Recap/Review: The Killing, “Pilot”/”The Cage”

I seem to have entered a period of kidnapping and murder in my general viewing pattern these days. The last disc I received from Netflix was “Gone Baby Gone,” Ben Affleck’s compelling directorial debut about a missing young girl that wonderfully illustrated what people will do when they learn of a child in trouble. On my instant queue, the “Red Riding” trilogy from IFC and UK’s Channel 4 is currently at the top – I’ve only seen the first installment but I considered it a masterpiece of paranoia, corruption in high places and just how involvement in a violent crime destroys those who don’t have the good sense to let it go. Right behind it is the newly added Twin Peaks, and after not having seen an episode since watching the first four in college I’m now completely immersed in David Lynch’s surreal take on what a dead homecoming queen does to a small idyllic community.

But out of all of these fairly bleak viewing choices, AMC’s new drama series The Killing has very quickly moved to the top of the list. I went into the show with a few reservations – I’m still embittered at AMC for canceling my beloved Rubicon, and Walking Dead didn’t do enough for me in its first season to convince me the network’s creative development is infallible – but its first two hours easily quashed those concerns. In terms of pacing and immersion, this is a show that’s off to a very strong start, and one that has an atmosphere you can’t easily shake off.

(Editor’s Note: Going forward, this article largely assumes that you’ve seen the episodes being discussed, but will try to avoid specific plot points for those who haven’t. I also have seen no episodes past the ones I’m talking about, and avoid any and all spoilers for future episodes that other websites might disclose – anything I might say in regard to those future episodes is entirely based on speculation.)

Adapted from the Danish series Forbrysdelsen (The Crime) by Cold Case writer/executive producer Veena Sud, the show is centered in Seattle, Washington on the disappearance of Rosie Larsen, a 17-year-old who vanished from a Halloween dance and whose sweater turned up in a grassy field three days later. Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) is the homicide detective who catches it on her last day on the job – she’s planning a move to Sonoma with her fiancee and teenage son – and finds herself shackled to the investigation and a new partner (Joel Kinnaman) for a couple more days by her boss’s administrative weight. By that time, not only are everyone’s worst fears realized, but it turns out the investigation may be linked to the campaign of Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell), a seemingly principled councilman making a run for mayor of Seattle.

Most of these details are ones we’ve seen before in any number of cop shows and suspense films – the “last case” of a detective’s career, the seemingly incompatible partners, the wealthy and connected playing around with the case to protect their own interests – but The Killing manages to execute each of them in a fashion that doesn’t make them feel tired or overused. Linden doesn’t come across as an obsessive or a burned-out veteran, but a single parent wanting to tie off the loose ends of this life so she can get on with the new one. She’s thoughtful and practical, one of those welcome actors who spends a lot of time thinking and whom it’s a joy to watch think – particularly in the early crime scenes, where as she stares off into space you can almost see the worst-case scenarios piecing together inside her head.

Similarly, Kinnaman as Detective Stephen Foster isn’t a young punk gunning for his partner’s approval, but just a cop who’s used to being more direct thanks to his narcotics background. He’s willing to imply a teacher might like younger girls to feel out a reaction, offer a joint to two soccer players to learn where the real party is, and tell Rosie’s grieving parents Stanley and Mitch Larsen (Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes) that they will find the killer when Linden is only willing to go as far as “we’ll do our best.” I found him a bit grating at first, but the more time we spend with him the more he also feels like a character worth spending time with – and one who’ll benefit the investigation the longer he’s on it.

It also helps that as the detectives try to look into every aspect of the case, that focus lets Sud and the production team show off just how bleakly beautiful The Killing is. With the precise cinematic camerawork that’s become a hallmark of the AMC dramas, the show creates a very evocative Pacific Northwest setting – the lush greens of trees and grasses, muted by the overwhelming gray wetness that permeates the entire location and eventually causes everything to moss over and decay. The scoring is also terrific – composer Frans Bak also created the original music for Forbrysdelsen, and he has an ear for tension on par with Silent Hill’s Akira Yamaoka.

While the detectives’ investigation makes an interesting and immersive point to start out, they’re only part of the larger whole of the show. Much like the examples I mentioned above, the real strength of The Killing isn’t that you’re following an investigation of a crime but you’re seeing the aftershocks of that crime on the community at large, the mushrooming of grief as each character either copes with the tragedy or tries to turn some part of it to their advantage. For these first two episodes the damage is mostly contained, though it’s certain to explode in the next episode with reporters and politicians already sniffing around the damage.

The immediate level of containment is the parents – always the most deeply affected by such a tragedy – and Sexton and Forbes unquestionably knock it out of the park. They haven’t made the roles mawkish or overwrought in any sense of the word, and watching them go through the stages of grief legitimately squeezes you in the heart – particularly in the last ten minutes of the first episode, when an ill-timed phone conversation* means they both find out about their loss simultaneously. Sexton (a veteran of such exceptional programming as Justified and Deadwood) is particularly good as the devastated father – a man who’s trying to appear strong for his equally grieving wife and two confused and angry sons, but whose strength mostly comes from being numb over losing his baby girl.

*Having just watched the pilot of Twin Peaks last week, I was struck by the similarity of how the Larsens find out about their daughter in much the same way the Palmers did. The father is approached by a law enforcement officer and breaks down, completely unaware of the fact that his wife has reached the same conclusion from his silence and is breaking down even worse. I’m sure the show isn’t going for Twin Peaks allusions – and you couldn’t mistake the two if you tried – but it’s an odd coincidence.

On the political side of things, it’s not as clear what role this will play in the overarching story – there’s nothing to completely dismiss Richmond or his campaign team as involved in the murder right away, but there’s also nothing to indicate he’s the most likely suspect. My theory is this story will mostly be played as Richmond gradually gives in to a Tommy Carcetti-style ethical metamorphosis to exploit the tragedy for his own ends, as his campaign manager (Eric Ladin, recognizable as Betty’s brother William on Mad Men) is advocating. This seems like the most sensible course of action for the show to take, but going forward this plot will be the one to watch – lest we forget, the disconnect of the Katherine Rhumor storyline kneecapped Rubicon early and it never quite solved the problem.

But it seems like AMC’s learned something from its Rubicon experience, and not just that it’s better to debut your slower shows in a two-hour block rather than previewing them after the season finale of Breaking Bad. It’s built as a 13-hour procedural, where each episode takes up more or less a day of the investigation – events that would be split into two-minute chunks of a Law and Order or Cold Case get time to breathe, reactions are given actual weight and the conclusions require more than a series of interviews and foot chases to move to the next step. From the first two episodes, there’s not a feeling that they’re spinning wheels or introducing red herrings – it’s setting up its world, and whether or not these plots are directly linked to the murder it’s still adding something to the overall impact that death has on its world.

And when its slow development bears fruit, it’s all the more impactful. At the close of the second episode, following Foster’s successful discovery of the high school’s after-hours party location, Linden finds herself in a “cage” below the school, where part of Rosie’s Halloween costume is lying next to a bloodstained mattress with equally bloody handprints splayed out on the chipped brick walls. Seeing these signs of violence, and with the images from the coroner’s report of just how long it took Rosie to die already fresh in her mind, we see something set behind her eyes that for all her focus and professionalism wasn’t there before. Despite her reservations and her obligations, she’s not walking away from this. And based on these two episodes, I’m not going anywhere either.

(Editor’s Note: I’ll be adding this show to a regular rotation on A Helpless Compiler, either posting my reviews on the Monday or Tuesday following the show’s Sunday broadcast. I hope you’ll stick around and start up the discussion below – if you do, please keep your comments free of any spoilers or any unpleasantness.)

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About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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4 Responses to Recap/Review: The Killing, “Pilot”/”The Cage”

  1. Joe says:

    This show looks to be another AMC success – moody, atmospheric, sure-footed, gorgeously filmed, uniformly well-acted, etc. I think Detective Foster is the show’s secret weapon. Not above getting sleazy to push buttons and dig up leads, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a character quite like him (though his interaction with the high school girls reminded me of the protagonist’s employment of similar methods in both the Danish and Nolan remake of “Insomnia”). I was very happy to see that this show didn’t turn out to be Mystic River: The Movie.

  2. Pingback: Recap/Review: The Borgias, “The Poisoned Chalice”/”The Assassin” | A Helpless Compiler

  3. Pingback: Recap/Review: The Borgias, “The Poisoned Chalice”/”The Assassin” | A Helpless Compiler

  4. Pingback: Random Analysis: AMC Renews The Killing For Season 2 | A Helpless Compiler

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