If there’s one thing that can be said about keeping up with The Killing these past two years, it’s that it has been a very, very strange ride. In the days leading up to its 2011 debut, the expectations were high and the anticipation widespread. This was, after all, AMC’s newest offering to the world; a network that had already brought us two television juggernauts and a couple of follow ups that weren’t too shabby in their own right. The show had an amazing pilot, earned itself a substantial amount of early critical acclaim, and seemed, at least initially, destined to be yet another addition to the upper echelon of television works.
But then things began to fall apart. The show’s plot became increasingly convoluted, its twists and turns increasingly unbelievable, its characters’ actions increasingly erratic. Before you knew it, the show that had started out as a promising exploration of the ripple effects of a murder had transformed into a cartoonish, surface level, and seemingly never-ending whodunit, and by the time its finale rolled around, things had gone so far off the rails it was laughable. You all know the rest of the story. The outcry over the finale. The fallout. The fans and critics’ crucifixion of series creator Veena Sud. I myself, as I’ve stated before, was not up in arms over the decision to keep the identity of Rosie Larsen’s killer a secret. But because of all its other flaws, I, like many others, had written off the show. The idea that it could somehow be salvaged seemed impossible.
But The Killing eventually had to come back. And despite everything that had gone wrong throughout the show’s first season, a small part of me wanted to see if the show could do better – if it could learn from its mistakes, regroup, and turn into something worthwhile. Because even in where it had left off, at its very worst, there was something there, deep within its core, that was undeniable; a small greatness that separated it from the wealth of outright failures littered throughout the television landscape. And you know what? When The Killing did return, it had gotten a whole lot better.
More than anything else, that core potential landed squarely on the show’s two leads, Linden and Holder, and both were very strong this year. They’re the reason to watch the show even when it’s failing to operate at a high level. But thankfully, the show, more often than not this year, succeeded in many other respects. It regained its focus, retained its strong sense of atmosphere, and treated us to a great deal of standout moments that ratcheted up the tension and gave the show a sense of urgency. Things have fallen off a bit as we’ve neared the finale, particularly in the last couple of episodes, and the show has reverted back to its old tendencies frequently enough in its last quarter to raise some red flags as to whether or not it could pull this two part finale off. Again, it’s been a strange ride, and this season has been a constant tug of war between overcoming the failures of the past, blazing past them completely, and then, disappointingly, returning to them.
In fact, a perfect example of this overarching tug of war presents itself in the finale’s two halves, “Donnie or Marie” and “What I Know.” The first half represents a full serving of the show’s worst tendencies – it’s strangely paced, devoid of any real meaningful character moments (save for one between Linden and Holder), and it handles its plot with the same emphasis on twists and turns that got the show in trouble in the first place. The “Donnie or Marie” of the episode’s title turns out to be Gwen and Jamie, and while it’s a blessing the show didn’t choose to revert the investigation back toward Darren Richmond, the entire hour amounts to the writers constantly pinning the murder back and forth between the two characters, and then eventually, to the both of them together. But that’s not even the worst offender here – how goofy was the plot revelation that Nicole Jackson breaks all of her girlfriend’s arms when she’s angry? Come on, The Killing, you can do better than that.
Despite these missteps, The Killing handles its moment of truth in the second half fairly well. It’s not the type of conclusion that inspires a sense of all being forgiven, but it’s a far cry from the answers we’ve been given before. It’s believable, it’s not a sleight of hand, and at the end of the day, our two perpetrators have reasons behind their actions that have been there since the show’s beginnings. Jamie brutally beat Rosie Larsen because she was a threat to the campaign and because he panicked, and Terry finished the job in service of chasing a better life. Jamie feeds off success in the world of politics, he’s always been like that. And Terry has always been a character hopelessly alone, using the Larsens as a means to obtaining familial connection because she, hovering around middle age, doesn’t have one of her own. I can live with this resolution. It’s not a stunning one, but it’s not a terrible one either.
Then again, the mystery was never the reason, in my eyes, to watch the show. When The Killing delved deeper into its characters, it became worthwhile. Think back to season one’s “Missing,” or all of the pivotal character moments strewn throughout the show this year. Linden’s relationship with her son Jack, her relationship with Holder, Mitch’s time on the road, or Stan’s attempts to keep what’s left of his family together. These scenes were helped in large part because of the substantial acting skill of all of The Killing’s leads, but no matter what you think of the writing as a whole, there’s a lot of strength in between the blunders. “What I Know” features a cold open that does a lot to support this – a scene between a very alive Rosie and Mitch as the family prepares to leave for their camping trip. Seeing Rosie alive and well for the first time in the entirety of the show is a big moment, one that sheds light on her character and says a lot about how much more of a connection we would have had with her if scenes such as this had been interspersed throughout the two seasons.
We’re also treated to another big scene involving Rosie at the end of “What I Know,” and more than anywhere else in the episode, this is the moment that suggests the show is operating on a much higher level when it’s concerned with its characters as opposed to its mystery. A film Rosie created is recovered from Jamie’s home. Linden drops it off at the Larsen house. The family sits down to watch it. It turns out to be Rosie’s final goodbye. The show cuts between this and the Larsen families’ silent acceptance – an exchange of farewells that is a more poignant and satisfying closure than anyone could have possibly imagined the show capable of.
So at the end of all of this, what are we left with? The Killing was frustrating, ham-fisted, and riddled with plot inconsistences. But it was also well-acted, atmospheric, and every so often, powerful. There’s something to the anger and outright hatred towards the show that runs deeper than a lack of resolution or an unsatisfying one. The vitriol, I think, comes from another place entirely. The Killing is not a bad show. Bad shows have little to no outstanding qualities. And it’s not mediocre. Mediocre shows have strengths but are either too forgettable or too flawed to ultimately be worthwhile. No, The Killing is neither a bad show nor a mediocre one, it’s an occasionally great one that only seems to fully hit its mark about fifty percent of the time, and that, more than anything else, is likely the culprit behind all of the anger hurled its way. It’s that tug of war – that back and forth between the show’s outstanding chapters and its subpar ones. This year, it almost made a full transition. If it gets another chance, let’s hope it manages to take full advantage of it.
Season grade: B-