Two weeks ago, Netflix released the fourth season – and what is allegedly the final season, though I have a hard time believing that, given history – of “The Killing,” having revived the show after AMC canceled it for a second time. I have seen all six episodes, and while I already discussed it on this week's podcast, I had a few thoughts I wanted to write up, as well as provide a space for non-podcast listeners to weigh in on how they felt about the series' latest conclusion, with spoilers aplenty coming up just as soon as I”m somehow the most depressing character in a TV universe that also includes The Leftovers”…
Season 3 of “The Killing” wasn't great, but it was easily the best of the show's three years on AMC. Confining the mystery to a single season reduced a few of the show's more aggravating tics to a more manageable size, and the work done with the guest characters and subplots was a dramatic improvement over the Larsens, “viral” wheelchair basketball videos, etc. Holder's friendship with Bullet was the strongest relationship the show ever did, the episode where they executed Ray Seward was riveting – except for the various moments where Sarah Linden again proved herself to be the most gullible police detective in television history, always believing the latest piece of information placed before her above anything she knew previously – and it felt at times like Veena Sud and company had begun to figure out how to genuinely take advantage of telling a traditional police procedural story over 13 episodes rather than one.
Then, of course, they botched the ending yet again, and I resolved that if “The Killing” ever returned, I might watch it, but only “with the understanding that I shouldn't pay the slightest bit of attention to the plot.”
I entered this six-episode Netflix season curious to see whether Sud and company could carry the improvement of season 3 forward, and also how the storytelling felt with half as many episodes to work with. But I also approached it with both lowered expectations and minimal emotional investment.
And even given that minimal investment, these episodes were remarkably unpleasant to get through.
We pick up in the immediate aftermath of Linden giving her serial killer ex-boyfriend the suicide-by-cop that he desired – Linden having been manipulated into it because, again, she believes with all her heart whatever it is that someone last told her – as Holder helps her cover up the evidence of murder. But Linden turns out to be even worse at covering up crimes than she is at investigating them, and so she does remarkably stupid things like hold onto her ex's phone, or dispose of crucial evidence right near his lake house. We're meant to view Linden – who has had mental health issues in the past – as going off the deep end in the aftermath of season 3, but playing bug-eyed crazy for most of six episodes stretches the limits of what Mireille Enos does well as an actress. Joel Kinnaman(*) was always the more interesting of the two leads, and he unsurprisingly does better at portraying Holder's own struggles – falling off the wagon, being cruel to his sister and his pregnant girlfriend, confessing to the crime at an NA meeting conveniently attended by a police informant – but it's still six hours of the show's heroes being trainwrecks even as they're trying to work a new case.
(*) This is your periodic reminder that Fienberg is absolutely right in wanting Kinnaman to play the young Lou Solverson in “Fargo” season 2, especially when you compare photos of him to 1970s Keith Carradine.
That case, involving a private military academy cadet who may have massacred his entire family, is even more of a wallow than Linden and Holder's struggles. It's an opportunity to trot out every cliché about the cruelty of boys to one another, and how the sadism gets so much worse in a (faux) military setting. As the chief suspect – and the one who carries large swaths of each episode in between our glimpses of Linden and Holder going to pieces, at times barely aware that they are actively investigating a multiple homicide – Tyler Ross is asked to play every scene either through tears, or on the edge of tears, and it wears thin over even a half-length season. As the academy headmaster – and apparently its only adult employee – Joan Allen is given almost nothing to play but steely impatience with these two idiot cops. And the explanation that the boy did, in fact, kill his parents (after a psychotic break caused by the academy's hazing) does a very poor job of explaining the various mind games that Allen's character orders her co-conspirators to play as part of their own weird cover-up.
“The Killing” was never a light show in its AMC incarnation, though the culture clash between the deeply private Linden and open book Holder provided occasional levity. Season 4, though, amps up the misery, assuming that it's inherently the same as profundity. One can be linked to the other – the dark final season of “Breaking Bad” was incredible, and I remain under the spell of “The Leftovers” (even as many others are not) – but bleakness doesn't inherently make something deep and compelling, especially not when your central character isn't well-drawn enough to support all this unhappiness.
After a deux ex machina appearance from Billy Campbell as wheelchair basketball mayor Darren Richmond – the chief red herring of season 1 – takes care of whatever legal jeopardy our heroes are in, we jump ahead five years for a truly bizarre epilogue. Holder's a father to an adorable little girl, and he's found a new home running a shelter for troubled teens – an effective payoff both to Holder's own struggles with addiction and his friendship with Bullet. He and his daughter's mom have split up, but that's just fine and dandy, because who should return from her soul-replenishing walking of the earth but Sarah Linden? And who should be revealed to be each other's One True Pairing but Holder and Linden, despite almost no suggestion in previous seasons that there was any romantic tension between them? For that matter, it was barely even suggested in previous seasons that the two of them were even friends, and if you choose to read the final scene as simply the two of them realizing they need each other around in a platonic sense, “The Killing” didn't even really put in the necessary work to foreshadow that. Not all opposite-gender partners must fall in love, even on television, and the Linden/Holder partnership was presented as something where two opposites gradually developed respect and trust for one another, and not that they were each other's soulmate, or even each other's best friend forever.
I suppose that the beating Sud took after season 1 failed to solve the Rosie Larsen case as the ad campaign had implied (if not explicitly promised) made her reluctant to ever again embrace ambiguity or try to deny her audience closure. And I would imagine that the majority of the people who toughed it out all the way to the end of “The Killing” season 4 did it out of genuine enjoyment of the show and/or Linden and Holder, and that therefore they might appreciate an ending that leaves them together, even if they're not cops anymore.
For me, though, “The Killing” was largely a wasted opportunity. From time to time, it really did demonstrate the power of spending so much time on a single investigation. But too often, it just felt like an elongated version of a network police procedural that lasted longer without actually going any deeper. Season 3 could have been a breakthrough, and maybe even one that set the show up for an extended Netflix run (say, with Holder as the veteran breaking in a rookie partner), but season 4 was a mess well before it got to the parts designed to wrap up the series for good.
After two resurrections by two different companies, I'm not ready to accept that “The Killing” has actually been buried just yet. Even if Netflix got what it wanted out of the deal – a definitive ending that allows the service to hype it as a complete experience alongside other, far better binge-viewing candidates – I could see some other service getting into the original content business deciding that they need a familiar name, and asking Sud to bring Linden and Holder out of retirement yet again. And if that happens, I'm hoping at a minimum that she recognizes it's not such a detrimental thing if Linden gets to smile every couple of months.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org