Who killed Rosie Larsen? This is the question that drives The Killing and its protagonist, Detective Sarah Linden (Mirieille Enos). Her new partner, ex-undercover Narc Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), is assigned to the case, while she is tasked with overseeing the transition before she leaves to marry and settle down. But such a case, with such a brutal murder and so many suspects, including her teacher, ex-boyfriend and a local political hero, draws Linden so far in that she can’t leave.
AMC’s US remake of the Danish show Forbrydelsen (by Soren Svelstrop) always had the odds stacked against it. Linden’s dedication and calculated police work is a major part of what keeps this series above water – a few moments throughout the series show exactly what she, and the writers, are capable of. In one, she interrogates a meth-addicted teenager, accused of rape and murder, with a video of the victim paused on her still-smiling face over her shoulder. In another, she lets her partner distract a helpful blind lady while she sneaks into her house to search for a suspect. Sarah’s resolve, and Enos’ subtle strength in portraying her, is exactly what a good cop drama needs: no sunglasses, no sudden moments of clarity, just a tough, quiet policeman going about their work.
Partnered with a loudmouth, street-smart new guy, The Killing looked set to dazzle and intrigue. The difficulty with the series, though, is its lack of restraint in most other areas. Almost every character comes and goes packed with all the stereotypes you’d expect from a dark American thriller. No one is who they say they are, which leads to multiple counts of cliche that are promptly charged with ridicule.
What started as the chilling murder of a young girl ends with the involvement of the Polish mob, a multi-millionaire and a ring of prostitutes operating out of a casino – wait for it – built on Indian burial grounds. Other than Linden and Holder, nothing is as simple as it seems; the writers don’t seem to realise what a good thing they have with their sturdy heroine, so they add some unnecessary twists to keep the ratings up. Characters who have little reason to keep secrets are suddenly unearthing major, obvious clues in the later episodes, while suspects who seem perfect for the crime are discarded the moment their alibi checks out. The murdered girl finishes the series with enough stalkers that it’s shocking no one abducted her sooner. It’s the opposite of believable or grounded.
On the plus side, the series is regularly beautiful. Shot in Seattle, the rain, bright lights and scenery give the crew ample chance to shoot long-range, sweeping footage of the bereaved parents and the suspects in a light which brings back some of their importance and humanity – particularly when it involves someone in anguish, whether it be Sarah, whose son is acting out due to her lack of attention, Rose Larsen’s parents, surveying their ruined home, or a struggling suspect, confused and terrified by the accusations. Like Linden herself, the cinematography of The Killing is always capable and very often spectacular.
Creating a truly original police drama, especially an American one, is no easy feat; there’s more of them out there than most genres. The Killing does well by creating a character such as Linden, who is frequently excellent to watch, but that does not mean that the realism can be so lax elsewhere. A subtle protagonist requires the plot to be equally understated.