Friday, October 17, 2014

The Killing

The Killing is a show I've had on my mind for awhile, but I didn't want to give my final verdict until finishing it. With the fourth and final season complete, I feel like I can finally vent the things that have been rumbling around in my mind for the past few weeks.

First, the short, spoiler-free version: I overall enjoyed the show. It has some serious high points and serious low points that balance each other out, and I think the net result is a very interesting show that's worth sitting through once. Moreover, the things that I didn't like may be entirely subjective, so if they don't bother you, you'll probably walk away with an even better impression of the show overall.

It's also a pretty quick watch - by the time I thought to check how far along we were I realized we were halfway through the 3rd season - so it's an easy show to throw on and get through in a week or two. And it also has the virtue of actually having a conclusion instead of being cancelled or having a hasty ending (though the 4th season does feel kind of abbreviated.)

As usual, more in depth and spoiler ridden thoughts after the break. Fair warning: I'm probably going to spoil the big reveals for seasons 3 and 4 during my ranting, so if you have any interest in watching the show, I'd recommend holding off until you've experienced it yourself.

Let me say it again, with more emphasis: The Killing is one of the most wildly inconsistent shows I've watched in a long time. Rarely has a show had such great, well executed moments that are immediately followed by forehead slappingly silly turns. This show gave me mental whiplash.

One of the things that initially turned me off to the show was how long the first case takes to resolve. Seasons 1 and 2 both revolve around the same murder, which ends up being a lot of time spent on one case.

On one hand, I appreciate the slow burn. Having two seasons worth of episodes to work with gives the show a lot of time to flesh out the characters and really make you feel like your in the middle of a big, confusing, twisting case that sometimes feels impossible to solve.

These two seasons also showcase one of the consistently great aspects of The Killing: conveyance of mood via character strife. All of the characters have some serious issues (some more pertinent to the case than others) and the show does a great job of pulling you into their individual emotional hells.

On the other hand, while having two seasons was great for the characters, it felt like it hurt the overall pace of the plot. Much of the first season feels like it's the detectives - Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) - spinning their wheels and chasing false leads. While that may accurately portray a criminal investigation it doesn't make for the most satisfying television. I almost feel like they could have cut out a chunk of the runaround and made one killer season (har har) though you'd probably lose some character development in the process.

Overall though the first two seasons were very satisfying. The character moments are pretty great, the writing is solid, and the ending stinger is absolutely fantastic. Even in hindsight, I enjoyed those two seasons quite a bit.

Seasons three and four are where the wheels come off a bit, in different ways.

I absolutely loved 95% of the season 3. Everything was on point: the writing was excellent, the characterization was great, the world it pulled you into was shocking, depressing, and harrowing, and the primary crime being investigated was very compelling. Bonus points for having Elias Koteas (a personal favorite "that guy" actor) show up as the leader of the investigation, James Skinner.

The investigation has several twists, turns, and dead ends, but the pacing helps to keep those moments from feeling like derailments (as they sometimes did in seasons 1 and 2,) and even the dead ends usually bring something back to the investigation. Peter Sarsgaard gives this season it's "side story" character, Ray Seward, who lets the writers take a step away from the investigation while still feeling connected.

Season 3 also houses some of the best character work of the series. Holder and Linden are given new challenges and roles to define them, while elements from both of their pasts come up that give their backgrounds more depth. And the secondary characters are much, much more interesting than I ever thought they'd be - the wayward youth Bullet (played by Bex Taylor-Klaus) ended up being a favorite, when she just as easily could have been irritating or flat.

Everything in season 3 is awesome. Right up until the last couple of episodes.

It is not uncommon for an otherwise enjoyable story to have an unsatisfying ending. Sometimes a story builds itself up so much that the ending can't help but be a bit of a letdown. And sometimes, as seems to be the case with The Killing, the writers shit the bed at the last minute with a twist that doesn't make any goddamn sense.

In the last few episodes of the season, the killer's identity is revealed: it was James Skinner all along! Turns out that way back yonder, he went out to pick up one of the many homeless young women in Seattle to take her someplace (I think to her parole enforced job, but I can't remember the details.) She gave him lip, which caused him to snap and hit her.

With the horrible realization that he couldn't let her go (she'd ruin his career) he killed her and dumped her body.

This, in the most natural and logical turn of events possible, led to him becoming a serial killer of that same kind of young woman. He would pick out a girl, pick her up under the pretense of police business, then kill them and dump their bodies in one of several spots. I seem to also remember that the killer raped/molested some of the victims, but I can't be sure, so lets assume not to dial the crazy back a bit.

Before I rant, I do want to say that I feel like I understand where the writers were coming from here. The season needs a big reveal for the killer and with the way TV works you can't really have some guy come in out of nowhere being the killer. It can be very difficult to have that kind of reveal carry weight, so it's easier if it's someone you've already spent some time with that just also happens to be a serial killer.

For me, at least, this twist was absurd. It felt extremely unearned and made-up-on-the-spot. The show doesn't really foreshadow Skinner being the killer. It drops a few key clues in the episode or two leading up to the reveal, then pops the twist. That isn't foreshadowing or plotting; it's making stuff up as you go along. The big twist at the end rings extremely false because there is very little to support it, and the reason they come up with to support it doesn't make any damn sense.

More mindbending is the fact that at one point we are shown another person (a parole officer, I think) using their position of power to abuse runaway teens. This moment happens partway through the season, and it feels like a really important event in terms of the "big picture" story. It creates a few fallout moments for some of the side characters, but it feels like way more than that when it happens.

It could just be there to show us how used and abused these teens are, but 1) the show already does a fantastic job of showing us that with all the other terrible things that happen to them, and 2) if that's the case, why the hell make the perpetrator into a red herring? It's a particularly frustrating bit of misdirection because the viewer is the only one who experiences it - Holder and Linden never interact with either the perpetrator or the victim - which makes it feel like an original plot course that was changed at some point.

This frustrating twist at least has some payoff - and also probable cause as to why they chose it: Linden's history with Skinner (they were formerly lovers, and the show very heavily implies that they've harbored feelings for each other over the years) forces her to confront the horror of the man she loved turning out to be a monster. Her reactions are fantastic (in terms of effect) and Enos sells the hell out of her revulsion, bewilderment, and rage.

I also have to concede that while the twist rings incredibly false with me, Koteas kills it (har har) with his performance post-reveal. He's an excellent pick to play a chilling, detached, oddly sincere serial killer, and I'm sure I would have disliked the "big twist" much more with a less effective actor in that role. As is often the case with The Killing, strong performances keep the show afloat when the plot goes off the rails.

For all the bad things I have to say about it, the end of Season 3 goes out with some serious flair: the season ends with Linden shooting Skinner in the chest and head, while Holder looks on. Pop pop, cut to credits. Very effective.

Part of me wonders if the writers got to that ending, then decided at that point to rework Skinner into being the killer. If the show was going to end with Linden offing the killer - or maybe in the original draft it was Holder, since he ends up befriending one of the eventual victims and seems to be taking the case awfully hard throughout - maybe they realized that it needed more weight, more connection to the character. All just supposition and conjecture (it could have been Skinner from day one of the script) but it's interesting to consider how else the story could have gone.

Season 4 picks up pretty much right where season 3 leaves off - with Holder and Linden having to cover up Skinner's murder, and in doing so cover up that he was the killer at all - and introduces the final criminal investigation of the show. Holder and Linden are tasked with solving a brutal set of murders: a family is ruthlessly executed in their home, with the son being the only survivor (though he was nearly killed in the attack and is still recovering when the investigation begins.)

This final season has a few issues, one of which I'll elaborate on, but I think most of my problems with this season stem from it being so damn short. The entire season is only six episodes long, and while they're hour long episodes it doesn't feel like the story has quite enough room to really mature. Season 4 has a number of plot threads that they have going on - the investigation, covering up Skinner's death, Holder and Linden's personal issues, the background of the family that was killed, the background of the supporting cast - and the short run time of the season feels like it results in some of those plot threads getting really abrupt resolutions.

Holder is going off the rails, getting high again, fighting against himself to be a family man. Until he isn't. Linden is on the precipice of disaster, barely avoiding arrest, eventually having to resign herself that she needs to turn herself in and own up to what she's done. Until she doesn't. The Stansbury family murders are interesting and nuanced, until they aren't.

The Stansbury murders are the thing that sits worst with me out of the season. I can kind of hand wave the end to Linden and Holder's attempts to hide Skinner's death. It's a little too clean and "happy" of a resolution to such a messed up situation, but it also does make sense.

The final revelation of the Stansbury murders is much harder to swallow. Early in the season Holder posits that the surviving son, Kyle (played by Tyler Ross), killed the family and then shot himself but just messed up the suicide attempt, leaving himself alive and with plot convenient amnesia. Linden dismisses that theory as jumping to conclusions.

Except that, no wait, it was Kyle who killed his family, then shot himself in the head but missed and left himself alive (and with plot convenient amnesia)! Turns out Kyle hated his family, which is understandable because they are revealed to be pretty terrible people throughout except for the youngest daughter (whom is the only one Kyle liked.) During a hazing ritual at the military academy Kyle was shipped off to, Kyle snaps while being goaded into masturbating over a picture of his mother (we've all been there, right?) and posits to his tormentors that they actually go kill his family.

Being military school psychopaths, the two young men jump at the possibility of actually killing someone, but they ultimately chicken out and flee when Kyle starts shooting his parents (as is so often the case with tough talking young men in TV programs.) That doesn't stop Kyle from killing everyone in the house, including the youngest sister he'd formerly bonded with, before turning the gun on himself.

I have three big issues with this explanation:

1) The motivation for actually committing the crime doesn't really make sense. I totally buy Kyle hating his family - the show gives you plenty of reasons to dislike them, and they even throw extra fuel on the fire by revealing that Kyle was actually adopted - but the inciting incident makes absolutely no goddamn sense.

I readily accept that someone can be broken down/conditioned/shaped in such a way to make them more likely to act out on violent fantasies (lets just assume that Kyle always wanted to cap his family.) I cannot, even with much bourbon, accept that the thing that tips the scales is two guys yelling at you while you're naked, literally screaming at you to kill your mom.

I'm no psych major, but that just Maybe they omitted the dozens of times they'd done that to Kyle? Or maybe we're supposed to think he was just that close to snapping. Whatever the case, I still feel qualified to say that that having people yell at you to kill someone while you're naked, masturbating over a picture of your mom in a communal shower won't by itself tip you towards actually going and doing it. And, just between you and me, it isn't cheap to set that up.

2) He shoots his beloved little sister in the face. In. The. Face. Relatively close range, looking right at her. That also seems off.

Again, I'm just working with what the show is giving me: it establishes very clearly that Kyle actually did care about his little sister, and he seems extremely repentant about that one crime (much less so about the others.) It's not one of those "oh shit she came around the corner and I just reacted" shots either - she comes upon him playing the piano after killing both parents and his older sister (flair for the dramatic I suppose) and she gets his attention without eating a bullet. They exchange some words about monsters (turns out, Kyle was the monster) and he asks her to close her eyes. Then he shoots her, somewhere in the facial region.

Maybe it's a side effect of a good, enthusiastic shower yell-jerk session, but this also doesn't make a lot of sense to me. The show seems to want me to believe that he killed her because he couldn't stand the way she made him realize what he had become. And presumably that led to him shooting himself soon after.

That kind of makes sense, but I don't buy it. If Kyle's relationship with his youngest sister was established to be more neutral, I could understand it more. But they went out of their way to establish her as the only thing in that house he cared about. And if he was still in the middle of his killing festival I could also understand it. But he wasn't. The scene plays out awkwardly, because it's a foregone conclusion that the child must be shot (we're seeing it in flashback,) but the motivation isn't really there.

What bothers me so much about this one otherwise silly detail is that it didn't need to happen that way. If you really do want to have Kyle be the one behind the crime, go for the old reliable "she just popped up in front of me and I reacted" shooting scene. That makes a whole lot more sense, and it even plays better into Kyle then deciding to try and kill himself.

3) Much like the Skinner reveal, it feels grafted on after the fact. They do a lot to set up the idea that the two teens who tormented Kyle were behind the crimes, and then it turns out, nope! They were just big talking sissies that chickened out at the last minute. All they did was drive him there and arm him.

It's even more maddening because the show sets up a secondary plot that makes a fair bit of sense: the leader of the school, Lt. Col. Rayne (played by Joan Allen) is Kyle's actual mother who gave him up for adoption. But she always kept track of him, and even sent him a little present every year (military figurines that end up connecting dots in the crime later.) Rayne is seen talking to the two tormentor teens several times, clearly conspiring with them over something.

Turns out, she was just helping them cover up the crime in order to protect Kyle. Oh.

The plot thread that the show dangles in front of you - that Rayne enlisted two bloodthirsty members of the academy to kill the Stansburys so she could reunite with her son - seems way more satisfying than the answer we're actually given. But nope; turns out Kyle indeed killed his entire adopted family. No time for anything else, we have to finish up the season.

Overall, I'd say that season 4 is more disappointing than season 3, and it really feels like something went awry somewhere in it's production. If this season had 10 or 12 episodes to grow, it probably wouldn't have felt as disjointed, and maybe the final set of reveals wouldn't feel like such an ass-pull in terms of plotting. Alas, it wasn't meant to be.

The same caveat I mentioned previously also applies here: regardless of how little sense some of season 4's plotting decisions make, the cast of the show does a fantastic job of selling the material. Even when the characters are whipsawing between emotions left and right, and when motivations are changing scene to scene, the actors and actresses still do a great job of bringing the script to life and making you believe what's going on. It's a testament to their work ethic and ability that the season comes across as well as it does; in less competent hands, I think the season would feel far more disjointed, and be much less watchable.

That brings me to my general stance on The Killing: even if it is inconsistent in places, and even if it did make me slap my forehead a few times in bewilderment, I'd still recommend it to anyone who is a fan of crime drama.

For as much as I've ranted about them, the lows aren't especially low. Depending on your ability to hand wave some things, they might not even be low moments at all.

And it's worth it for the show's high points. The total story of seasons 1 and 2 is fantastic, and absolutely worth watching just for that. Season 3 is amazing all the way up until the final turn, with some of the best writing and setting establishment I've seen in a TV crime drama. Even though season 4 is, in my opinion, the weakest, it's also the shortest and it has the decency to give the series a proper ending (a semi-saccharine ending, but it's way better than the way most shows wrap up.)

The series is currently available in it's entirety on Netflix, so if you have access to it and you're looking for a new show to check out I'd recommend giving it a spin. Although, if you've already read this far you've probably already watched it, due to otherwise being hit with killer spoilers.

So, uh, in that case I guess I'll just say that I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did (or more in some places.)

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