“Sayonara, Hiawatha” is a smart, restrained episode, but I can’t follow suit because it’s time to confess how much I love this show. This one, the muted procedural inflected with horror. It may have taken me two months, but I can’t deny the careful craftsmanship, and the emotional effect has been the stronger for it. Season one of The Killing is essentially exposition, but even accepting that it’s all a wild goose chase whose main goal is to give the audience the lay of the land, it’s so obnoxious as to be cringeworthy. The early episodes of season two are saddled with the direct fallout from season one’s big twist, but the midseason episodes have a lot to recommend, including some of the elements that sunk the early goings. The Killing has always operated in several different modes—most often the domestic soap and the detective story—and by now the show seems to have a firm handle on its tones such that it can slightly change what it’s doing from week to week. The Last episode had me praying for the show to become a case-a-week crime pulp, but now I see my mistake. The Killing is too big for one style, and it’s learned through practice exactly how to work in horror one week, potboilers the next, and quiet aftermath after that. A week ago I was complaining about The Killing’s take on grief, but “Sayonara, Hiawatha” had one of the series’ most evocative expressions of mourning yet. And the title refers to an honest-to-goodness hilarious scene. This isn’t the same show it was last year, and while nobody who saw last season was wrong to underestimate it, over the past two months, it’s won me back completely. Time to play in the big leagues again.
At the risk of becoming a broken record, “Sayonara, Hiawatha” beautifully demonstrates how a mountain only stands out in a plain, emotionally speaking. Most of the hour is a seductive, deceptive calm. And there are some big beats there, too, but at last the filmmakers are playing against the mood. So Stan fighting with the kids and David Rainer revealing Rosie’s plans to run away are these fraught sequences, just in a lower key. That way, when the big finale comes, no matter how obvious, it lures you up the cliff and knocks you off. It’s not all rise. It’s a slow build to a sharp drop. And even if this is the usual fake-out, it’s still an effective finale to a meticulous hour of dime-store television.
It’s funny to think that this week’s hint of weirdness comes from the restraint, but it’s inescapable. In all four corners of the narrative, not just the cops’ story, everyone is low-key. The “Day Twenty-Two” title card, dissolving over a shot of the forest from the clouds, feels especially loaded. Something about the silent reminder that it’s been 22 days makes the case feel more hopeless than usual, even though it’s all but certain to be solved by Day 26. Even the soundtrack, which has had its Popol Vuh moments, sits back and merely punctuates scenes, like the splash of blue in Tommy’s otherwise neutral bedroom. But it’s not a peaceful quiet that hangs over the episode. It’s effectively the aftermath to the crazy storm of “Off The Reservation,” a quiet survey of the wreckage.
It helps that everything is coming together as the Rosie Larsen case enters its final lap. The Richmond campaign even finds some tighter connections to the other stories this week when Linden prevails upon the councilman to influence Chief Jackson to open up her crime scene to the Seattle police department. The shots are full of reflections and mirrors, like Loki wheeling and dealing. Later Gwen reveals a more thematic connection to the main narrative while trying to blackmail Mayor Adams into also refusing a deal with Chief Jackson. She threatens to tell her powerful father about the time Adams raped her when she was 14, and he counters with the perfectly despicable villain line, “You think your father didn’t know?” It comes about two-thirds of the way through, right as things start to amp up, and the scene is admirably hard to watch. It’s a political power play, yes, but the look on Kristin Lehman’s face says it’s also a victim confronting her attacker. It’s a quintessentially Killing way of dealing with trauma. While it’s almost cartoonishly dark, it’s nevertheless handled with a sensitivity denied Belko, Seattle Muslims, and other victims of The Killing. Adams walks away, as guys like him do, and Gwen stands there processing.
There’s a similar dimensionality to the Larsen scenes. Almost every line David says to Mitch is underscored by the sad fact that he doesn’t know Rosie has been murdered. Say what you will about the plausibility of every Seattleite caring about the mayoral issues while somehow a candidate’s implication in a young girl’s murder (and subsequent exoneration) hasn’t penetrated the Rainer home, it still throbs every time David talks about Rosie in the present tense. And it’s such an effortless method of reaching into the Larsens’ deep wellspring of pain that it fits right into the still waters of “Sayonara, Hiawatha.”
Meanwhile Tommy is expelled for killing baby birds at recess, leading Stan to overreact and then bond with his boys. This is how you do grief. It’s only been three weeks since Rosie died, and Mitch has been gone for half that time. Whenever Stan isn’t playing mobster, he’s just a blue-collar family man pegged for tragedy trying to keep it together, and Brent Sexton has painted quite a subtle portrait this season. But the kids are also hurting and confused. First their sister leaves, then their mom, now their aunt. Killing baby birds fits right in with The Killing’s M.O. But again the audience is spared the sight of it. Instead Stan flies off the handle, as the character would, and he and Tommy each say they hate each other. That night, Stan apologizes and the three Larsen boys finally get to clear the air a little bit. It speaks to the show’s central hope that after all the lies, a little bit of truth can help heal even the deepest wounds. That latent optimism is another factor that’s strengthened the show in recent weeks.
Finally, Linden and Holder reconcile in a way that reminds the audience that the only reason Holder ended up in the hospital is because Linden got upset and kicked him out of her car at the casino. The opening scene feels exactly like last week’s lean, mean pulp, a literal survey of the damage shot with putrid darkness and edited cleanly, as Holder goes looking for the Larsen files and finds Linden’s office totally empty. They eventually break into a storage locker to find them and head back to the casino. Linden being Linden, she decides she’s just going to ram through to the construction site with no plan, but Holder shows up to create a distraction by playing the obnoxious drunk. Just watching him pet some guy’s head while rambling about how they go way back is hilarious enough, but it’s also so different from his usual shtick that Joel Kinnaman retroactively makes the Holder performance look even better.
Seeing the past in a new light is how this mystery works, and Linden’s brash investigation of the construction site leads her to realize the most plausible explanation for Rosie’s untimely end yet: Rosie was running away, as David confirms, and she came to the overlook (pun intended) to take in its view of Seattle. And then she saw something she shouldn’t have, a meeting between Chief Jackson (since it’s her home turf), Mr. Ames (the waterfront developer), and a third man—there are always third men—known only by his bloody city-council badge still stuck under some pipes in the floor. For that Rosie was attacked and chased and stuffed in a trunk and drowned. And that’s when someone attacks Linden, just before the credits roll. There’s still time to turn this all into a big misunderstanding, to say Rosie was really murdered by Bennett Ahmed with some help from that janitor. But at last, after all the outlandish theories and conspiracies, this interpretation seems definite, and somehow sadder. Leave it to a little restraint to cut through all the noise.