The Killing‘s third season proved a terrific corrective to the flabby, rainy, interminable, “Who killed Rosie Larson?” affair of its first two. With a taut story-line and ever-deepening lead performances, show-runner Veena Sud proved she could create a moody, suspenseful, character-driven series without resorting to a rain machine.
[Spoiler alert!!] This season’s story focuses on a serial killer who preys on homeless young women, most of them still teenagers. In Seattle’s demi-monde, they live on the streets or in an overcrowded, understaffed temporary shelter run by a priest named Pastor Mike (Ben Cotton), who might or might not be the one killing them. One of this season’s strengths is how it’s proposed a number of different suspects, and how surprising the revelation of the real killer turns out to be in the season finale. With several men isolated as potential murderers, none of these young people are safe on Seattle’s streets.
Even those charged to protect these kids take advantage of their vulnerability and dependence. Twitch (Max Fowler), a young man who dreams of moving to LA to be a model, is raped by his probation officer, for no apparent reason. The man seems tired and disillusioned but nothing more than casual cruelty makes him force Twitch into the back of his car to hurt and humiliate him. All the kids are accustomed to trading sexual favors for what they need to survive; turning tricks, the series suggests, is even how they get some of their emotional needs met, as the men who aren’t out to kill them are sometimes even nice to them.
Lyric (Julia Sarah Stone), Twitch’s girlfriend, also flirts with Bullet (Bex Taylor-Klaus), the butch lesbian/transman who’s actually in love with her. Even though these young people live in abandoned buildings or underneath highway overpasses, their emotions cycle through teenaged traumas of crushes unrequited and feelings wounded by slights and misunderstandings. That they’re typical teenagers contrasts with the extraordinary danger of their lives on the streets.
No one can save anyone from the trouble lurking in The Killing’s third season. At the start, detective Sarah Linden (the remarkable Mireille Enos) seems to have turned over a new leaf. She’s left the police force to work security on an island near Seattle, dating a pleasant young man who knows nothing about her past. Enos’s performance in the first few episodes makes Linden seem a truly different person—her face glows with happiness and she’s light on her feet. Both she and her former partner, Holder (Joel Kinnaman)—a recovering drug addict—say they’ve even stopped smoking. Their billowing cigarette smoke was as omnipresent as the rain in the first two seasons. But by the time they’re embroiled in the new case, their rectitude is a joke and the squad car they sometimes share is filled with the acrid tar and nicotine of their mutual disillusionment.
Until Linden returns to the squad as a special hire, Holder has a new partner. Reddick (Gregg Henry) is a lazy lifer, a middle-aged straight white man who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. His innate sexism and his casual disparagement of the victims they investigate wearies Linden, whose caustic retorts put the older man in his place. Reddick and Holder make an odd couple and Kinnaman does a nice job playing Holder’s uneasiness with Reddick’s political and professional attitudes. But when, in the finale, Reddick briefly becomes a suspect, he redeems himself by demonstrating an intuitive understanding of a young boy who goes missing.
Peter Sarsgaard guest stars this season as Ray Seward, a Death Row inmate accused of killing his wife, Trisha. When the serial killer’s victims begin multiplying, their resemblance to Trisha’s murder begins to throw doubt on Seward’s conviction. Linden, who worked his case, tries to exonerate Seward, as the story of his wife’s death ties the two cases together.
Despite Linden’s growing certainty that Seward didn’t kill his wife, the story moves inexorably to his (botched) execution in the season’s penultimate episode. So many nuanced character quirks make the episode masterful. Becker (Hugh Dillon), the sadistic Death Row prison guard taunts Seward mercilessly during his last days of life. Becker boasts of his power and authority to his meek son, showing him the gallows before Seward’s hanging. Dillon’s portrait of struggling masculinity is compelling all season, as Becker’s ruined marriage and personal isolation make him oddly sympathetic, even as he remains the villain in a capricious, cruel prison system.
But once Seward’s execution begins, Becker fails to muster the courage to cover Seward’s head with the death hood. Henderson (Aaron Douglas), the prison block’s moral center, who’s tried to befriend Becker and his wife but can’t cross the complicated lines of authority and power to really change anything, steps in to hood Seward at the end. Henderson looks in the doomed man’s eyes, silently wishing him strength, and the assembled prison guards all look away with shame and horror when Seward’s neck doesn’t break when his body drops through the trap door. His body writhes on the noose as he kicks and grunts.
The execution scene indicts a broken justice system. Seward admits to his misdeeds; he might not have murdered his wife, but he beat her. He insists his violence is genetic. He’s followed his father into crime, and worries that his son, Adrian (Rowan Longworth), whom he hasn’t seen since his wife’s murder, will also inherit a criminal destiny.
Played by Sarsgaard as a mess of conflicting emotions, Seward is one of the great television villains, in part because The Killing humanizes him. If he begins as imperious and superior to the other prisoners and the guards, in the end, Seward is just a man who doesn’t want to die. His growing fear and panic, and his desperation to somehow save himself, work against the emotional remoteness with which he prefers to consider his less-than-exemplary life.
Seward’s relationship with Linden shifts incrementally, as Sarsgaard and Enos make the most of each glance and emotional nuance every time their characters interact. They hate one another; the Seward case almost ruined Linden’s career, and damaged her enough to make her (in her own harsh assessment) unfit to mother her own son. But the complicated, ambivalent bond between the two broken characters grows stronger until the moment Seward dies. Linden watches his execution from the gallery, appalled that she couldn’t finally save him, grief-stricken at whatever role she played in his death, and locking her eyes with his before the death hood finally falls over his face.
Sarsgaard’s Ray Seward ranks with Bill Irwin’s Nate Haskell on CSI and James Purefoy’s Joe Carroll on The Following. These murderers have complexity and depth, with ironic erudition and a ruthless, intelligent evil that make them chilling. That Seward is innocent only makes his story that much more poignant.
Elias Koteas joined The Killing this season as James Skinner, the lieutenant now in charge of the squad, with whom Linden has a sexual history. Skinner’s mysterious moodiness and battle fatigue complement Linden’s fierce, silent cynicism and determination. Their ambivalences mesh and they generate a sad erotic magnetism. When, in the last half of the two-part final episode, Skinner is revealed as the serial killer, the surprise seems both believable and not. It’s hard to be convinced that the killer is a cop, and, in fact Linden and Holder’s boss, who supervised the case as they worked. But Koteas, as Skinner, manages in the last episode to be persuasive about the secret reasons for all his doleful gazing and all those hands wiped wearily across his brow this season. He’s been killing young girls for years, dumping their bodies in places he tells Linden they’ll never be able to imagine let alone find. And he’s tired of pretending to be someone he’s not.
Halfway through the finale, Linden and Skinner sleep together once again, drawn by what seems their mutual sorrow. But as the climax of the story nears, Linden puts the pieces together. In a terrific, wordless scene, the camera focuses on her face as the knowledge dawns, and then cuts to Skinner’s, as he understands that she has realized who and what he is. Eloquent looks pass between them and devastating emotional changes cross their faces.
In an expository but tense and atmospheric confession scene, Skinner explains that he’s saving the girls he murdered from inevitably hopeless lives. They’re invisible garbage, he says; no one misses them when they disappear. But he also admits that he relishes the end of their lives, when they know they’re going to die, give up hope, and see their destiny in Skinner’s face. He’s addicted to the thrill of this god-like power.
In a final murderous manipulation, Skinner provokes Linden to kill him by reminding her that she loves him. Linden’s horror and humiliation that she could so misjudge someone wins out over whatever professional instincts she might still possess at the end of this dark-night-of-the-soul season. She shoots Skinner once, and then, provoked, again, her face a contorted mask of hate, regret, and vindication.
Each of this season’s episodes is horrifying, smart, and precisely realistic. None of the characters are conveniently saved. You wait for Ray Seward’s name to be cleared; it never happens. You keep thinking Kallie (Cate Sproule), the lost street girl whose disappearance prompts the season-long investigation, will reappear, but she never turns up. Linden asks Skinner where he disposed of Kallie’s body, but his blank look indicates he can’t even remember the girl Linden and Holder have spent the whole season trying to find.
Kallie’s wayward mother, Danette (the terrific Amy Seimetz), who realizes too late that she might have taken better care of her child, is left bereft. She closes her eyes and counts to five, hoping Kallie will just be there when she opens them, just as she was when she couldn’t quite get the hang of hide-and-seek as a child. That her daughter is long dead and gone quashes the story’s last chance for a redemptive ending.
The Killing is surprising and appalling, as it delivers some hard truths about human nature and about an underclass that’s rarely considered systematically or sympathetically in film or on television. Some of the homeless kids come from middle-class homes, but they’ve left for good reasons, caught in the contradiction between who they are and who they’re expected to be. For example, Bullet, Kallie’s friend on the street, is caring and protective, but even her butch/lesbian/trans swagger can’t keep Kallie safe. Early in the season, she’s raped by a man she thinks is hiding her friend. Bullet herself isn’t safe, and her adopted masculinity can’t save her.
Bex Taylor-Klaus plays Bullet against easy stereotypes of a gender non-conforming young person, creating a character that’s smart and emotionally acute. Bullet and Holder establish a sibling-like affection as they work to find Kallie. When Bullet also becomes a victim of the serial killer, Holder is crushed enough to almost return to his addictions. He attends her funeral, remarking how much Bullet would have hated the feminine portrait her grieving parents place by her casket. Bullet is a sensitive, intelligent representation of a transgender youth, and Taylor-Kraus’s performance avoids prurience and sentimentality.
The Killing’s brutality might go too far. The detectives’ resignation about the dark side of human nature might be as unrelenting as the rain in the first two seasons. But I respect a show that doesn’t try to leaven its narrative with easy fixes and moral uplift. Linden and Holder are damaged by the crimes they try to solve. They, too, are flawed, but they hold firm to a notion of justice that remains the only way they can survive a capricious world in which power seems arbitrary and cruel. But unlike many other detectives and cops represented in popular culture, these two are touched by what they see. Their souls wither, but they can’t look away. They suffer for what they can’t fix. And rarely celebrate what they can.
Linden is one of the best female characters in contemporary popular culture. Enos and the series writers borrow the tropes of male detectives and translate them into a character that carries the narrative’s moral imperative without ever relying on conventionally gendered wiles. Linden is smart, tough, dogged, and wounded; when she smiles, cracking her mask of peering wariness seems a miracle that reveals a person with real emotion underneath. Linden’s turtleneck sweaters and baggy jackets hide her body, but she never becomes one of the men—she’s singular and unique in a narrative world we think we know. Holder, too, breaks the mold, with his hoodies and street-lingo and the depth of his own humanity.
That Veena Sud and her writers and directors can illuminate new aspects of such a conventional pop culture domain makes The Killing irresistible. I hope there’ll be a fourth season, so that we can see where Sud takes Linden and Holder next.
The Feminist Spectator