Did 'The Killing' Just Kill Itself?

The Killing Still Lake 2011

It’s pretty clear when dissecting AMC’s The Killing, which had its season finale Sunday, that there are two opposing forces at work. There are the fans who have kept the show a success for AMC and have, through the course of a trying season, kept the faith – through anticipation of an answer to the question of who killed Rosie Larsen, the central mystery of the show, or perhaps because they were enthralled by the storytelling. On the other side were a raucous bunch of displeased fans and critics who have been harping on the show’s weaknesses for a while now.

There is no bringing the two together and I doubt, anyway, whether the fans that love The Killing are worried about what others think of their entertainment choices. It’s always this way and it will always remain this way: the audience decides.

And yet, as someone who has defended The Killing,  if for no other reason than a story like this needs to be fully told before final judgment is passed, there really is no defending the show after the finale. I kept up with The Killing because I liked the acting performances of Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman, the detectives trying to figure out who killed Rosie, and Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton, who played Rosie’s grieving, troubled parents.

The excellence in those performances stayed true to the end.

I also liked the atmospheric bleakness of Seattle, even when others thought there was too much rain (perhaps they’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest). But ultimately a series comes down to its storytelling and, given the conclusion (or lack thereof) in the season finale, it’s just impossible to prop up the weaknesses if there was no final saving grace.

And there wasn’t. The Killing relied entirely too much on red herrings, a gambit that grows increasingly ineffectual the more it’s used. Though I held out hope that the politician Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) would actually be the killer, a part of me was waiting, with head-shaking disappointment, for the return of the red herring. That was the deciding factor, ultimately.

Had Richmond been the killer, not only would it have put an end to the red herring business a couple of episodes shy of the season, it would have worked thematically: the too-good-to-be-true politician who grieved for his dead wife turns out to be an amoral con artist and psychopathic killer, who is driven to commit heinous acts by his tortured memory – one that kinks out on women who could never be his beloved.

There was material to mine there. Beyond that, there was a satisfying ending that could have bled into Season 2, where we saw B storylines from Season 1 get wrapped up as a new case emerged.

But no. Richmond wasn’t the killer. And now he looks to be gunned down in the final seconds by Belko, the mentally-challenged friend of the Larsen family. But since the screen went black, that will probably be a red herring, too. Worse, we find out that detective Holder – played with ever-increasing brilliance by Kinnaman – helped frame Richmond. So, in the course of an hour, The Killing shook off a chance to close Rosie’s murder, prolonging into Season 2 a fan’s need to follow the show down another twists-filled path, and took one of the most likable characters in the show and made him a creep.

If this was show runner Veena Sud’s attempt to add depth and gravitas to a series that cruised on atmospherics and exceptional acting, I’m not sure this is the right direction. Great acting can’t cover annoyingly thin character development. Red herrings are not, in and of themselves, acceptable plot devices or story accelerants, and asking the audience of a serialized show to commit to another season when they haven’t been given any answers in the first one is foolish.

And so – disappointment. What’s worse is that we all might have been sold a bill of goods on the Danish series that led to this U.S. remake. Although it enthralled a nation, Forbrydelsen, as it was called, had numerous detractors who thought the series didn’t make a lot of sense and that – wait for it – the gratuitous use of red herrings was harmful to the overall quality of the series. Beyond that, it appears that Sud is veering away from the actual killer in the Danish series and that this stuff with Holder being in on the conspiracy is at least in part a U.S. variant (which makes it even more annoying).

If true, what that means is that liberties being take in the AMC version of The Killing are not even good ones and God only knows where they will lead. In fairness, the Danish series went 20 episodes, so it could be that Sud will wrap up exactly who killed Rosie Larsen around the seventh episode in Season 2, then move on to a new case (which would, if that pattern holds – and this is a bit chilling – lead to another unsolved cliff-hanger for Season 2), which then would lead into Season 3.

I wouldn’t rule out going along for that ride, but it certainly doesn’t sound appealing right now.

There’s also the notion that Forbrydelsen, which I haven’t seen, just isn’t as great as hyped. A thought.

As for our version of The Killing, I’m not nearly as aggrieved as some critics are about this ending – it wasn’t the worst ending to a series ever, nor was it so galling that I’m convinced this is the downfall of “Story Matters” at AMC. Both of those are too knee-jerk to be believable and the impact probably lies somewhere at the halfway mark of those pronouncements.

What we know right now is that The Killing wasn’t able to save itself in the end, that some fans may rightly recalculate their loyalty and that AMC is as fallible as the next channel when it comes to quality control. There are no red herrings in those sentences.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine