'The Killing': The Linden and Holder Show

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The Killing veered into perhaps its strangest territory this week, and now may officially be the crime procedural version of 1981's My Dinner with Andre. The Louis Malle film may seem like an unconventional comparison when talking about a murder investigation, but bear with me.

In My Dinner with Andre, two acquaintances dine together and talk ...and that's it. The movie's entire 110 minutes involve their conversation, mostly seated, and goes into their pasts, intellectualism, travel, theater, human connection, the virtues and vices of electric blankets, and ultimately the meaning of life. The movie comes off a little pretentious, a little boring, yet compelling in its utterly straightforward, earnest conceit. Those same qualities, which earned the film a cult following, suddenly drive The Killing.

In this week's episode the show zeroes in on two of the characters: detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), stoically incompetent as both a mother as well as a cop, and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), outrageously street in his ex-junkie, vegetarian exuberance. No Larsens, no politicians, no high schoolers, no Bennet, no Belko, and not even Regi or much concern for the Rosie murder investigation.

The premise: Linden's teen son Jack disappears mysteriously, and the detectives drop everything in their hunt for the beer-drinking, smoking, neglected punk. Linden gets emotional—to the point of tears. Holder acts as her driver and what seems like the only friend she has beyond Regi—who, the audience learns, is not simply Linden's friend but the former foster child's social worker. The episode is full of these revelations and small character details as the detectives visit Linden's motel, the punk teens' daytime hangout, Regi's dock, and elsewhere in search of Jack.

Last week I praised the raw and gripping nature of some of the show's characters in spite of red herrings, narrative inertia, and the other flaws that have inspired gripes from many of the show's critics. But this week takes "meditation" to a whole new and staggering, talky level. Rather than blow out the drama with more suspense, more plot, more advancement—the kind you might expect from the third-to-last episode of the season—The Killing grinds its pace down to a halt in what's truly an Andre-esque character study of these two protagonists.

What's staggering is how effective the bold move managed to be, though it will likely inspire as many detractors as not. The show revitalized itself precisely by briefly dropping many members of a large cast that's increasingly begun to feel like dead weight. Here, the small and focused character details win the day, as dialogue races back and forth between Holder and Linden and finally touches on serious questions that always lurked but never felt addressed. Why does Holder sport a cross on his back? Why is Linden so cut off? What happened to the kid from Linden's previous case, the one where the kid drew those pictures? Answers finally emerge.

Consider how Linden remembers the foster homes in which she lived from age five until graduating high school: "You know what the worst thing was? Bedrooms. Not knowing where the window was, the door, the light switch—that damn thing was always in a different place."

"No wonder you ain't a pro at being a mom," Holder reflects.

Linden fires back angrily and even exits the car before Holder convinces her to return. Their chemistry, always humorous and magnetic, becomes tempered with real emotion and what may approach understanding. The Killing properly earns its character moments in this episode, many of the best done wordlessly: the way Linden takes one of Holder's cigarettes, his constant support for her in his other commitments that day, the emotion on her face as she talks about the place she used to visit with Jack (even singing as she reminiscences, her armor cracked). It's gratifying and important to see Linden finally thank Holder. She spent so much of the day unappreciative of his gestures of support.

"I'm not going to be able to make it to the parade," the hoodie-wrapped Holder tries to explain to his sister Liz. "There's this friend, and she's in need. It's kind of like an emergency, you know? It is an emergency."

The former addict's conflicted loyalty, faltering and stripped of all pretense, may present the sweetest moment of any character so far, and Linden's broken collapse is equally heartbreaking. Joel Kinnaman and Mireille Enos performed each with commendable skill. This week, the audience finally had reasons to care about The Killing's two most compelling characters again. The son's disappearance is incidental to this larger exploration, the questions and tensions blown out in a way that achieves real depth.

Jack does reappear by the episode's conclusion after spending the day with his father, the audience discovers. No harm, no foul. But his missing status let us see how Linden and Holder operate under crisis, shattered and in the rain and finally existing outside the Rosie Larsen investigation. Sure, the show may have benefited from better integrating these details into previous episodes, from creating a space in which these nice moments could be paced out. But this audacious narrative coup restored faith that the show can do its primary actors justice. Who knew that by dropping Rosie, her family, and the other characters, The Killing would breathe oxygen back into the story?

Questions of the Week: Who is Jack's father—and is it possible he's the child from the past murder investigation? What would have lured Rosie to the waterside casino? Could the gambling connection tie in to Stan Larsen's past addictions? Do umbrellas exist in Seattle?

This week's episode turns away from the murder investigation to focus exclusively on two of the show's characters. Does it work?

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

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