Yet another series devoted to brilliantly tormented master killers and the correspondingly brilliantly tormented master investigators pursuing them, Those Who Kill emits a sickening charge. Based on the Danish crime series of the same name, the show’s explicitly cognizant of the reasons that audiences are drawn to serial-killer fiction: namely, the weird catharsis of watching one’s worst social nightmares realized, and, deeper and less healthily, the perverse wish-fulfillment angle inherent in the story of a bad guy who operates as a symbolic rock star. Driven mad by the frustrations that stymie normal Americans on a daily basis, the fictional serial killer takes his perception of justice in his own hands, often deriving some queasy sexual release from the proceedings. Stopping him are the good guys, who are equally estranged from society, but who sate their power-mad fantasies from the opposite end of the law.
Laughably unoriginal, the greatest novelty of creator Glen Morgan’s series is that his predictably troubled detective is a woman rather than the usual thirtysomething white dude with three-day stubble and a morning hankering for bourbon. Otherwise, Catherine Jensen (Chloë Sevigny) has been invested with all the tell-tale signs of a fictional hero who knows of a madness that few of her hopelessly bureaucratic peers could ever hope to understand. She has an elaborate personal history with a killer that will be presumably parceled out over the course of the series; she’s a masochist, whom we see cutting herself in the mirror with a razor blade; and, of course, she chafes at protocol that always threatens to impede her abilities to bring killers to justice.
Because all investigators this obsessive require a partner to remind them, and us, how precariously close they reside to the razor’s edge of insanity, the show’s writers align Jensen with forensic psychologist Thomas Schaeffer (James D’Arcy). First seen lecturing his students on the eating habits of Jeffrey Dahmer, Schaeffer is unsurprisingly blessed with the perverse ability to directly empathize with killers, and is even less surprisingly revealed to already be on the outs with Jensen’s precinct as a result of his own rogue methods of detection.
Jensen and Schaeffer’s first assignment involves the hunt for a killer who folds women’s arms across their chest before murdering them. There’s no apparent motivation behind the crimes at first, which aren’t even initially recognized by law enforcement as the work of a serial killer, because, lest we need reminding once again, no one else is as brilliant, or as troubled, as Jensen and Schaeffer. The victims are of varying ages and reside at various levels of America’s unofficial caste system, but Schaeffer eventually uncovers a ghastly modus operandi that obligatorily parallels the tragedies of Jensen’s past.
Morgan, a talented TV veteran, knows that we’ve seen all of this too many times before to count, and so he attempts to compensate for the show’s lack of novelty by jacking up its psychological sadism. The on-screen atrocities are nowhere near as gory as the set pieces in Hannibal, but there’s an intensely heightened degree of nihilism that’s effective and off-putting in roughly equal measure. The pilot, directed by filmmaker and series executive producer Joe Carnahan, himself a specialist in nihilistic decay, conveys an overwhelming feeling of moral hopelessness, reminiscent of David Fincher’s overrated Seven, that inadvertently validates the killer’s actions as being essentially the only reprise available to a social bottom-feeder stuck in an undesirable station in life. The killer’s contempt for women is the show’s strongest emotion, while the victims are reduced to the usual quivering masses of understandably terrified flesh. This dehumanization, which is the single most disgusting facet of the serial-killer-as-social-hero fetish that still plagues our pop culture, is insidiously reaffirmed by the fact that Jensen is herself a former victim who’s now given to a form of vigilantism that resembles a serial killer’s.
As horrible, and beautiful, as its images can be, Hannibal never invites this sort of disassociation from the victims, and it doesn’t justify its atrocities with the kind of shallow pop psychology that’s regularly on hand in Those Who Kill. Hannibal is ultimately weirdly affirming because it shows us characters who’re struggling to retain their humanity despite the strongest and most hopeless of metaphorical circumstances. The ciphers of Those Who Kill, though, appear to have lost that battle years ago, and so all we see is the sadistic aftermath of a discarded internal drama.