'The Killing': At Last, a Crime Drama With a Real Woman Lead

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The new AMC series focuses on a female detective who struggles to be a good mother as she solves a devastating crime

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AMC


At the beginning of the pilot episode of AMC's excellent new mystery show, The Killing (premiering April 3 at 9 p.m.), Detective Sarah Linden cuts her morning run short to respond to a report that a body's been found in a warehouse. As she descends into the black corridors of the run-down building, navigating by flashlight, it's impossible not to feel a sense of dread. After all, the opening scenes of The Killing juxtapose Linden's jog with images of a woman tearing desperately through the woods at night. But at the center of the labyrinth, the dead body turns out to be a blow-up doll on a noose, a black-humored centerpiece to the good-bye party Linden's coworkers are throwing for her.

If this were Prime Suspect, the classic BBC show about a female detective played by Helen Mirren, it would be a grim example of ugly workplace sexism. If this happened on Law & Order, there would be disciplinary reports, and tense conversations in the sergeant's office, and lessons learned. In one of the first of many signs that The Killing is not just another cop show, the reveal is the catalyst for a warm send-off—and Linden brings the doll home with her.

"She's so good at what she does that it kind of removes all gender," says Mireille Enos, the 35-year-old, Tony-nominated actress who plays Linden. "She just gets to be one of her coworkers, and they love her, and she knows she's excellent."

That presumption of excellence and equality is what makes The Killing both so strong and so rare. By placing an uncompromising woman at the center of the show, AMC has made the series that NBC can only hope its Prime Suspect remake will be, and has given the audience a strikingly good heroine at a time when prestige cable shows are dominated by male leads.

Part of what's so unusual about The Killing is its format: the 13-episode season is devoted—much like the shorter runs of British series like Prime Suspect or State of Play—to solving a single crime. American procedural shows tend to have a case per episode, a body of the week. Even those that are dedicated to unraveling a larger conspiracy, be it the Baltimore drug networks of The Wire or the identity of the mysterious man in White Collar, generally have at least one mystery they can solve definitively within the programming hour. By contrast, The Killing has only one problem to unravel, and its progress can be maddeningly slow.

But there's something authentic about that itchy impatience, the fits and starts of an investigation. Enos was pregnant with her son while she was filming, and said she avoided doing the immersive and intensive research she might have otherwise pursued. But Veena Sud, the show's creator and executive producer, has worked on an unconventional cop show before, the dreamy procedural Cold Case, and had spent time with undercover police officers. Enos says she had help from an unexpected source—one of the still photographers for the pilot was a former homicide detective.

"His hobby had been photography, that's kind of how he kept himself balanced," she says. "He retired, but it had been his part-time profession, being a still photographer. He understood both worlds."

The Killing's dedication to realistic—if emotionally unsatisfying—pacing isn't the only way it digs at audiences. The show pokes repeatedly and uncomfortably at parenting, as the central crime to be solved is the murder of a teenaged girl, Rosie Larsen. After finding out their daughter is missing, and then dead, after failing to show up at school following a weekend sleepover with a friend, several characters ask the Larsens how they could go for a whole weekend without checking in on her. It's a brutal but fair question for loving parents who made the mistake of assuming that the worst that could happen to their daughter is that she would choose a bad boyfriend (Richard Harmon, in a quietly repellent performance) or resist going to college.

The sense of unease about raising children is enhanced by the fact that Linden is no paragon herself, awkward with her son. "Funyons, son. Get your fiber," Stephen (Joel Kinnaman), the cop who becomes her partner, calls after the boy at one point, after Linden sends him off to find a snack. "That could work out, raising a kid on vending machines," Stephen tells her. "Don't worry, Linden, you're not that bad."

It's rare to see heroines who are that reluctant or careless about parenting on-screen, and Enos says it's one of the things that makes Linden "traditionally, a quote unquote male character ... If this was a man who was career-driven, and kind of a reluctant father, no one would even think about it." But because Linden is a woman, her experience contrasted with Enos' own experience filming the show, and Linden's parenting behavior provides uneasy parallels with the warm, but inattentive Larsens' approach to their daughter.

"Sarah's experience is different than mine," says Enos. "I'm married to an awesome guy, and we planned our family and had the baby when we wanted. Sarah got married really young and that didn't work out ... Statistically, murders of children and teenagers are very close to the family, it's usually someone that the child knew. The show's not going to walk in [to the Larsens' home] with a lot of empathy because nine times out of ten, the doer would be inside that house. She's an observer, and she's learned how not to be an empath."

That refusal to empathize for the good of the case can be unnerving. After Linden finds Rosie's body, she refuses to let the girl's father near the crime scene, disengaging as he becomes hysterical on a wet road on a dark night.

It's due both to Enos's marvelous performance and to some excellent writing that Linden's never reduced to a stereotype of a cold career woman. Unlike the romantic comedy tendency to invent a false choice between work and career, the show sets up an immediate and real dilemma for the character. While The Killing begins with Linden leaving the Seattle Police Department to join her fiance, Rick, in California, Rosie Larsen's murder is an anchor she cannot cast off. It's clear that Linden loves this man—in their sole scene together, Enos's flushed face crumples with a joy so incandescent it's painful. But Linden keeps postponing flights, and it's easy to see that she'll stay in Washington at least until she catches Rosie's murderer.

And rather than treating Linden's decision as evidence of an emotional flaw, Enos says she sees that choice as evidence of Linden's skills as a detective.

"I don't fault her for being determined to find this girl's killer, because at this moment, she's the best person for the job," she muses. "I think there's something about Rosie being right at the edge of all of her potential, and Sarah standing on the edge of the rest of her life, her potential life, and the fact that Rosie's hopes were snatched away from her, there's a real chord. She can't have her own happiness while Rosie's is taken away from her, until she makes it right as much as she can."

That prickly, loner's commitment to justice is not uncommon among men, but it's rare among women on screen. Prime Suspect wasn't afraid of Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison's unpleasantness, and often succeeded in making a virtue of it, but the point was that she was effective and a bit tragic—at the end of the show, she retires and decides to address her alcoholism—not that she's unambiguously a hero. On The Wire, Kima Greggs neglects her home life in favor of work (she is also unfaithful to her girlfriend), but it's always seemed like she loves the rhythm of policing as much as the end result of it. Linden's a bit of a Western archetype, working under the big, bleak skies that have become one of AMC's strongest visual trademarks, and that make its characters seem like they're lost in a frontier no matter how close they are to civilization. It's not that she'll pursue justice at any cost, or work outside the lines of her department's rules. It's that in solving Rosie Larsen's murder, Linden can restore order to her universe.

Enos has ambitions that such restored order could bring personal happiness to her character, too. "Rick could decide to move up to Seattle," she speculates. "I still have hopes that Sarah can have it all." And I hope Enos will too. If there's justice in the world of entertainment, The Killing should turn her into a major star, and into a catalyst for more rich, complex stories about unflinching women.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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