One of the complaints many people made about The Killing in its first and second seasons is that it came on as if it were “more” than a cop show—in essence, that it was putting on airs. This is a valid complaint about a TV series only when it fails to transcend its genre, though it's true that a show that aims to be more than a good cop show and isn't even that is a real waste of everybody's time, no matter how ambitious it is. I think that The Killing is succeeding as something more than just another cop show this season, but it’s also succeeding as a cop show. Last week’s long, tense opening sequence was amazing, and this week’s opening tops it, especially the scenes in a storage facility that, judging from how uninvitingly cramped and unadorned the interiors are, must be somewhere in the Ukraine. (Presumably, the rates they offer are so cheap that they justify the commute.) Linden and Holder, who have tracked Joe Mills, now exposed as the Pied Piper killer, to the building; when they split up to chase him down, and Holder is racing to the spot where Mills and Linden are wrestling on the floor, the percussive camera work and the propulsive editing throw the viewer right into the chaos. It climaxes with a perfectly executed sick joke: Holder, having come to his partner’s rescue, loses his cool and whales on Mills more than is necessary; then Linden, presumably the more responsible and level-headed of the two, steps in as if to pull Holder off, and instead kicks Mills in the face.
It turns out that this scene is the set-up for something just as kinetically thrilling but infinitely more upsetting: While Holder goes to check out Mills’ car, Linden, going through Mills’ trophies, goes racing after him, begging him not to open the trunk. It’s a variation on a scene that’s been in a million TV cop shows and movies, but the difference is that the car isn’t going to blow up: Linden has divined that the trunk contains Bullet’s dead body. Back at the station, Holder is standing on the other side of the two-way glass of the interrogation room, staring at Mills, when Reddick, sounding as tenderly solicitous as a grief counselor, suggests that they go in there and beat the shit out of him. Holder leaves the room and goes outside to meditate in his parked car, thus making it clear how badly he wants to take Reddick up on his offer and, at the same time, demonstrating where a good cop who doesn’t always behave perfectly in the heat of the moment knows where to draw the line.
What little praise The Killing has gotten this season has largely—and deservedly—been directed Bex Taylor-Klaus’ way. But Joel Kinnaman’s characterization of Holder seems to get deeper and more complicated with every pretzel-twisted line reading. Tonight in particular, he acts as if while he read his way through the script his head filled with visions of tweets and online reviews on the theme, “What reason could there be for continuing to watch this show without Bullet?” His burning, self-accusing eyes set the tone for a ferocious hour of television. Holder’s watchful reserve disappears when his girlfriend slides into the passenger seat of that parked car and, fumbling for something to say, makes the mistake of appearing to almost sort of kinda hint that maybe Bullet had it coming to her. All his anger—not just about Bullet, but about his own past, about a job that seems to demand either that he deny who he is or get used to having a stalled career—comes spilling out like lava. Afterwards, in the relatively tranquil setting of the morgue, it seems as if he could scarcely have any left, and then he receives news that drives him to assault Riddick, who does have it coming to him. The extreme nature of Holder's behavior in the wake of Bullet's death is how the show suggests the magnitude of the tragedy. There are no lingering, soft-focus close-ups of her face, no sad music. The real horror is in how quickly Bullet goes from being the most touching and stirring human being in her world to just one more photograph pinned to the evidence wall.
The other great unheralded performance of this season is Peter Sarsgaard’s as Ray Seward. When Seward was introduced, he seemed to be a the usual cliché of the brilliant captured murderer as master manipulator, an icy, soulless killer who intended to use what time was left to him to screwing with the heads of his jailers, just for the sick fun of it. Sarsgaard has slowly redefined the character so that the meaning and motivation behind everything Seward said and did in the early episodes has been turned inside out. The “real” Ray Seward is a man who never had much of a chance in the world—he was in prison when his son was born—and, as a falsely accused murderer, was a man without resources caught in a trap. The only way he could think of to keep his dignity was to refuse to give the system the satisfaction of seeing that he cared about his life, and now that he’s broken enough to beg for mercy, he has nothing—not even the mercy of his captors, who made up their minds about him a long time ago. There may be a metaphor there for all the reviewers who made up their minds about The Killing before this season started, but I wouldn’t want to push it.
- Holder’s reaction to Bullet’s murder is so perfect it hurts: Almost proudly, he asks, “She fought back—right?”
- In his misery, Holder makes a pass at Linden, which she deflects, just a few episodes after she seemed to be the one feeling the sexual tension. He apologizes; she reassures him “It’s okay. It doesn’t matter.” Is the show bringing this subject up just to defuse it, for fear that otherwise, viewers will be distracted by the question of why Linden and Holder never seem to regard each other as members of the opposite sex?
- It seems a little strange that, even as the show seems to be using Ray Seward to undercut the cliché of the insanely brilliant murderer as mind-fuck chess master, it has one of those characters on the premises: Nicholas Lea as Shannon, who drops his mask tonight and, chuckling malevolently, boasts that he’s been instilling hope in Ray Seward, just as he drove Alton to suicide. “On the outside,” he snickers, “I used my hands. I’d feel them struggle, fight back, and then just give in. In here, words do my killing for me. I’ve been killing you since the day we met.” I’m not sure what the writers were trying to say when they inserted this gaudiness into the show, but the main message that comes across, maybe the least necessary message imaginable for anyone who’s watched TV in the last 15 years, is that it’s not a good idea to trust Nicholas Lea.