It feels like only yesterday I was prattling on about The Killing’s lack of momentum, but “Off The Reservation” opens with one of the best, most propulsive 12-minute passages of the entire series, a pulpy race through the black of early morning to find a fallen officer. A train passes Linden’s car in the opening shot, the blinking red lights echoing off her face as she calls for a search party. Jack wants to know why she’s worried, but as evidence demonstrates time and again, Linden’s parenting style is more need-to-know. Foreshadowing the conclusion—or maybe just responding to an endless parade of Linden’s failures of compartmentalization—the camera refuses to keep them both in focus at once. Jack’s face melds with the rain on the window, just another thudding distraction from the more urgent matter at hand.
Linden’s finally reassuring him when she drops him off at Holder’s place, but she leaves against his wishes just as quickly, because Lieutenant Carlson has denied her rescue team. Linden’s so enraged she bursts through the screen via a cut to the swinging police department doors as she stalks down the hall to Carlson’s office. He’s been up late, too, hair all mussed, the fluorescent lights doing him no favor, and they have a classic chain-of-command argument. He finally sits down so the camera can look up at Linden and down on Carlson as she tries to get through to him in his own language: optics. It’s not going to look good if he denied a search party for an officer who winds up dead. She walks away without an answer, preferring the more dramatic exit line instead, but he shouts to her to stay away from the reservation, deliberately framed by the entrance to his office and his desk. The credits roll.
There’s still a whole act left in the search for Holder, and already The Killing exhibits rare purpose. The lighting, the blocking, the angles, the cuts, the faces, everything is working together toward so many intertwined ends: a lean, mean approach, a foreboding mood, an illustration of the archetypal flaws of Linden and Carlson. It’s so good it’s infuriating. Why drag out a murder mystery over two seasons, whatever the original design for grief and fallout, when the strengths of this team lie so clearly with quick punches to the face? All this time, The Killing intended to critique the murder-a-day banality of Law & Order clones when it might have done so better by out-cloning them, by taking a case each week and showing those wannabes exactly what existential crime-pulp looks like.
But there’s no time to think about that when the credits deposit us in some foggy forest like we rolled out of a moving car, the camera hurrying to cross the road before Linden’s car races past, just in time for a half-seen totem pole. Suddenly Linden finds herself in a standoff with Chief Jackson. It’s the anti-Western. It isn’t high noon but midnight, the street lit by headlights. Clouds of exhaled breath roll across the landscape like tumbleweeds. Two women hold the firearms, one backed by her thuggish posse, the other by principle alone. In wide, Linden looks like an uncomfortable but willing hero, her jacket pushed back on one side, leaning toward her gun leg and hanging over the grip. But in closeup, Mireille Enos gives us a woman who knows she might soon be dead. She bluffs about impending backup, but sirens ride into town anyway. She got through to Carlson after all. Communication works, not violence, and no blood is shed. Well, no additional blood, anyway.
Now the manhunt starts to recall the pilot, with shots of running through the forest, the cops searching the wrong area entirely, and Linden getting a sixth sense (in this case a child silently pointing her in the right direction from afar). The closer the rescue party gets to Holder, the more the show played me like an ASPCA commercial. Holder can’t be dead, or can he? Narratively it works as a blow to Linden that serves the bad guys as a warning and the good guys as the fuel to solve this case in, say, five episodes. But more immediately is the palpable suspense as Linden pushes through the line of cops around Holder’s body, bloody and bruised and sprawled across the damp dirt. He’s out and about by the end of the day, but the doom is so well-drawn—by cinema, not speeches—that “Off The Reservation” earns this pardon.
What’s that old Howard Hawks saw about a good film having three great scenes and no bad ones? Well, it’s hard to say there are no bad ones in “Off The Reservation,” but there are two other great sequences, not surprisingly both revolving around Linden and the case. The first is when Linden makes Holder’s matchbook appointment at a local barber shop. The barber locks the door from the inside and turns to face Linden, both of them standing like they’re in for a showdown, and then a figure appears from behind the camera and tells her uncle to stand down. It’s another moment of communication triumphing over violence and another instance of women wielding the real power. She tells Linden about finding Rosie’s backpack in the dumpster, and about Rosie working the casino floor (as a waitress, not a prostitute), and about the 10th floor they’d visit for smoke breaks. She tells Linden about the autocratic power of Chief Jackson, which Linden knows a little something about. It’s just a beautifully sad little moment of this young girl reaching out however she can, not coincidentally reminiscent of Mitch connecting with the runaway. It offers one little clue for the case—the ammonium hydroxide on Rosie’s body might come from doing laundry at the casino—but mostly it’s about mood, and in her clipped, melancholy, matter-of-fact confessions, the girl suggests a whole offscreen life. It’s vivid storytelling.
Eventually, Linden buys Jack a plane ticket to his father’s for a few days. She needs this so she can concentrate on an increasingly dangerous case, but it’s killing her. She gives him this embarrassing mom speech, but he’s not embarrassed. He’s worried about her. She waits at the window to see him take off safely, and Holder hobbles up to her, still creaky but determined to respond to a goodbye call from Jack. They look like the makeshift parents they are, both of them hurting like never before and not afraid to show it. And then they drive back through the night into town, Linden totally cool. She’s talking about the case. Holder’s less eager. The camera isolates Linden as she turns to see a plane passing overhead, and it’s like she’s divesting herself of all other responsibilities. She looks back to the road with chilling resolve. Seattle has never looked more gorgeous on The Killing, all the glass and steel lit with life. The car races ahead, Linden riding into town to clean up the corruption. It’s scary how quickly she can shift gears.
- “Off The Reservation” is written by Nathaniel Halpern and directed by Veena Sud. I’m starting to think season one was just an elaborate ploy to throw us off the scent of Sud’s directorial prowess.
- Carlson takes Linden’s badge and gun after she agitates his sciatica one too many times.
- Other stuff happened, too, I guess, though whenever the story strays from Linden my eyelids rebel. Richmond and Gwen have it out over the events of last season, and he tacitly blames her in part for his paralysis. Meanwhile Jamie keeps saying, “waterfront,” so we don’t forget Jasper’s dad totally killed Rosie Larsen.
- Stan has some dud scenes, too, but his meeting with that predatory psychic contributes to the episode’s inescapable sadness in spite of its predictability.
- But where’s Mitch? She’s out of cash, which can only mean bad things on The Killing.
- Did CPS just give up after Linden ran off with Jack? “Yeah, well, the mom left the room and never came back, so, call it a day?”