On 'The Killing,' Grappling With Grief

Each of the characters is struggling to recover from loss—and things seem to be getting worse rather than better



AMC's The Killing is a lesson in pressure: how it builds, how it evolves, and perhaps most significantly, how the show's characters manage it. This week's episode demonstrated—with several excruciating examples—the way the show's different characters respond to loss, a hard and yet nuanced look at the emotional toll different events have taken. The idea of loss cuts across all the show's central narratives, whether it's the loss of murder victim Rosie Larsen or something more buried, like the loss of Councilman Darren Richmond's wife or this week's new revelation about Detective Holder, who as a member of Narcotics Anonymous, once suffered from a loss of control. Last week's cliffhanger quickly resolved itself to compelling character study, which seems appropriate a week after Rosie's murder.

Grief takes two forms throughout the course of The Killing. First come the tantrums and rage, such as when Stan Larsen screamed and cried in the rain upon learning of his daughter's death. The initial loss comes with a burst of white-hot, immediate anguish. But what The Killing articulates, episode after episode, is the difficulty and stress of grief over time. Loss remains: sometimes numb, sometimes lacerating, and often far more difficult to fathom once the initial crush of revelation passes. This second type of grief can be the most challenging.

"We've gotta focus on the future, Mitch," Stan tells his wife after clearing out the belongings in Rosie's bedroom. "We have responsibilities."

Stan speaks the truth. Day-to-day living continues, and Stan and Mitch must care for their two other children, still alive and mystified by the inchoate strain that has overtaken their mom and dad. "He was mad," one says to his brother about Stan's prickliness during breakfast. "Did we do something wrong?" The malaise of unhappiness has caused Mitch to become careless, and she even forgets her two sons in the car, gas on and in the garage. She seems to barely register the significance.

But when the characters in The Killing submerge their grief, they harden.

Consider the way Linden ignores her family's problems for the professional, as in this week's conclusion when she goes with Holder rather than reconcile with her son and work out why he leaked crime-scene photos. Remember how Mitch comes at Stan with special edge. Witness how, just after his emotional outburst over his wife, Richmond took the political low road in leaking the story about his opponent's mistress—both uncharacteristic and brusque.

Even the passage of years fails to completely relieve the stress. Richmond clearly mourns his dead wife long after her passing. "It gets better," he told Mitch Larsen in a prior episode, yet the audience still sees how he visits his wife's grave, how the subject of her passing stands between him and his lover and aide, Gwen.

Such grief becomes buried but never quite extinguished, and sometimes white-hot emotion flares again. Richmond revealed that side of himself this week, after listening to the courtroom plea for forgiveness from the woman who killed his wife. In the politician's most visceral display to date, he retreats to the bathroom and smashes his fist into the mirror. The mirror's cracks capture a dozen reflections of his features, symbolically illustrating the multitude of faces with which he has to face the public world—so many of which can never fully acknowledge the grief that leaves his knuckles bloody in a courthouse restroom.

Another element, even more frightening and inscrutable, is the sense of guilt and judgment that so often accompanies the pangs of loss. Husband and wife began blaming one another for their daughter's death: Mitch angrily accuses Stan of letting Rosie stay home on her final weekend; he fires back that Mitch's strictness compelled their daughter to hide things. What remains after loss is not only memories of the past but also a tougher view of the world, one that closes off the possibility of a good life full of sympathetic people. The woman who killed Richmond's wife suggests that people aren't designed to forgive, a sentiment that Holder echoes when recounting his junkie-era crimes.

"I don't expect forgiveness," Holder tells those attending his N.A. meeting. "If it comes or not, that's none of my business."

Questions of the Week: How much will terrorism play a role in the Larsen investigation as Linden and Holder attempt to sidestep the FBI? What will the wiretap of Bennet's phone turn up? When will all mounting frustrations, from the case to the FBI to her son leaking photos of the Larsen murder, cause Linden to finally break?

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

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