Why 'The Killing' Is Still Worth Watching

Several television writers have turned against the new AMC show, but some of their criticisms miss the point



AMC's new crime procedural—about a murder investigation, grief, and psychological devastation—has experienced a critical sea change. Many television writers, initially taken by The Killing's dazzling two-hour debut, have questioned whether it's completely jumped the shark now, at its tenth episode out of 13. And despite strong ratings, the question of whether there will be a second season also hangs in the balance.

Consider Salon's piece "How The Killing Killed Itself," in which Matt Zoller Seitz says that the first season been like watching Homicide: Life on the Streets morph into Scooby-Doo. Slate referred to last week's "eye-roll-worthy plot contrivances." The AV Club graded last week's episode a C and deemed it "outlandish...all MacGuffins, with no narrative payoff."

This week's episode again displayed the tiring bait-and-switch nature of The Killing, yet also provided a few of the rich fundamentals that drew an audience initially. Weaker elements included the revelation that, of course Bennet survived last week's brutal pummeling; that Belko would be played up so ominously only to, naturally, be vindicated; that Stan and Mitch's reactions would play with melodrama; and that the new developments in Rosie's case would come suddenly and from little prior hints (the taxi driver, Adela, and so on). But the whole of The Killing can't be reduced to these narrative sins.

Here at The Atlantic, I wondered about some of the mounting criticism that began to appear after only the first five weeks but concluded the show was still worth watching. Yes, there were a few ham-fisted moments, some oddly pat situations, the bleakness, and of course increasingly frustrating red herrings. But what remained was the atmosphere, the nuanced acting behind officers Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), two originals who have only seemed more dynamic and intriguing as their flawed characters unfold. As a reader pointed out in a note to me, the series has included some impressive directors, from Patty Jenkins (Monster) to Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa), who have crafted the chilly world of the show's Seattle. These elements in the raw tend to work on The Killing and still propel episodes forward; the technical details of plot and at times subtlety sometimes miss the mark.

Yet I'd also suggest that some of the criticism is too quick and misses the mark. One large objection is that the show rarely brings us closer to who killed Rosie Larsen. True enough—the show does tease its audience far too much, offering drama that's occasionally more faux than unforgettable (Sonoma, anyone?), but what drives the show is the effect of Rosie's death on the characters. The actual mystery is vaguely interesting but more a backdrop and narrative mechanism to watch the pain unfold. Oh, Bennet wasn't the killer...? Fine enough. His innocence doesn't mean the latest episodes were wasted, considering the character still ended up in critical condition after the transformations in Stan Larsen's character. The Killing's virtues lie more in character study than in the clue of the week.

This new episode offered perhaps the most startling display of Sarah Linden's inner life. When reviewing in a recent episode, I posed the question of when she might break down—that time seems to have arrived now. Guilt plagues Linden in every scene after discovering that Bennet, an innocent, is nearly dead and thanks to her careless words to the Larsen family: her late-night, Bourbon-filled visit to Richmond; her tears when hearing of her son's drinking and Regi's displeasure; the late-night trip to a hotel; and of course, her failure to join a defeated Rick, who has given up on the woman who may lead him to "end up sitting in a hospital again watching her stare at a blank wall." Her desperation and dedication and closed-off nature comprise one of the most fascinating set of traits in a character. These qualities and parenting flaws would be at home with a masculine cop archetype, but she embodies them naturally as a woman. No one would blame Rick for kissing her and leaving, Regi for her anger ("I'm not the babysitter, Sarah"), or her son Jack for his confusion, yet Linden herself remains somehow compelling and sympathetic, a testament to Enos' acting and the show's strong writing. She's not the best cop and not the best mother—and that's why she's so fascinating.

Holder's performance was again a highlight of the episode as he showed himself to be wilier than ever, both entertaining and clever in his interrogation of Belko and keen observations about the taxi driver's video. His antics alone, whether tough talk about Linden's guilt, bringing her a doughnut, or snickering over Belko's oddities, create a strong draw.

These character portraits don't make up for some of the sloppy or over-the-top moments in The Killing, but they do provide enough reason to keep watching the final three episodes in its debut season. And might events that seem like red herrings or plot meanderings come around to fit perfectly into the season's conclusion? It's possible. Showrunner Veena Sud has indicated she has plans for future season, and the promising start still provides more than enough incentive not to dismiss AMC's take on the police procedural just yet.

Questions of the Week: How will Mitch react to discovering the missing funds in the family account (the ones Stan used to secretly purchase a house for them)? Did Councilman Richmond lie about knowing Rosie Larsen when she was alive? Is there any way we'll see Stan outside of a jail cell for the rest of the season?