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AMC’s The Killing Asks Important Questions about America’s Justice System

Warning: Spoilers.

“Hey, we caught the bad guy,” Detective Stephen Holder (Joel Linnaman) tells his partner, Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), in Sunday’s Season 2 finale of The Killing. She’s just exited the car, presumably to leave the police force or at least opt out of the next case.
“Yeah?” She says, “Who’s that?”
They have finally solved the murder of teenager Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay), but it doesn’t exactly feel as satisfying as they’d hoped. Linden expected it to bring closure, but it leaves her cold.

Of the four people implicated in the murder, the most powerless of them all takes the most devastating fall. Rosie’s Aunt Terry Marek (Jamie Anne Allman), a sex worker at the Wapi Eagle Casino, has refused legal representation and seems likely to spend the rest of her life in prison for putting that campaign car into the water.

She is broken at the end – and almost nonsensical. “Please don’t be mad at me,” she pleads with Rosie’s parents, “I didn’t know… I didn’t know it was Rosie.” It’s not entirely clear how true this is. She knew there was a girl tied up in the car. Perhaps she even thought the girl was already dead – at least until the car hit the water and Rosie screamed. Did she recognize her niece’s voice then? All we know is that she was desperate and broke, and the wealthy businessman was her way out.

But Michael Ames, the businessman with political connections, is never charged with a crime. Chief Nicole Jackson, meanwhile, is rewarded with dropped charges for her trouble brokering a waterfront deal for the Richmond campaign. Both, we see in the end, will have a seat at the new mayor’s table as campaign adviser Gwen Eaten, a relative innocent in the scheme of things, is shut out.

The Killing has come a long way since its slow first season, beset as it was by irresponsible and manipulative arcs (The beating of Rosie’s Muslim teacher, Bennet Ahmed, was perhaps the cheapest and most offensive of all, a plot device characterized by orientalist indulgence from beginning to end.). The crime drama could not have come back from the backlash that ensued at the end of that season without making the next one about something bigger than the Rosie Larsen case.

Mostly, they accomplished this in Season Two. Neither Linden nor Holder get the simple answers they wanted in the end. They’re both exhausted and out of sorts. Terry was never the evil villain they’d had in mind as they worked to bring down other, more powerful, conspirators. She was just a lost soul.

“Just the wrong place at the wrong time,” Holder remarks listlessly on Terry’s arrest, “Sometimes it comes down to that, I guess.” One imagines it happens that way a lot of the time, with few of the triumphal victories portrayed in television procedurals.

In its honesty about a broken justice system that begs questions about the meaning of justice itself, The Killing finally establishes itself as the police drama we’ve been waiting for since The Wire ended in 2006. It isn’t that this show matches that one, at least not yet. But The Wire was remarkable for hitting all the right notes from the outset. This one took some time getting off the ground, and it’s never been perfect, but it’s a far cry from what we had a year ago.

Like The Wire, The Killing hints at the ways in which privilege and power so often determine who gets punished for any given crime and who goes free. Though Ames and Jackson bear as much moral culpability for Rosie Larsen’s murder as Terry, they both have access to powerful politicians and large coffers. They’re rewarded with mayor-elect Richmond’s allegiance by the end.

Terry’s arrest feels pretty fatalistic. Not even Holder and Linden, who’ve been gunning for this moment, can summon an ounce of enthusiasm for it. Terry is just a sex worker with an implied history of addiction from a working class immigrant family. She’s also a mother figure to the two Larsen boys. Holder and Linden wanted closure for Rosie’s family, but this outcome just devastates them.

The decision to involve various people from disparate walks of life – and disparate amounts of power – in the crime was a good one, and not only because an entire second season devoted to finding just one killer would have annoyed fans. At its best, the show asks hard questions about how criminal justice in America often shakes out. Like The Wire, it does this by telling the story of crime – in this case, the story of just one murder – from different lenses that convey an inequitable social caste system.

There is just one thing that doesn’t quite ring true about this season – the involvement of campaign manager Jamie Wright (Eric Ladin). Over the course of two seasons, we’ve never once seen Jamie out of control. And while we know he’s unscrupulous about politics, he’s also shrewd. It’s hard to believe he would get involved in something this grisly.

In his final moment onscreen, Jamie brandishes a gun and delivers a hysterical speech to mayor-elect Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell):

“If you want to be a leader, you have to be willing to get blood on your hands. I can’t keep doing it for you, Darren…You surround yourself with people like Gwen and Willie because you want to believe that you’re a good man…You cheated on Gwen with whores, you son of a bitch! You let your wife drive that night, alone, so she could die because you like the limelight! Stop pretending – that’s the man you are, Darren.”

Then he turns his gun on Linden, prompting Holder to take a kill shot.

This has been a character-driven drama more than an action-packed thriller all along. Jamie’s involvement seems inconsistent with his character. But if the writers needed to arrange a quick exit for him (Ladin has a major role in the upcoming season of The Walking Dead), they surely could have done better than this. Even if Jamie had to be involved, he’d probably have outsmarted Linden and Holder. It seems doubtful that he would’ve ended up dead.

Ultimately, Jamie’s death speech is just a plot device. Richmond takes his advice, shuts out idealists like Gwen, and starts getting his hands “bloody” right away. Jamie’s body is barely cold. Richmond’s corruption is hardly a surprise, but the writers could have demonstrated it without giving a major character such a false exit.

Beyond this, The Killing – like all of AMC’s original programs – continues to have problems with race and ethnicity. That is to say, the non-white characters are stereotypical tropes, never given opportunities to develop as the white characters do. Chief Jackson is a domestic abuser and corrupt villain, her girlfriend nothing but a beaten down lackey.

Bennet Ahmed never gets a chance to be anything but a moral lesson for Rosie’s father, Stan Larsen. Now disabled and traumatized, Ahmed is just a reminder for Stan to keep on the straight and narrow and ignore his baser instincts. Not any kind of character in his own right, Ahmed only gets to teach Stan a lesson, repeatedly. Well, Stan and us. Seems we’re supposed to be shocked and amazed by the mere existence of this Muslim innocent.

And though the white women in the show fare a bit better than the people of color, their portrayal is often problematic as well. As Linden, Enos is nondescript and stoic, giving us only rare glimpses into her childhood trauma and its ongoing resurgence in her life. The most refreshing thing about her character is that she’s allowed a growing friendship with Detective Holder that isn’t characterized by sexual tension. It’s rare to see a male-female police duo on television that involves meaningful friendship without Castle-style sexual tension. The writers would do well to avoid romantic entanglement between these two if they’re granted another season.

But there are several loose ends with Linden. It still isn’t clear that she ever really had the alleged breakdown that continually mars her personal and professional record, leading authorities to question both her suitability as a parent and police officer. Did she merely react to that former case as anyone with a conscience would have done in similar circumstances? Is the point that, because she’s a woman, Linden is already marked as “crazy,” whether she deserves it or not? Or are we meant to think she just isn’t “strong” enough to function as a cop? And, by the way, how did she become romantically involved with her shrink, and why didn’t he lose his license for that?

As for the two other female leads, Mitch and Terry raise some interesting questions about the so-called “harlot or saint” dichotomy that women often fill in popular culture. On the surface, it seems simple. Mitch Larsen is a mother, wife and erstwhile martyr. These things make her a “good” character. Terry, on the other hand, is an irresponsible and untrustworthy “whore” who’s never managed to get her life together. This makes her “bad.” Also, she killed Rosie.
But there are some hints that it’s a little more complicated than that. Mitch, unable to deal with her own grief, leaves the family to fare on their own for a few weeks in the immediate aftermath of Rosie’s murder. Terry stays behind to fulfill her sister’s role out of guilt and duty. Are we meant to believe that Mitch has failed the family just as profoundly as Terry? Why are Mitch and Terry cast in such stark moral terms when Stan Larsen is not?

The show’s best-developed and most sympathetic character is ultimately Detective Holder, who will never really be able to escape the shadow cast by his history of addiction. Unlike The Wire, which gave many of its characters a dark sense of humor, only Holder has a sense of humor here. With such grim subject matter, humor is a much needed balm, and the show could use more of it. That Linnaman plays Holder with such believable compassion – despite the inexplicable New Orleans accent – made him the audience favorite over two seasons.

Season Two, if a little uneven, suggests that The Killing has the potential for excellence that we hoped for after seeing the pilot in 2011. It hits many right notes, and, however unfair the likely punishment may be, it’s a relief that we finally know who killed Rosie. Season Two is what Season One should have been. Viewers might dispense with that season altogether for a far more even viewing experience. If this show gets a third season, it would do well to continue at the pace of Season Two.

And let’s hope for a third season so the show can continue asking questions about the role of power and privilege in the American criminal justice system. The Wire left a big hole in television, and it’s heartening to see a new show asking the same kinds of questions. The Killing may never attain the brilliance of its predecessor, but it’s really hard to imagine how any show ever could. If we’re always going to have a plethora of cop shows on television, let’s demand more substance like this and less Bones-like romantic comedy.

Kristin Rawls

Kristin Rawls blogs at Halogen TV. Her work can be found in The Christian Science Monitor, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere on the web. She often covers international politics here at Global Comment.

One thought on “AMC’s The Killing Asks Important Questions about America’s Justice System

  1. Can’t agree enough that The Wire left a massive gap even if Season 5 felt a little contrived at times. Looking forward to finishing The Killing soon and starting on season 2.

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