‘The Killing’ – ‘Orpheus Descending’: Reviewing the season finale

“The Killing” wrapped up its first season tonight. I interviewed showrunner Veena Sud about the season, and highly recommend you read that before we get to my review of the finale, as I’ll be discussing what she said a lot. My review – with plentiful spoilers for the episode, of course – coming up just as soon as me doing math is like a dog wearing a hat…

When AMC announced the renewal of “The Killing,” and that Veena Sud would remain in charge, I tried to be optimistic. The people who run AMC aren’t dumb, I thought, and they know their brand and how the audience feels about it. If they were willing to make this move before airing the finale and seeing the reaction, it was because they had seen the final cut and thought it would quell a lot of the doubts people have had about the show, and/or because Sud had made a season 2 pitch for that acknowledged many of this season’s missteps and talked smartly about how they would be eliminated going forward.

Having seen the finale, and now talked to Sud, not so much on either account. “Orpheus Descending” itself is a mess, and an insult to the audience who have stuck around for the last three months. And based on my conversation with Sud, it sounds like we’re getting more of the same next year.

So this will be the last review I write of “The Killing,” because this will be the last time I watch “The Killing.” Because I have no interest in going forward with a show that treats its audience this way.

I, like many of you, had grown so frustrated with the thin characterization and plotting based entirely around red herring cliffhangers that I was largely sticking it out to find out who killed Rosie…

…only they didn’t tell us, instead going for one last mega-fake-out, in which we learn that Richmond was framed, by Holder (revealed to have a hidden agenda just when Linden was learning to like/trust him), working for a person or persons unknown for reasons unknown. And just as we learn that, Belko steps up to assassinate Richmond for what he believes is the damage he did to Belko’s surrogate family.

Not that I had loved the finale up to that point, but when we got to that final sequence, starting with Linden getting the phone call on the plane… well, let’s just say that I began uttering a whole bunch of words that I’ve been hearing a lot in my “Deadwood” rewatch.

Sud’s argument is that no one involved with the show ever explicitly said the murder would be solved within the framework of these 13 episodes. I don’t have the time or ability to study every single interview and piece of promotional material from the last six months to confirm that for sure, but if it was never explicitly stated, it was strongly implied. When you market a show with a poster of the dead girl’s face and the tagline “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?,” you are telling people that if they tune in, they will get an answer to that question, and in a reasonable amount of time.

Now, in fairness, “Twin Peaks” had a similar marketing campaign back in the day, and they didn’t close the case in the first season, but there were a couple of key differences. The first is that “Twin Peaks” wasn’t based on a Danish show that had, in fact, solved its case within the confines of its first season (albeit a first season with 20 episodes to this show’s 13), and therefore created an expectation of same in anyone who knew that. The second is that by the time that first “Twin Peaks” season had ended, it was clear that there were so, so many more reasons to watch and enjoy that show than simply finding out the killer’s identity.

At this point, “The Killing” has virtually nothing else. It utterly failed to make Rosie herself matter. It failed at making Stan and Mitch into anything but monotonous engines of grief. It failed to make the political campaign the least bit interesting at any point. And while it briefly turned Linden and Holder into three-dimensional humans with the episode a few weeks ago that put the investigation on hold, a lot of that was undercut by the Holder reveal here at the end. Obviously, the stuff about his addiction, his sister and his nephew was true, but the building of the relationship and trust with Linden wasn’t.

Sud also said that part of the point of ending the season this way was to remind the audience that this isn’t a formula cop show, and they can throw out their expectations. But she’s wrong. This show DOES have a formula, one that’s very easy to anticipate now. Because all you really have to understand about “The Killing” – and what should have made me anticipate where the finale was going, only even I couldn’t fathom that the creative team would so fundamentally misread their audience in that way –  is this:

Every single thing this show tells you is a lie.

Forget about them not revealing the killer in the finale. That’s a spirit of the law vs. the letter of the law question. This is about everything else.

We were told that Sud and company would use the extended time to really get to know the characters in a way that a traditional police procedural can’t. We haven’t. Most of the characters have turned out to be ciphers (the Larsens), not who we were told they were (Holder) or both (Richmond).

Nearly every episode of the series ended with a scene flashing a neon “Guilty!” sign at a new character, the better to lure us into watching the next episode, only for that episode to almost immediately clear that character. Sud tells me most of their early red herrings came from the Danish show. I haven’t seen “Forbrydelsen,” but based on the acclaim it received and the continued support it gets from people here who have watched both shows, even if the broad points were the same, I have to assume that the American creative team lost something major in the translation.

When last week’s episode ended with Richmond standing ominously in the doorway staring down Linden, looking like the obvious killer, I worried that he would be one final red herring. Then we came into the finale, and the tension continued, complete with horror movie-style music whenever Linden and Richmond were in a scene together, and I wrote in my notes, “The only way this isn’t manipulative and annoying in the extreme is if he actually did it.” So when Holder turned up the final piece of evidence, I was relieved, even though it did feel like the case against him had some major holes in it. (Oakes remains a useless, dismissive, irritating plot device, but towards the end he had a vague point.) It wasn’t a terribly satisfying or compelling conclusion to the case – and, as I’d said way back at the start of the season, it was almost an anti-climax, given how much time the show devoted to the political campaign even when it was entirely unrelated to the investigation – but at least it was A conclusion. We wanted to know who killed Rosie, and we found out, and it was a guy we’d spent a lot of time with, even though we learned very little about him and sometimes had trouble staying awake during his scenes.

But then… to pull the rug out from under one last time, in grander fashion than ever before? On a show that many viewers have lost complete and total faith in? On a show where even the supportive reviews and comments have had an undercurrent of, “Let’s wait for the finale; I’m sure there’s a plan to all of this” to them? That’s as colossal and unpleasant a miscalculation in a TV season finale as I can remember.

Now, Sud says all of this was planned at the start of the season, and also that she paid very little attention to reviews or other feedback of the episode. And that’s fine. Not only are creators not under obligation to follow all the ebbs and flows of viewer reaction, but it’s often counter productive. Creativity by committee or crowdsourcing is rarely a good idea, and the best TV shows tend to be the ones made with a singular, uncompromising vision. Sud ultimately made a bad, frustrating show, but she did it not knowing how people would respond to it and believing that her approach was the right one.

But how does AMC not realize how viewers(*) are responding to this thing? Even if they thought this kind of ending was a great idea when the season started, how do they not head Sud off at the pass once it becomes clear how the show is being received? Or, if production was too far along at the point at which opinion started to turn against the show – or if AMC execs don’t want to meddle midway through a season (as opposed to the messy split with the “Rubicon” creator after that pilot was shot) – how do they not even wait until the finale airs to decide for sure that they not only want another season, but want it with this creative team?

(*) And, again, I acknowledge that viewership has stayed largely consistent for much of the season, that there remain some critics who like it, as well as some of you in the comments. It’s entirely possible that the silent majority of the 2 million who have been tuning in most weeks do like it, and aren’t just sticking it out from some sense of completism. And if that’s true, and those people aren’t as turned off by the finale than I was, then AMC was right to stick by Sud. But I will not be surprised in the least if the show returns in 2012 with a VASTLY smaller audience. Because not only did the ending leave a bad taste, but there’s not even a promise of a fresh start next season. Same creative team, and same story, at least for a while. If you hated the finale, I can’t imagine any reason to come back; nearly a year removed, even the people who just wanted to know who killed Rosie won’t care anymore.

I can understand that they might feel that A)viewers will be even angrier if this turned out to be the series finale, and when you’re a niche network that’s built a careful relationship with its core audience, you don’t want to anger them that much; and B)this whole thing was Veena Sud’s plan, and the story continues, and therefore there isn’t an easy or sensible opportunity to bring in somebody else. Or they might just look at those 2 million viewers a week, assume everything’s okay, and move on from there.

But over the course of this season, “The Killing” has gone from a show that proved the AMC brand wasn’t infallible to one that proves the channel is capable of putting out an absolute trainwreck.

And the really frustrating part is that there actually were elements of the show that might have kept me watching if the writing was even a hair’s breadth better and less insulting. The performances by the two cops and the Larsens remained terrific – just watch everything that washes over Brent Sexton’s face as Stan ponders how to answer Amber’s question about how many kids he has(**) – and the look and atmosphere were great (even if the constant torrential downpours eventually turned into a running joke). Even Linden’s various confrontations with Richmond last week and this would have been effective if they had actually been about our heroine going toe-to-toe with the killer, and not just another in an unending series of fake-outs.

(**) Though even that scene was impaired by more plot stupidity. No way does Amber not know who Stan Larsen is and what he looks like, either from earlier in the investigation as the father of her husband’s murdered student, or from recent days as the man who beat her husband into a coma.

But I don’t care who killed Rosie, who’s pulling Holder’s strings or why, whether Belko succeeds in killing Richmond, how Linden will return from Sonoma, where Mitch went, or any of it.

I’ve been lied to by this show for the last time. Good luck to those of you who continue with it into the second season.

What did everybody else think?