This review contains spoilers. The author doubts that this will matter to anyone by now, but you’ve nonetheless been warned.
AMC’s newest show, “The Killing,” ended on an infuriating note last night. The drama, a whodunit that covers the investigation into teenager Rosie Larsen’s murder ended its season without giving us much information, frankly, about whodunit. And this would’ve been irksome but innocuous if not for the network’s manipulative advertising. AMC ran a “suspect tracker” on its show site for the season’s duration, promising to enter those who correctly guessed the killer’s identity in an iPad drawing. Except that viewers didn’t learn the identity of the killer in the season finale.
And the show ends with a bit of a cliffhanger in the last two minutes, or at least an attempted cliffhanger. But if anyone maintains interest in the iPad contest, let alone the outcome of the mystery, when Season 2 premieres in a year, I will be very surprised indeed. This show started with a strong pilot that garnered near unanimous critical acclaim. But it went downhill quickly, and I’ve never seen a show alienate viewers and critics with such haste.
Notwithstanding the quality of the season as a whole, the pilot episodes were fantastic. Unfortunately, the show quickly morphs into a subpar imitation of the excellent Danish series, “Forbrydelsen.” And what a strange and deeply fraught imitation it turns out to be. For example, the writers borrow liberally from the original series when borrowing doesn’t make sense. Large sections of stilted dialogue are lifted almost verbatim from the subtitled English translation that aired on BBC. And as anyone who has ever watched a program in subtitles knows, subtitle translations are awkward and stilted. They sacrifice artistry for literal translation. We’re usually willing to accept this in subtitles, but it’s ineffective as dialogue.The result is that the characters are simplistic archetypes with little of the human complexity and moral ambiguity that audiences find intriguing in superior shows like “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire.” Mireille Enos is morose and bland as Sarah Linden, the lead detective with a troubled past. While her Danish counterpart, Sofie Grabol, brings depth and life to her depressive character, our Sarah’s inscrutability alienates the audience just as much as it irritates the other characters.
And it’s not as if the rest of the actors are much better. When audiences rally around morally questionable television characters, such as Omar Little of “The Wire,” it’s because these characters are human in spite of their imperfections. They’re not wholly good or evil. They’re sometimes witty and unpredictable. They have emotions that audiences recognize. And when television does moral ambiguity well, it shows us what the medium is capable of and elevates our expectations.
I think the writers of this show were aiming for compelling characters on the level of, say, Walter White or Jesse Pinkman of “Breaking Bad.” But they fail miserably, in part because of poor writing, but also because the performances are almost uniformly shallow, uncomplicated and tedious. By the season finale, we’re tired of every single character and feel less than enthusiastic about standing by to learn the murderer’s identity some time next year.
But even when the show departs from the original by relocating to Seattle and confronting a host of explicitly American neuroses, it falls flat. Perhaps the storyline involving Rosie’s former teacher, Benet Ahmed is the cheapest and most offensive of all. Ahmed comes to the attention of police because, we learn in an early episode, he wrote disturbing letters to Rosie that may or may not suggest that the two had a sexual relationship.
That plot point, however, is quickly forgotten. Instead, the police rush to judgment and reveal their suspect too soon, spawning a virulent strain of Islamophobia in Seattle that gets Ahmed attacked. He winds up fighting for his life in a hospital and may never recover. In the midst of this, the writers introduce an outlandish subplot involving Ahmed’s heroic efforts to rescue a young Muslim girl from parents bent on forcing her to endure female genital mutilation. So, it’s all a heavy-handed ploy to make a political statement about the evils of anti-Muslim hatred. Ahmed’s goodness, in other words, is supposed to teach us a lesson.
Bennet is not cleared as a suspect until episode nine, once we’ve wasted our time on over two-thirds of these episodes. Episodes that move the plot forward not at all. And even on its own merits, it’s all pretty offensive. Notwithstanding the fact that FGM is not commonplace among Muslims in the US, we’re just supposed to accept that Muslim immigrant parents are likely to be villainous child abusers whose children need our protection? Ahmed essentially steps in in spite of his faith, and this is presented as some kind of “progressive” statement. Anyone familiar with the US history of bigotry should be wary of writers who tell us, essentially, that Ahmed is “a credit to his faith.”
By the end of the ninth episode, of course, we learn that Bennet Ahmed has been nothing but a shallow plot device all along. He has no depth. At the beginning, the writers cast him as a villain so they can turn it around and surprise—no, lecture— us by revealing his heroism. There is nothing else to this character. No layers. Nothing distinguishing about him beyond the fact that he’s a “good Muslim.” And the writers have used this device to bide time and manipulate viewers without advancing the story even a little bit.
And it’s not as if the other plotting isn’t also pretty farfetched. We’ve been told that Rosie was a dedicated, ambitious student. But by the end of the season, we learn that she’s been working as an underage prostitute to powerful political men. Rosie’s family is solidly working class, but certainly not destitute. She has a bright career ahead of her, but somehow she winds up in the escort business as a minor? All we know is that the writers are taking their cues from the “Traffic” playbook, but we never find out why.
And then, of course, there’s the appalling police work of detectives Linden and Stephen Holder. They botch evidence. They misrepresent sensitive information to Rosie’s family. They break laws against search and seizure without a warrant. They speak too openly about the case, which leads directly to Ahmed’s attack. By the last two minutes, when we learn that Detective Holder falsified evidence and is likely a dirty cop, it’s hard to keep caring.
In this first season, the writers sent viewers on a bad faith ride in which nothing is ever resolved even as the plotting gets more and more bizarre. The first season is pretentious, humorless and unwilling or unable to follow through. In other words, it’s a mess.
Great television is not necessarily about the hook, a point brought home when we remember that “The Killing” has a fascinating premise that worked wonderfully in “Forbrydelsen.” Great television is about what happens when good actors meet good writing and bring depth to the words they read on the page. We know from the pilot that this show has that kind of potential. That’s why this season has been so maddening.
Maybe there is hope yet. I’ve seen many shows hit their stride and improve after the first season. There is a steep learning curve ahead if that is to happen here. Let’s hope that next time the writers stop trying to teach us lessons and focus instead on developing characters and telling stories well. Tight plotting, good acting and well-developed characters could restore audiences’ faith that the showrunners know more about who killed Rosie than we do.