sporting parkas rather than fedoras and flannel suits, The Killing, an opaque ensemble drama set in the sopping-wet Pacific Northwest, might be better described as something like a “film gris.” By the end of the first episode, in which violence descends rapidly and randomly on a cluster of unsuspecting Seattlites, the clouds that blanket the city seem to carry as much menace as they do rain.
The show, which is an adaptation of a popular Danish serial of the same name, moves slowly, each episode representing the events of a single day in one hell of a long fortnight, as it follows the increasingly intertwined lives of three groups of people. In descending order of interest: an odd couple of Seattle homicide detectives investigating the murder of a teenager named Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay), Larsen’s grieving working-class family, and the campaign staff of a slick-but-principled mayoral candidate with—you guessed it—a mysterious past. These are well-worn figures and scenarios, but part of the pleasure of watching this show lies in tracking the ways it subverts, critiques, and occasionally transcends the generic markers it so energetically employs.
As the show begins, for instance, our protagonist, Det. Sarah Linden (played with quiet authority and grit by Mireille Enos) is packing up for her last day on the job before moving to California with her fiancé. (Linden is transferring, not retiring, so we never get to hear her say she’s too old for this shit.) She’s a tough, physically small single mother (her parka looks two sizes too big) surrounded by policemen who could all work as freelance lumberjacks, and so it’s tempting, at first, to read The Killing as a feminist parable along the lines of The Silence of the Lambs. But as the show unfolds, Linden’s gender becomes part of a narrative architecture more complicated than a glass ceiling. As an audience, we are trained to want Linden to bust into the boys club, but she seems ambivalent at best about such a project. Is The Killing trying to tell a post-feminist tale of a confident, seasoned Clarice Starling after 10 years on the job, or will it use the to-wed-or-not-to-wed subplot that stalks the first few episodes to tell us something else? In any case, Linden’s seeming indifference to the traditional plots of female empowerment provides a compelling beginning to the series.
Linden’s main feature is competence—the fierce, unrelenting, almost preternatural professionalism that is the heart of any good procedural. As such, she stands in stark contrast to her partner, Stephen Holder (played with a weasel’s touch by Joel Kinnaman), a slimy, streetwise detective transferred from Narcotics to replace her after her move to California. Their interactions provide a window into the show’s complicated gender and genre politics. As Holder tries to sexually entrap suspects, faux-chivalrously promises Larsen’s grieving parents that he’ll find the murderer, and otherwise behaves as though he learned how to be a policeman from watching episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, the show alerts us to a substantive disconnect between the two detectives.
Playing directly out of a familiar generic handbook, Holder’s mythologization of the flash and gallantry of homicide police work is made to look naïve and foolish. Linden’s investment so far, however, is not in the content of the case (the missing daughter, the dodgy corrupt politician, the possibility of righting a grievous wrong), but in its form. In the steely looks that Linden shoots her partner, we detect a moral outrage, not about the crimes she investigates, but about the travesties her partner wreaks on the investigations themselves.
In contrast to this kind of professional detachment, The Killing also dramatizes the impact of Rosie Larsen’s murder on her parents. There are obviously secrets buried in the armoires of this pleasantly married couple, played by Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton, but for the first few episodes, what is remarkable about this subplot is not the quality of their grief, but the realism and believability of their relationship. So far, their mourning for their daughter is nothing we haven’t seen, sometimes shot for shot, in Mystic River or Twin Peaks, but the dog-eared chemistry between these two actors, as well as the rich mise-en-scène of their blue-collar lives (colliding, in one particularly great sequence, with the obscene, plate-glass wealth of Rosie’s ex-boyfriend), promises that these characters will bring a real measure of emotion and an invaluable injection of class politics to the proceedings.
The final plot about the Seattle mayoral race and the possibility that Larsen’s murderer was somehow involved with the campaign is considerably less engaging. This is, in part, because, as the series begins, these characters only seem linked to the Larsen murder through plot contrivance. The texture of the political world here is evoked with considerably less care and intelligence than either that of the homicide cops or the grieving family: Corner-office views and pious declarations that the campaign won’t use Larsen’s death for “political gain” bluntly signify just how heavy the head is that wears the crown in this show. There’s room for development here, but watching these scenes, especially Billy Campbell’s bland mayoral candidate, it’s hard not to long for Aidan Gillen’s gloriously corrupt, romantically ambitious mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti from The Wire. Some references on The Killing unfortunately just don’t hold up to the originals.
It’s obvious from even the first two episodes of The Killing that its creators are well versed in the canon of contemporary serial television. In addition to the political candidate, the show’s urban specificity, sociological scope, and general interest in the contours of power will also remind viewers of The Wire. Linden, for example, seems like a pretty convincing hybrid of Amy Ryan’s security-guard-turned-detective Beadie Russell and the immortal—and also preternaturally competent—Jimmy McNulty from that show. And the Pacific Northwestern murder mystery catalyzed by the disappearance of an all-American girl next door works as a slyly audacious nod to David Lynch’s aforementioned masterpiece. The electronic swells on the soundtrack are borrowed from the film and TV work of Michael Mann, and I’ve counted at least two character actors pulled from the cast of Battlestar Galactica. But it’s one of the show’s many strengths that, rather than resisting these intertexts, it freely appropriates them.
Another obvious doppelganger, though a strange one, is AMC’s recent political thriller Rubicon. That show, which also moved slowly through an unfolding mystery only to confound audience expectations at each turn, was not renewed at season’s end. There are differences between these shows: The Killing’s structuring question, “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” is posted on every ad for the show, while Rubicon’s question was a kind of default “What the hell is going on?” But the fact that AMC is putting more money behind another dense, ruminative, and pessimistic procedural series should give us hope for the future quality of that network, even in context of its current ugly battle with Matthew Weiner over Mad Men. At the very least, The Killing allows us to imagine that AMC is committed to creating programming that requires patience from its audience.
The Killing is both new and old, on-trend and deeply unfashionable. But, throughout the first couple of episodes, we watch as the show masterfully transforms its anxiety of influence into a propulsive anxiety. In other words, a large part of its suspense is generated through the careful management of expectation. The Killing’s allusiveness, its play with cliché, and employment of television archetypes work to set up a series of false solutions, bad leads, and conventional speculations that it then systematically overturns. Is there something secretly sinister about Larson’s hulking father, or something less than perfect about his idealized marriage? Could the too-good-to-be-true politician be capable of concealing evidence about a murder for political gain? Does Seattle’s newest homicide detective identify maybe a little too strongly with the perps he’s chasing after? The counterintuitive thrill of this show lies in the hope that the answer to all of these questions is “no.” It’s a hard order to fill, but this show seems genuinely invested in crafting a mystery that is not easily solved, an ending that no amount of Law and Order can train us to expect. The promise of The Killing—and one that we should all hope that it delivers—is that it will lead us down innumerable wrong paths, only, eventually, to blindside us with the truth.