David Bushman

Curator, Television

June 21, 2011

In Defense of "The Killing"

by David Bushman

My Lord, if Veena Sud (pictured left) lived in the Seven Kingdoms she'd have her head on a pike by now. What exactly did the poor woman do? As showrunner of AMC's The Killing, she helped craft a season finale that many of our most esteemed TV critics despised. And why exactly did they hate it? As best I can tell, because it didn't explicitly solve the central mystery of the series—Who killed Rosie Larsen?—and thus, it is argued, constituted an affront to the intelligence of the audience. Here's what I have to say about that: Get over it.

The only thing Sud and her team owed viewers who CHOSE to invest their time in the series was a thoughtful, well-crafted episode—not just this past week for the season finale, but every week. Now you can argue all you want that Sud did or did not deliver on that count, but please, no more righteous indignation over the big reveal (or lack thereof) in the final minutes of the finale:

Maureen Ryan (AOL) was so incensed that she opened her review thusly: "YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME. (I'm going to walk away now, imbibe a handful of sedatives, and come back when I am not frothing at the mouth...)." Ryan goes on to say that she "hated the season finale of 'The Killing' with the burning intensity of 10,000 white-hot suns," and calls it "the worst season finale of all time, because it was a terrible execution of a set of colossally stupid, misguided and condescending ideas."

James Poniewozik (Time)—one of my favorite critics—dubbed the conclusion of the final episode (titled "Orpheus Descending") "a stunningly contemptuous psych-out of its audience," and gave viewers permission to "unlock the toolshed and get the pitchforks!"

Alan Sepinwall (Hitfix) judged the episode: "a mess, and an insult to the audience who have stuck around for the last three months," adding: "So this will be the last review I write of The Killing, because this will be the last time I watch The Killing [even though it has been renewed for a second season]. Because I have no interest in going forward with a show that treats its audience this way."

Jeez, I'm almost sheepish to admit I actually LIKED the ending, in which—SPOILER ALERT here—it is revealed that Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), one of the two Seattle cops leading the investigation into Larsen's murder, was something other than what he seemed, and that he apparently was complicit in a scheme to frame Councilman Darren Richmond (Bill Campbell) for the crime. Assuming this interpretation is correct, numerous mysteries remain unanswered: What was Holder's motivation? Whom is he working with? And, most importantly, who really did kill Rosie Larsen? (I use the word "apparently" here because I have yet to completely rule out the possibility, however remote, that Richmond was in fact guilty, and that Holder manufactured evidence simply because he was unable to make the case any other way, which is the argument that Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times is advancing. Bellafante's original review was so out of touch with how other critics interpreted the episode that she took the highly unusual step of writing a follow-up piece titled "The 'Killing' Finale: Clearer Than You Thought," defending her position.

In my very humble opinion, this last-minute switcheroo involving Holder was not only NOT insulting to my intelligence (such as it is), but rather supremely provocative and bold, advancing the very noir-like notion that no one—not even Holder, whom we had come to appreciate as a hip, charismatic, and empathetic law-enforcement figure—can be trusted. This to me was thoroughly consistent with the prevailing ambience of the series, in which the rain never relented; politicians were ruthless, corrupt, and self-serving; and almost everyone—from troubled high-school kids to sensitive English teachers to seemingly solid family men and women—had something to hide. I'm not saying The Killing was perfect—like most critics I was troubled by the contrivances, the cluelessness of the cops, and the lapses into melodrama (especially from poor Michelle Forbes, in the role of Rosie's mom) - but there was a lot to like about it, and for me that included the final revelation.

This pitiless wrath being pitched at Sud for refusing to unequivocally identify Rosie's killer of course evokes Twin Peaks, and all the grief David Lynch took for similarly refusing to out Laura Palmer's killer when critics demanded it (never mind that those same critics complained that the show was never the same after, and that it crashed and burned in no time). Why shouldn't Sud—or Lynch, for that matter—be permitted to solve the mystery at his/her own pace? Isn't that what the creative process is about? In today's instant-access culture, must artists cater to the consumers' expectations and agendas? One argument going around is that Sud and AMC marketed The Killing with the implied promise that the perpetrator would be exposed by season's end, which Sud refutes.  Another is that unlike Twin Peaks, The Killing was based on a Danish show that did in fact expose the murderer during the first season, thus creating the expectation that the American series would as well.

I have just one response to that: Don't insult my intelligence.

  • M.A., thanks for your post. This whole argument may be better suited to a podcast or vlog, because you can go back and forth about it forever. As I state in my original piece, I have no issue with people criticizing the show for its writing, acting, directing, etc., but what seems to be going on  here to me is that people are pillorying Sud very specifically for the way she ended the series, which to me was not only true to the vision of the series, but also a very effective creative choice. To say that she insulted the intelligence of her audience by not resolving the central mystery is to me a very unfair accusation, and one that is being lobbied with striking vitriol. The comparisons to Twin Peak are unavoidable. In hindsight, does anyone really think the critics were right and David Lynch was wrong in that argument over Lynch's reluctance to identify Laura Palmer's killer? I do think Alan Sepinwall makes a valid point when he says that TP was so good that he was absorbed in other aspects of the show, beyond the mystery of Laura's killer, but if people really hated The Killing so much, why on earth would they keep watching just to find out who killed Rosie? Couldn't you just turn in for the last episode, or read about it online at 11:01? 


    David, June 22, 2011 at 7:50 am

  • David, here's my understanding of the backlash. There were so many things that didn't add up in the series, that many people held on through the weeks ONLY to find out who killed Rosie. So when this 1 thing that people wanted from their time investment wasn't attained, they went collectively crazy.

    This AVClub write-up has the best list of things that don't add up with the series.

    http://www.avclub.com/articles/orpheus-descending,57743/

    One they missed: why would Richmond use a CAMPAIGN CAR to ditch a body of a young woman he has murdered?  The writers felt they had to raise this question, and Holder brings it up with Linden. Her answer; "because of the tinted windows."  OMG. Terrible writing, terrible plotting. Is there something strange about Seattle that only cars in the Richmond campaign have tinted windows?  The AV list offers many other excellent instances.


    M.A.Peel, June 21, 2011 at 11:14 pm

  • Michael, I appreciate your thoughtful comments very much, evern if I am not in complete agreement with all of your points. I suppose  people care about TV shows because they stimulate us emotionally or intellectually (or both), and we invest ourselves in them in the same way people have over centuries and still do in books. I actually can think of several novels that I have read that end without complete resolution, including the first two books in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, as well as the "Song of Ice and Fire" books I am reading now, and in all cases I bore the writer no ill will because of it. But your criticism of "The Killing" is honest and fair, and I respect that. I just happen to think the ending was a creative risk worth taking.


    David, June 21, 2011 at 5:48 pm

  • The true story is the power of the medium. Why does anybody care about a TV show? What is the magic that makes a "Star Trek", "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", "Firefly", "The Killing", etc an important part of a person's life? I understand the anger. What if you had spent three months with a book and at the end of the book instead of an ending you find "to be continued" next year? I don't understand why anyone is surprised or even cares about "The Killing". From the beginning it seemed to think different is more important than dramatic or interesting. The characters are so lacking in depth or appeal you can identify them better by their labels, "The Father", "The Female Cop", "The Politician", than their names. So many critics had spent these last three months trying to justify what they saw in the series, only in the end discovered they had been a shill for a kool-aide stand.


    michael42, June 21, 2011 at 5:10 pm

About

David Bushman

Curator, Television

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Before joining the Paley Center in 1992, David Bushman was senior television editor of Daily Variety in Los Angeles and weekly Variety in New York. He also served as director of programming at TV Land from 1997 to 1998. He has taught and lectured on TV at numerous institutions, but on only one continent. He may be the only person in the world pining for an E-Z Streets reunion.

Interests:

Noir, Fantasy Baseball, The Pogues, Soccer, Running

Contact

David Bushman
dbushman@paleycenter.org

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