There are two kinds of murder-mystery archetypes—one where everyone is a suspect and one that explores the world in which such an act could take place. The Killing, which finished its two-season slog to completion Sunday night, failed for many reasons. But its inability to figure out to which archetype it belonged was the seed of all its problems.
The Killing roped people in with a hypnotic and powerful pilot and kept people with the promise of resolution—apparently something viewers still find attractive in itself in a post-Lost world. The Killing intrigued with its initial mystery and its presentation. Those who managed to stick around through two seasons did so for the faint promise of resolution, even when the first season starting going off track.
That point came early. Halfway through season one, showrunner Veena Sud broke with the plot of the original Danish version and changed the identity of the killer. It was the US version's first big narrative misstep. It wasn't easy, after Sud didn't provide resolution at the end of the first season—a true sucker punch in the worst fashion—to stick with the show for a second round. And yet we spent another 13 hours of our lives on it because we wanted to know where it was going and because it had become a fascinating study in what a lack of vision can mean for a show, especially a murder-mystery.
For most of its run, The Killing tried to inhabit the world where the crime could have happened; this is the only explanation for why we got so much time with Linden and her son, why we followed Mitch on her walkabout this season and why we were asked to care about Stan and his attempt to better his family's life. This kind of approach puts the victim on the backburner. We care about finding the killer because we like the cop and want them to succeed and like the family and want them to have peace.
But The Killing could never make any of this material meaningful for the investigation. It was all time spent away from the case and therefore time wasted. An entire episode during season one consisted of Linden and Holder driving around, looking for her son. It was a perfect example of the show's inability to make the characters' progressions carry any real meaning. Similarly meaningless was when Linden was put on a psychiatric hold this season. Her conversation with the shrink about the previous case that had obsessed her is the kind of thing that would have meaning in a show more directly about her and the journey she takes to find the killer; in that show, the previous case or her experience as a mother would have given her insight not available to another cop. The Killing couldn't deliver that.
It failed as this kind of show because it was never close enough to Linden's crime-solving techniques to be about the process of solving the murder. In two seasons, it didn't even take the opportunity to fully explore how the community it depicted reacted to the event. Instead, it asked us to be interested in its characters because they were all suspects. In other ways, this is the show that The Killing wanted to be—it wanted to be as paranoid as Linden and Holder, especially in its second season. Little touches like their ex-boss Doakes narcing on them and the growing suspicion that Rosie's murder "went all the way to the top" reinforced the notion that Rosie's death was part of something all-encompassing. And this might have worked if the show had given us reason to care about Rosie at some point during its run. The finale's novel idea was to flashback and show Rosie alive, to make her more than just an idea hanging over the action. But it all came way too late.
The sloppiness of trying to manage both approaches to murder-mysteries is what ultimately dragged the story down. When Darren Richmond was no longer a suspect this season, we knew that his camp was still important to the plot because the show had invested so much in making us care about who the killer was and couldn't make the lives of characters meaningful enough. But making the characters work only in service of the plot meant that they stopped working as real people; the show was eventually forced to kill Rosie twice in service of this dilemma: Jamie killed her first to make all the time spent on the political stuff worthwhile and Terry killed her second to make all the family material worthwhile.
And even then, the show made no sense: Terry takes action because Jamie's plan to go south means Ames won't leave his wife. There's no world in which this is any kind of viable character motivation. In the season's penultimate episode, Jamie's grandfather appeared out of nowhere to tell Darren that Jamie had lied about his alibi but, of course, there's no reason why Ted would bring that up, or that he even needed to see Darren at all. It's all part of keeping the pieces they set in motion important not just to the world of the show but to the case specifically.
The Killing failed totally and completely. It failed to have characters who behave like real humans, and it failed to compel us to care about them in any capacity other than furthering the plot. Ideally, the show would have committed to being one kind of murder-mystery at the outset, and one thing that would have helped is knowing who killed Rosie from the beginning, as opposed to seemingly changing course mid-stream. The show's failure continued right into its final moments—neither the series' final resolution nor its delivery could provide even a shred of catharsis. For me, there was only relief. Relief that I wouldn't have to force myself through another episode just to find out who killed Rosie Larsen and relief that I could stop asking myself why I even cared.
Photo by Carole Segal/AMC