Recap/Review: The Killing, “Orpheus Descending”

After last week’s post, where I talked about AMC’s semi-surprising decision to renew its serial murder murder mystery The Killing, I promised myself that I was going to watch the finale episode both to a) see whether or not it could comfortably resolve the question of who killed Rosie Larsen, and b) see how much of the deck it was going to clear going into season two. However, scheduling reasons (i.e. catching up on other articles and a stint at a karaoke bar that Sunday) meant that I wasn’t going to be able to see it when it aired, which didn’t bother me too much – being only half-invested in the show, I figured I’d just backlog it and catch it the next day, avoiding other reviews until I’d seen it myself.

But in randomly skimming my Twitter feed at several points during the night, I began to see some very interesting – and extreme – reactions popping up in droves. Apparently The Killing did not stick its landing, but crashed and burned to a spectacular extent, and it was enraging critics up and down the landscape. Some lashed out at what were apparently the most insulting of plot twists, with writing that failed to a level unheard of for AMC and final scenes that made the finales of Rubicon and even True Blood seem masterfully plotted. Others spoke of the incredibly short-sighted arrogance showrunner Veena Sud displayed in her interviews post-show towards its quality and resolution.

Well, well, well. This mystery intrigues me, I thought, at least more than the mystery of The Killing – not every day the entire critical community comes out against a show that they seemed to love after the first episode aired. And I was even more intrigued since for all their bile the haters were at least kind enough to leave out spoilers, meaning that by staying clear of some Twitter conversations and my usual review sites I could see it on my own terms. So I avoided those and geared up my viewing as soon as I got home, first watching the penultimate episode “Beau Soleil” to get back into the show’s rhythms and then diving into it.

And I have to admit, for the most part, it was hard to see what all the fuss was about. After weeks upon weeks of red herrings and ridiculously shoddy police work, the show seemed like it was finally working towards a resolution in painting the target on Darren Richmond, revealing that he had a penchant for girls of Rosie’s appearance and a mind occupied with thoughts of his wife’s drowning. Linden and Holder scrambled to find enough evidence to convince their skeptical chief,* taking advantage of their seemingly matured partnership to realize exactly how the timetable fit. It recaptured some of the show’s trademark atmosphere as Linden and Holder were able to track the last desperate run of Rosie, right down to where her shoe had come loose – which I thought was a nice callback to the pilot’s cold open, leaving aside the disgruntled gas station attendant who mentioned he’d heard a girl screaming that pointed them in that direction.

*One appetizer rant before getting to the main event: the character of Linden’s superior was one of the most infuriating characters ever put on television, not in terms of acting but in terms of purpose. First he tells Linden she has to stay one more day, then three more, then some things I stopped paying attention to, then he orders her and Holder to bring him some real police work. He existed only as an obstacle, and led to many loud groans.

As the episode built to its ending – Richmond seemingly scaling to the top of the political landscape only to be brought down by a few last pieces of police work, Linden finally able to take her son and start a new life as the killer was fingerprinted in the other room, Stan and Mitch evidently facing that losing their daughter ended the lives they knew as well – I still didn’t see the catalyst. Yes, it was riddled with the narrative gaps and dreary scenes that led me to abandon the show, and it still wasn’t a good episode of television by any shape or form, but it was still going to a conclusion that felt natural for The Killing. (Natural for how weak the show already was, that is.)

And then the last act began.

Before I get to some more critical reasons why it failed, here’s a collection of my internal monologue during the last five minutes of “Orpheus Descending,” beginning right as Linden was finally getting on the plane and sealing off one of the show’s more annoying recurring questions. Oh no, not a last minute call. Not when she’s finally on the plane. Wait – doesn’t that mean… What’s Belko doing with that gun? Wait, they’re not going to do that, are they?… Wait, Holder?! But he’s… and now who is he in the car with… what?! And now we’re back to Richmond, who apparently can’t be the bad guy, and he’s led out… Oh they’re not. They wouldn’t… WHAT?! You’re going to go to the lowest common denominator of cliffhangers and you’re not even giving us a reveal?!? … I just… GAH! YOU SHITKNOCKERS!!!

Okay then. Forty-eight hours after viewing, that reaction has cooled somewhat, but it’s ready to stir up at any moment now. I am, honestly, overwhelmed at how little this finale worked – after a season spent toying with your suspicions and emotions at the end of every episode, they introduce a spectacularly flawed ending that makes everything they’ve done up to this point seem inspired in comparison.

Let’s begin with the obvious critical flaw of the ending: the sheer fact that it’s not an ending. After spending the entire season toying with us at the end of every episode (or at least in the ones I saw) the show couldn’t give us resolution to any of its major arcs. Linden’s spent much of the season trying to find a reason to escape to Sonoma from Seattle, and the minute she gets that call you know the next episodes will be filled with her trying to get back into the investigation. The political arc that monopolized half of the action doesn’t reach its end, with the election still more than a week off, and it turns out there are wheels within wheels working to dethrone Richmond (more on that later). Mitch’s sister brings Rosie’s siblings home, only for Stan to say that she’s gone – no great explanation why, only a tearful moment of desperation between her and her recently paroled husband.

And worst of all, after spending so little time making us care about Rosie Larsen and only half-heartedly fleshing out some character traits (hey, anyone remember that video she shot in “Super 8?” Veena Sud sure didn’t) they don’t even have the decency to say with certainty who really killed her. The only thing that kept at least a portion of its audience watching – the subject of all their promotional material – and they couldn’t even give us that.

Granted, as Dan Fienberg of HitFix pointed out in Monday’s Firewall and Iceberg podcast, Sud openly stated that it wasn’t a certainty that we were going to solve the mystery by the end of this season, and that the action could continue if and when the show returns. And certainly, shows from Breaking Bad to Twin Peaks to The Simpsons have ended with a shooting uncertain on who the shooter was and/or whether or not the target lived, so that can work as an ending even if it’s something of a cop-out. So I’m prepared to be reasonable on those terms, and accept that maybe the media convinced itself and the general public that it was going to be a season-long case.

But I can’t be reasonable about the big picture these last scenes finally laid bare: that the storytelling and characterization on this show are rotted to the core, worse than the timbers of any building exposed to the rain dumped on its characters all season. In her own review of the finale, Meredith Blake of The A.V. Club listed every red herring, dropped plot point and procedural misstep that the show never bothered to pick up on, and it made up almost half of the review. Read over that list – none of those were addressed in the last scenes of the finale in any meaningful fashion, none of them gave the impression they were developed with a big picture in mind for the season, none of them even seemed to have a connection to Rosie as a person. All of them existed solely to stretch the action out, try to misdirect the audience, and in the consequence made each of its characters seem like bad police. In terms of brand identity and shows living up to it, The Killing makes AMC’s “Story matters here” seem as transparent a lie as when TNT advertises “We know drama” while airing Rizzoli and Isles.

And what made it even worse in context was that the finale heaped an even larger pile of frustrating plot points on us. Apparently despite telling her ex-husband (played by Tahmoh Penikett, late of Dollhouse) that she’d have him arrested if he ever came near their son again, the next day she’s letting them spend time together without a single explanation of why. Apparently the news of Richmond’s long string of affairs post-widower state made the news almost immediately after his opponent tanked in the polls – thanks to a ridiculous deus ex machina in the last episode – and no one batted an eye anywhere, and it was irrelevant because apparently he didn’t kill any of them either. And apparently Mitch was going to leave the family for good, partially because she correctly sees she’s a terrible mother and partially because of a dream journal from her childhood which talked about seeing the world (scenes I honestly just tuned out).

The real twist of the knife in terms of plotting was the reveal that not only was Richmond potentially not guilty despite all the evidence Linden and Holder had gathered, but that the latter of those had been falsifying that information from the very start at the behest of some shadowy figure off to the side*. This honestly felt like nothing less than a poke in the eye: as so many critics have said, Joel Kinnaman’s performance as Holder was one of the show’s few recurring pleasures, his shifty persona and nondescript dress sense betraying the fact that this was a troubled person who just might be real police. And despite having given some loose indications that Holder wasn’t all he seemed to be – a discreet phone call here, an envelope of cash there – it didn’t feel like an earned twist in any way, more one that squandered the goodwill built by the show’s good episodes, like borderline bottle episode “Missing” from two weeks ago.

*Honestly, given how much it rankles me that AMC would cancel Rubicon and consent to give this dreck another season, my only consolation is to imagine that it’s Truxton Spangler behind the wheel and Rosie’s death was carried out at the hands of his Board of Shadowy Figures.

The worst part of all of this? The blissful ignorance – I’d go so far as to call it depraved indifference – on the part of Veena Sud as to how people are receiving this show. In the interviews she’s given she seems completely apathetic to anyone watching it, telling The Hollywood Reporter she sees the show as a kind of “holistic journey” and is flattered by the attention, and telling USA Today “The only paradigm I have right now is how we felt as writers, and there was a lot of excitement with tons of edge-of-your-seat moments.” I don’t expect a showrunner to take what a critic says to heart – David Simon and Matt Weiner wouldn’t make the shows they did if they weren’t such strong-willed auteurs – but I do expect at least some acknowledgment that you’re not making your show in a vacuum. Sud, by contrast, seems content to make hers in the vacuum of space.

And despite all the things I’ve just said, my reaction’s still not even hitting the absolute peaks of critical loathing that so many others scaled – I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t headline at least one worst of 2011 list. Maureen Ryan of AOL’s Stay Tuned probably had the angriest screed, calling it “a jaw-dropping instance of a show not just squandering its promise, but betraying its viewers… astoundingly awful, obnoxious.” Alan Sepinwall called it “a trainwreck… as colossal and unpleasant a miscalculation in a TV season finale as I can remember.” James Poniewozik of TIME said it made criticism of cop dramas into “a blueprint for frustrating, unsatisfying TV,” Matt Zoller Seitz of Salon refused to waste “precious glucose molecules proposing alternative theories or suspects,” and Bill Simmons said because of how much it “fundamentally sucked to watch” it will outpace The Sopranos and Lost in terms of shows antagonizing their fanbase.

Every single one of those critics closed their reviews saying they will not be coming back next year. And you know what? I’m right behind them. Coming back for a second season with this creative team, this convoluted yet ultimately unconnected plotting, these characters who through no fault of their actors are noteworthy only for how hard they can cry or look thoughtful? You’d have to pay me to invest my time and energy in this show again. As far as I’m concerned, Linden never goes back to Seattle, Richmond dies from the gunshot and Killer BOB from Twin Peaks is the one who killed Rosie Larsen. It certainly can’t be any worse than what’s coming next.

Extra Credit:

  • For some articles focusing on the aftershocks of The Killing finale as much as the finale, check out friend of the blog Cory Barker’s article on the Twitter firestorm and Myles McNutt’s essay on how this could affect AMC’s brand as a whole.
  • In addition to his vitriolic review, Sepinwall also posted an interview with Veena Sud that only poured gasoline on the flames of many readers’ anger. Again, the term “depraved indifference” is the only one that comes to mind.
  • Honestly, in all of this, what I’m really worried about is AMC’s Hell On Wheels, the next of their upcoming original series – and possibly their last for some time, given how they’ve passed on all their other pilots. More on that when it comes closer to release in a few months. Let’s just say it’s got an albatross entirely outside its control around its neck.
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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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3 Responses to Recap/Review: The Killing, “Orpheus Descending”

  1. cajuntomato says:

    I enjoyed your review, Les! I stopped watching “The Killing” after three or four episodes. The show’s creators seemed like they were backing themselves into a creative corner, particularly with the emphasis on Richmond. The pacing was slooooooow. The acting was ok, but the characters were poorly conceived. What you and so many others described in reference to the finale makes me feel justified in quitting the show. Just an absolute waste. Obviously the disgust centered around the finale exists because the episode sucked terribly. I also think the reaction has been overwhelming because of the great amount of potential the show’s creative team squandered. What has fanned the flames, as you mentioned, is Sud’s subsequent comments in interviews. Shame on her! PS: Les, will you be writing a primer for “Breaking Bad” Season Four prior to July 17?

    • lesismore says:

      Thanks for the thoughts, Ray! Justified indeed in abandoning it – I checked in only out of curiosity, and then a chance to share in the vitriol.

      As to Breaking Bad, I think I will have something up beforehand – my justifications to watch the show, some questions leading into season four, all that good stuff. I’ll almost certainly take a stab at recapping it on a weekly basis, schedule permitting.

  2. Pingback: Review: Prime Suspect, Series 3 « This Was Television

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