'The Killing': A More Complicated Crime Procedural

AMC's new show stands out from other similar series because of its sophisticated techniques and complex characters

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AMC

AMC's new show The Killing offers a simple premise: Rosie Larsen is dead. And its 13-episode first season, in a nod to the question launching Twin Peaks two decades ago, asks: Who killed Rosie Larsen? Based on the hit Danish show Forbrydelsen, the show examines—in painful, up-close detail—the consequences of Rosie's murder for the police investigators, the parents, her peers, and even a local politician.

The Killing's two-hour debut never showed Rosie Larsen in life except in brief flashes. Her corpse did not even appear until the end of the first hour, when the show's lead character, homicide detective Sarah Linden (Big Love's Mireille Enos), discovers 17-year-old Rosie drowned in the trunk of a car, fingernails gone from attempting to scratch her way out. The discovery unfolds slowly: ominous tonal music, the serendipitous arrival of Rosie's father Stan Larsen (Brent Sexton), his inevitable breakdown as he tries to enter the crime scene, his wife Mitch (True Blood's Michelle Forbes) hearing everything on the phone and falling apart in front of her other two young children.

"Is it my daughter?" Stan asks, voice cracking. Seattle rain pours against a background of darkness, dreary as any scene in the show's world: moodily intense and saturated in rich, gorgeous color.

"You can't be here, Mr. Larsen," the red-haired Detective Linden tells him. Stoic, serious, and yet and sensitively perceptive, she remains professional—as Alyssa Rosenberg observed, the scene is a testament to the character's chilly strength, a quiet competence that forces her to follow through on the case.

When Rosie's parents see her body, the camera doesn't immediately veer into the corpse's face. No need—what's more effective and haunting is the dripping water the audience first sees before the camera pans up to show it falling from her wet hair. There she is: bruises and a butterfly necklace. The show's slow pacing and panoramic style (both visually and in the narrative) create a delicate world entirely unlike the action-packed frenzy of many crime shows. The calculated wonder driving the scenes brings to mind the style of film directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Terence Malick. The show makes visual poetry of a line of black-garbed cops sweeping through a brightly green field in search of foul play.

Three broad arcs weave in and out as the story progresses, a style which lends itself well to the show's format: one day of story time per episode. Our perspective constantly shifts from one group of characters to another, gracefully and naturally driving a pace that might initially seem sluggish. All the varied characters, from blue-collar Stan to the polished councilman Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) to the tweaker-punks that Rosie and her friends knew, become united by Rosie's death. The Killing keeps friction very much alive amid these different narratives. When Sarah and her often awkwardly noxious new partner Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnman) visit Fort Washington High School to interview Rosie's teacher, the lanky, hoodie-wearing Holder bluntly remarks, "Rosie's a pretty hot piece though, right." The teacher politely dismisses him, noting her age. "Kinda my point," Holder replies with an undeniably creepy grin. "Anyone hittin' that?" These uncomfortable moments continue, from Sarah Linden's parenting deficits to Councilman Richmond's secret dalliance with one of his aides.

What permeates The Killing is the sense that the unexpected can overtake life at any time. People die, careers change, political agendas lurk behind seeming altruism. The character's motivations, pains, and grief involve no irony; the complex story is an exercise in bleak realism, with attention to small details and the development of character. For Sarah Linden, the case of Rosie Larsen means sacrificing—at least temporarily—the life of a complete, happy family. The show begins on what would have been her last day before moving to California with fiancé Rick and her son. Actions quickly dictate otherwise.

The Killing's sophistication of technique and character elevates what could have been a conventional crime narrative. The debut leaves many questions and promises enough complexity to drive The Killing through its first season. Bleak, atmospheric dread combined with the broader mystery of Rosie's death creates more than enough suspense. The real mystery is whether the story behind Rosie's death will grow into a payoff the audience will need, one dreary episode after another.

Questions of the Week: How will the public (and unions-winning endorser Ruth Yitanes) react to the fact that Rosie's body was discovered in one of Councilman Richmond's campaign cars? What happened after the dance in the bloodstained "cage" under the school? Will Sarah Linden's fiancé remain so understanding of her staying in Seattle for the case?

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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