The Killing: "Pilot"/"The Cage"
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The Killing: "Pilot"/"The Cage"

The Killing debuts with a two-hour premiere tonight on AMC at 9 p.m. Eastern. It will air at 10 p.m. Eastern starting next week.

The Killing is a show that walks a fine line between classic whodunit and rote procedural. Virtually everything about this new series, the latest addition to AMC’s growing roster of prestige dramas, feels familiar; even the title feels willfully generic. It’s virtually impossible not to compare The Killing to Twin Peaks, that other show about the murder of a pretty teenage girl in the Pacific Northwest. Sarah Linden, the tough, tomboyish homicide detective leading the investigation, is a clear descendant of Clarice Starling. And, of course, the show itself is a remake of the popular Danish series Forbrydelsen, which garnered huge ratings when it recently aired on BBC. To say that The Killing is not particularly original ought to be a slight, yet somehow, it’s not: It’s a story that, told with both style and restraint, feels elemental rather than clichéd.

As the series begins, it’s the last day on the job for Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), a Seattle homicide detective. In little more than 12 hours, she’s due to hop on a plane to Sonoma, California, to begin a new life with her fiancé and tween son. But when a shy, pretty 17-year-old named Rosie Larsen turns up missing, her bloody sweater and her dad’s credit card abandoned in a park frequented by meth dealers and prostitutes, Linden is drawn, inexorably, into the investigation. Most of the first hour of The Killing—each episode is a day in real time—is a slow, almost excruciating build-up to the discovery of her body, with numerous fake-outs along the way. The ingenious effect of all these false starts—in addition to generating a sense of ever-present menace—is that we’re practically  ecstatic when Rosie finally shows up dead.  The best murder mysteries always manage to implicate the viewer in the onscreen crimes (see: every movie Hitchcock ever made). Clearly, the makers of The Killing got the memo. 

Initially, Linden is eager to hand off the investigation to her successor, Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), a squirrelly-looking detective who’s just been transferred from a long stint as an undercover narcotics agent. It’s as if she knows that once she’s started an investigation, she’s incapable of extricating herself from it. Linden is also troubled by the circumstances surrounding Rosie’s disappearance: Everyone, it seems, has something to hide. Rosie’s parents, Stan and Mitch (Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes) have just returned from a camping trip but haven’t bothered to call their daughter all weekend. Best friend Sterling (Kacey Rohl) lies to Rosie’s father about her whereabouts and ducks out of school as soon as the cops arrive. By the end of the first hour, Rosie’s sinister ex-boyfriend, Jasper Ames, emerges as a prime suspect. He’s a predatory rich kid who likes to pop ecstasy, play violent video games and seduce lonely older women. In other words, he’s such an obvious villain that there’s virtually no chance he is the actual murderer.

Rounding out the story is a plotline involving Seattle city councilman Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell), who’s engaged in a close mayoral race against incumbent Lesley Adams (Tom Butler). A likable politician who enjoys personal interactions with his constituents, Richmond is slightly less enthusiastic about the back-room maneuvering required to shore up his support among the party faithful. That’s not to say he’s an idealist. When Rosie’s body is discovered in a stolen car belonging to his campaign, Richmond’s advisers, wary of what could seem like a cover-up, threaten to go public with the news. Linden insists that they wait, arguing that it could imperil the investigation. Richmond and his team cooperate, but they’re not exactly thrilled about it, and they’re perfectly willing to exploit the tragedy for all its worth. At this point, it’s unclear what role, exactly, Richmond and his campaign will play in the investigation, but the fact that his wife died under mysterious circumstances suggests that things are likely to get personal very soon.

Played by Big Love alum Mireille Enos, Linden is a taciturn and intuitive investigator whose methodology seems to involve a lot of anguished gazing-off into the distance. As a rule, fictional detectives are always endowed with some superhuman cognitive ability, and Linden’s is her ability to accurately interpret the most fleeting of details—a pink bike, a freshly-laundered sweater. If not exactly clairvoyant, she’s able to divine answers from what appears to be thin air. Luckily, Enos is a skilled actress who keeps this potentially hokey trait from lapsing into shtick. On a fundamental, physical level, Enos brings to the role an inherent inscrutability. She has an austere beauty that declares itself reluctantly; at times, she looks downright plain. (Of course, a cursory Google image search quickly reveals the fact that, with a dab of eyeliner and a smear of lip gloss, Enos is a total knockout.)

But the point isn’t merely that Linden is a hottie in the rough, a babe hiding her good looks under an oversized windbreaker. She’s also a bit of an enigma herself, and her pale features make her already obscured emotions even harder to decipher. Initially, Linden seems downright cold, offering no condolences to Rosie’s father. “You can’t be here, Mr. Larsen,” she tells him repeatedly, after he shows up at the crime scene moments after Rosie’s body has been discovered. But, as the first two episodes play out, it becomes clear that Linden is, in fact, deeply empathic. She postpones her move to California, not because of cold feet about her upcoming wedding—though it seems like she’s got those, too—but because she discovers the horrible conditions under which Rosie was killed.  She never says it, but we know that Linden is driven by the need to find Rosie’s murderer.

She’s also justifiably skeptical about Holder, her replacement. Speaking in a strange, quasi-Southern drawl—Kinnaman is Swedish, but you’d guess he was from Atlanta—Holder is a new incarnation of the renegade cop archetype. He’s more creepy than cavalier, tossing around slurs like “douche,” “hobag” and “tweaker” with alarming ease. He asks Rosie’s teacher whether she had a boyfriend, certain that “a piece of ass” like her couldn’t be single. Initially, Holder seems to be a bit of a sociopath, but eventually, his unorthodox methods—like offering joints to some giggly teenage girls—bear fruit. It’s clear that both Holder and Linden’s tactics will be essential in cracking the Larsen murder.

The producers have made the decision to set the series in Seattle, a choice that’s either canny or just obvious, depending on your perspective. The region’s famously wet weather is an easy way (at times too easy) to create a sense of gloom and foreboding, and The Killing makes liberal use of this atmospheric effect; the show practically smells mildewy. Less obvious, at least to those of you who aren’t true-crime aficionados, is that Seattle was also home to two of the country’s most infamous serial killers, Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway, both of whom preyed almost exclusively on young women. It’s possible this connection never occurred to the show’s creators, but it lends more oomph to the already overwhelming sense of place on this series.

At this early stage, it's hard to know whether The Killing will live up to AMC's aspirations and become The Next Great American Television Show, but, with a mystery this engrossing, who really cares?

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