Can 'The Killing' Season Finale Save the Series?

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The AMC show has all sorts of problems, but a stand-out last episode could make us forget all about them

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The Killing is about to reach the payoff to the suspense that's been building all season. The show will wrap up its first season with this Sunday and presumably reveal, once and for all, who killed the beautiful teenager Rosie Larsen, the girl who died before the show's timeline began. The possible identity of the killer has shifted every week, and the rush to add ominous undertones to various characters has proved to be one of the show's greatest weaknesses. Critics lashed out hard against The Killing in the middle of the season, due to this tendency to fake out viewers.

Yet The Killing, just renewed for its second season and pulling in strong ratings, perhaps can still make good on its initial promising episodes. As the Robert McKee character in 2002's Adaptation declared, "Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you've got a hit."

I've defended the show for its gripping lead detectives and a magnetic panoramic approach to the murder. But there are a host of "flaws, problems" with the show that make a wow-worthy season finale essential. Here they are—and let's hope Sunday's show makes us forget all about them:

Forgotten characters

Remember characters like Jasper and Sterling? At the start, the show built up these teenagers as another narrative arc. Little scenes conjured sympathy for Sterling's isolation or outrage over Jasper's obnoxious preening. But where have they been for the second half of the season? They're no longer needed, and while it's fair to drop characters, their earlier development now feels lost.

These loose ends become more serious when the dropped elements have been focal points of the show. Bennet is apparently still out cold in a coma, I suppose, but we've heard nothing for multiple episodes now about either him or his wife. I still miss Ruth Yitanes.

The abuse of red herrings

The show exudes far too much hysteria over faux dilemmas. Consider the question of Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) leaving for a California wedding or the revolving door of suspects or taking cheap advantage of audience trust (as in the way Bennet survived the brutal beating despite all appearances, for instance, or to give an earlier example, the revelation that it was Sterling and not Rosie in that video). It's as if the writers are playing a game of "gotcha," and little is clever about the way the rug is pulled out from under the audience's feet.

Forgotten or half-baked plot arcs

The Richmond campaign once showed signs of internal chaos: leaks, Jamie's fake defection to the mayor, the mistrust of Gwen. These concerns dominated the political arc for the first third of the season, but their importance ultimately seems to add nothing to the second two-thirds. Who cares about those machinations now? Did it teach audiences anything substantial? Jamie's good for little more than a one-liner and Gwen for looking doubtfully at Richmond.

Other plot elements are flirted with but rarely flushed out, which partly explains the frustration some fans felt at the recent episode devoted solely to Linden and Holder—it gave character details in a jumble. The implications of Holder's crucifix tattoo? Linden's parenting issues? The reasons behind them should have been revealed slowly, not dumped at once.

Most frustrating was probably all the plot architecture surrounding the idea that Bennet Ahmed killed Rosie. Those suspicions surrounding Bennet caused the show to dive into a local mosque, into the FBI, into big chases in a market, the psychology of the teacher's pregnant wife, and the case of smuggling a Somali girl out of the country to escape female circumcision. His innocence makes that path feel like a waste now, the one lasting consequence being Stan Larsen's imprisonment.

The perils of panorama

So many character arcs float throughout The Killing that it's often far too difficult to make all the different moving pieces compelling. In recent episodes, since the Bennet pummeling, the Larsens have felt extraneous. Before them, the politicians. Unlike the examples above, the three central arcs (cops, family, politicians) have always played a role...but not all have magnetism driving them forward. The power of Stan Larsen (Brent Sexton) has been reduced greatly since his imprisonment, and the harsh fight with his wife Mitch (Michelle Forbes) in last week's episode provided a welcome return of the old fire.

Rosie's shifting persona

Is she a teen hooker or a creative soul making Super 8 films? Rosie is apparently both, a college aspirant and a party girl. Hints provide a rough sketch of who she might be, but few definitive pictures ground the show's central murder victim. Our flashes of Rosie include a butterfly-covered bedroom and late-night trips to casinos but little more than such scattered moments. Such mystery can be alluring but what also results, inevitably, is an entity that's essentially passive, without much sympathy or real draw.

Does anyone care who killed Rosie Larsen? Not in any consistent way. Perhaps clearer answers about her activities with Beau Soleil will clarify these flickering, varied impressions by the season's end.

The source of plot twists

The rest of the McKee quote from Adaptation explains that a great ending must emanate from the characters, not from some deus ex machina twist pulled out of the ether. The Killing has offered both types of plot shifts, and it's that duality that makes the show so frustrating. The camaraderie between Holder and Linden, her relationship with her son and Regi, the mistakes in the investigation and with the Larsens...all has been organic and from character.

Then there's your Indian burial grounds thrown in—the lightning-strike plot magic puts Richmond in the lead and gives the mayor a reason to share incriminating photos with Gwen (which is also strange—wouldn't he have every reason to leak them now?). Straight from the outset, The Killing's most potent virtue was its potential to delve into its characters' psychology, and the plot needs to reflect that better. After all the fascinating inner examinations of Stan Larsen's character, it's a crime that he snapped over the silly coincidence of two Grand Canyon sweaters.

Haphazard police work all along

Linden may appear dedicated, but she's no super cop. Why did the police wait so long to scan Rosie's computer? How dare Linden implicate Bennet when talking to Mitch Larsen? Is there a good reason so many of their leads fall apart thanks to a lack of proper police protocol?

Most of the advances in the case come randomly, not as a result of Linden and Holder's skill. The broader problem in The Killing is this idea that luck and blind fate guide the actions of the characters, that there's no design to uncovering Rosie's murder. The right witnesses and evidence pop up whenever it's convenient. How terribly perfect, even, that Linden happened to be in Councilman Richmond's apartment right when her police coworker remotely re-sends her I KNOW WHAT YOU DID e-mails to the Beau Soleil Orpheus account, and that Richmond's e-mail system chimes, and that his laptop was open to his inbox. The scene is a chilling one, especially as Richmond approaches Linden in the shadows, but the timing and circumstances are incredible. Linden would have likely only spent around 10 minutes in the politician's apartment, but it was in these 10 minutes that a whole world of revelation occurred.

With Sunday's finale fast approaching, cross your fingers that The Killing remembers McKee's advice.

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

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