The second season of The Killing debuts tonight on AMC at 8 p.m. Eastern with a two-hour premiere. It moves to its regular timeslot, 9 p.m. Eastern, on Sunday, April 8.
The most dangerous thing about criticism in the Internet age is groupthink. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with critical consensus, but the age of comments sections and arts blogs and Twitter has invented a world where if your opinion bucks the consensus, it’s a “wrong” opinion, even if you think Superman Returns is one of the best superhero movies ever made (as I do). This gets even worse on television, where shows that have already been written off are written off with extreme prejudice.
Season two of The Killing comes complete with the sort of angry advance backlash that makes it hard to talk about TV shows in this modern age. Everybody already knows the show is bad, so why would you ever need to think about it beyond what you already know about it? Meanwhile, Game Of Thrones debuts its second season on HBO tonight, and everybody knows that one’s going to be awesome (spoiler alert: it is). You don’t need to think about it, because you can tap into the consensus and just roll right along with it. It’s easier to simply join in on the jokes about how Veena Sud’s a lazy hack than it is to consider that, a lot of the time, TV shows get better between seasons. There’s every possibility in the world that The Killing has gotten better, but a lot of people will never know.
Because The Killing was turned on with so much anger and rage last season, it’s easy to forget that there really are a fair number of virtues to the program. There’s the acting, for one thing. Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman are giving terrific, standout performances that elevate poorly written characters in such a way that their weird tics and indecisions seem like they emerge organically from two people who are so shattered by experience that they don’t know any better way forward. The direction is also impressive, turning the vistas of the Pacific Northwest into a kind of crucible, in which issues of right and wrong are played out as starkly as possible. Hell, even technical aspects like the cinematography and score are very well done, making the show a pleasure to watch, so long as you don’t think too hard about it.
And, honestly, Sud and her writers have started to do some things better than they did last season. Where all of the characters were ciphers last year—until a late season episode designed to define main detectives Linden (Enos) and Holder (Kinnaman) that arrived too late to do anything—the writers immediately start trying to explain who these people are and why they operate like they do. In particular, the campaign staff of embattled mayoral candidate Darren Richmond (played by Billy Campbell and seemingly framed for the central murder of Rosie Larsen before he was shot at the end of last season) is better delineated. By the end of tonight’s first hour, you have a much better sense of who campaign manager Jamie (Eric Ladin) and campaign advisor Gwen (Kristin Lehman) are, something the show didn’t even bother with last season. The show also starts to better depict how Linden can sometimes lose herself in a case to the exclusion of all else, something talked about last season, but never shown. These are positive steps. (Holder remains the one fascinating character on a show of dullards. He’s a knotty enigma, more because of Kinnaman’s performance than anything in the writing.)
There are also signs—here and there—that the show is trying to be more rigorous about plotting. Linden starts acting like an actual police officer, not a character tugged around by the whims of the plot, and the show ditches story elements that were either anticlimactic or not working, like Linden’s constant attempts to escape to California. (The rain has also settled down quite a bit.) The episode opens with a close-up of Linden washing her hands, and there’s a temptation to read that as a good faith gesture, as the show saying, “Hey, we know that last season was pretty bad, but we’ve learned from it, and we’re going to do better this year.” (There’s another moment near the end of the second hour when a character points out a bunch of things fans were pointing out last season, and it feels like even more of an attempt to apologize in half-assed fashion.) What’s more, the show gets itself out of its most ridiculous cliffhanger from last season with a surprising amount of solid invention and character development (though it’s helped by Kinnaman there, too). There’s still value in the idea of a show that tells long-form crime stories, and there are enough good elements that with the right scripts, this show could come back to life.
But, of course, the show is still dragging around an albatross: the Rosie Larsen mystery. My colleague Meredith Blake outlined so many different problems with last season’s storyline that it’s impossible to simply forgive all of them, particularly when the show seems dedicated to killing time with an incredibly predictable conspiracy storyline this season. (I’ll have more to say about this in stray observations once the episode has aired.) For every scene where the characters sit down and start talking to each other like people, there’s another in which we learn more about the conspiracy that seems like AMC suddenly started regretting the cancellation of Rubicon and hauled out a bunch of unused scenes set in shadowy parking garages. It’s all very ham-handed, and it doesn’t do much of anything to deepen the mystery of who killed Rosie or get it back on the right tracks.
If the show were launching a new mystery entirely, if the characters getting added dimensions were all new, then it would be easier to accept the elements that are probably never going to work—like Liam James’ incredibly bland performance as Linden’s son, Jack—and settle in for something new. Enos and Kinnaman are good enough that a show built around them could still work, and there’s novelty in the idea of telling a deliberately paced murder mystery. In theory, I even agree with Sud that a season-long mystery is just as formulaic as an episode-long mystery. Despite all of the problems with season one, despite all of the advance anger directed at the show, I really wanted The Killing to be better. The world can always use more good dramas, and this one is so very close.
It’s the details that always hurt shows like this, though. Sud and her writers are just never going to be good enough at plot construction or character development to make a show like this matter. They do a good job of keeping up the surface of a good show, and they have all of the elements necessary for a good show that don’t involve writing, but it’s telling that the moments of the series that work are the moments where nobody’s talking and Enos and Kinnaman are doing their damnedest to convey how Linden and Holder are puzzling things out. The Killing sort of knows what it has to do to be a good show, but it thinks that all it has to do is flaunt convention to be good. It doesn’t realize that it has to do more than present an appealing surface if the core is fundamentally rotten.
- So. A few thoughts about the first two hours, beyond the fact that I'm perversely excited to see what Linden will do with Duck Phillips as a boss, to the point where I might even check out another episode.
- The conspiracy storyline makes no fucking sense. On the one hand, I'm glad the show revealed this early on that the mayor is involved in the conspiracy to bring down Richmond. It makes sense, and though it's the most predictable answer, I hope the show sticks to it, as it's the only answer that makes sense. Or does it? Here's the problem: The only way the mayor's involvement makes sense is if his oppo research team at some point (either before or after Rosie's death) figured out that Richmond had solicited Rosie as a prostitute. Here's the question: Why didn't his team just reveal this fact, rather than try to frame Richmond for the murder? Whether Rosie's alive or dead, solicitation of teenage prostitutes should be more than enough to bring down Richmond. And if Rosie's dead, Richmond soliciting a dead teenage prostitute should immediately disqualify him. It doesn't matter that he didn't kill her. She was 17, for God's sake.
- The resolution to the "why was Richmond all wet?" mystery is so, so stupid, but Enos and Campbell play the shit out of it, so I'm almost willing to go along with it, until I realize how stupid it is. He was going to kill himself? On the day his wife died? Which just happened to be the night Rosie died? When he was doing so well in the polls? And he somehow kept the fisherman who scooped him out of the ocean from going to the papers? None of it makes any sense.
- The Larsens continue to be a drag on the show. At this point, the only reason Stan is on the show is to punch metal objects angrily, and the scene where the older of the two Larsen kids is contemplating smoking a cigarette, and the soundtrack plays eerily, as if this is supposed to be a comment on grief or something, is just the fucking worst. I'm tempted to nominate it for Who Won TV, just to see what Adams can make of it.
- All of that said, I sort of liked the twist that the "real killer" (presumably) left Rosie's backpack on the Larsens' front stoop. It indicates someone more disturbed than the show gave hints about in season one, someone who wants credit for the killing.
- I also found Belko shooting himself kind of impressive, at least in terms of it being something I wasn't expecting.
- So Richmond is paralyzed now? I'm sure this will be handled as movingly as possible.