Much of the penultimate episode of The Killing is taken up with scenes of Linden and Ray Seward spending the last few hours of his life together. Seward may be innocent of the murder of his wife, but he’s plainly guilty of plenty of other things, and he is not about to go down in a likable or ingratiating manner. His greeting to the recently whaled-on Linden goes, “What happened to your face? Your boyfriend finally get enough?” Coming from a convicted murderer who freely confesses to beating the wife he didn’t really kill, it’s a “joke” that bypasses the “funny ha ha” category and files itself in the one labeled “funny peculiar.”
Linden has brought along a ring found in Joe Mills’ cache of trophies. She thinks it might have been Mrs. Seward’s wedding ring. She asks Seward if he recognizes it, and when he says he does, she further asks if there’s anything in particular he can tell her about it. “I didn’t want to give it to her,” says Seward. “She was pregnant.” He recalls that he did not overpay for it, and that he got it from some place that specialized in “used goods, like my wife.” Realizing he’s not exactly painting a rosy picture of domestic bliss cruelly destroyed by a random act of violence, he says he doesn’t much believe in “happily ever after,” then points out that Linden must not either; he doesn’t see a ring on her finger. That apparently crosses a line, and Linden, sitting on the other side of a pane of sound-proof glass, hangs up her phone receiver. Seward responds by gesturing to his own receiver and making a sad-puppy face.
Mireille Enos’ work on The Killing hasn't been getting a lot of love these days, not even from me. Bex Taylor-Klaus had the more stirring and surprising role, and Joel Kinnaman is definitely more fun to watch and write about. But Enos has been in there slaving away in a largely thankless part, and in the process, she’s become a favorite target of those who tend to complain that this series about the slow, frustrating nature of murder investigations sometimes seems less than jolly. But every so often, she gets the chance to show she can more than hold her own in a good game of one on one. She got the chance in her hostage-situation scenes with Ben Cotton as Pastor Mike, in an episode I underrated at the time, partly because I falsely assumed the show would chicken out and drop the ball rather than follow through on what it appeared to be setting up.
Tonight’s episode gives her the chance to harmonize at length with Peter Sarsgaard, another good actor with a quiet, recessive streak, who’s often best when he has someone to play against. What’s great about Sarsgaard’s performance is how unflashy it is. Ray Seward is a small man who’s only gotten smaller on death row. He can’t frighten or terrorize his jailers, he can only annoy them, and his masterstroke—forcing them to go to the trouble of killing him by the difficult procedure of hanging him—has come back to bite him in the ass. (The title “Six Minutes” refers to the length of time Ray will be hanging from a rope, choking and writhing, if the drop fails to snap his neck.)
With the minutes ticking down, Ray is pale and scared and bleating, with none of the satanic brio of a true monster, someone his killers could pretend they need to put down for society’s good, or the cocky bravado of a gangster played by Clark Gable or James Cagney, who might at least be good company. His terror of dying only makes him that much more annoying to the guards, right at the point when he regrets giving them reason to be less than excellent in their noose-making abilities. When he freezes up during his last walk, the head guard Becker tells him to be a man. But Becker’s impatience with Seward is the kind a man feels when he’s telling himself that, despite all the available evidence, he and the man he’s sneering at are nothing alike. Seward’s great fear is that he’s leaving behind a son who is doomed to live a life just like his, and Becker has already essentially destroyed his own son’s future, just by passing down his primitive notion of how a man behaves.
Linden is ostensibly at the prison to do whatever she can to get Seward a stay of execution. But the machinery of capitol punishment grinds along pretty efficiently when there aren’t squadrons of lawyers working night and day to throw sand in the gears, and it becomes clear pretty early on—earlier than Seward realizes it, and maybe a little earlier than Linden accepts—that she’s really there to help Seward deal with it when all her efforts come to nothing and he’s marched to the gallows. “I’m not here for you,” she tells him at one point; she’s there to correct a mistake she made and make sure the system works. But the longer she stays, the more she is, in fact, there for him. She has reason to feel she has to be. When Seward refers to himself as a monster and she says she’s seen monsters, and he’s not one, he replies with considerable good humor, “That’s not what you said at my trial.”
But that was when “Ray Seward” was an abstraction—a perp who needed to receive the worst punishment the law would allow, or else it would be like Hitler getting off. Now, he’s a human being, so afraid of being alone with his thoughts that he begs Linden to stay with him, whether or not they can stand the sight of each other’s face, because “If you go, they’ll just send me back to my cell.” The two of them get to know each other, trade observations about what it’s like to be in over one’s head in the child-rearing department, and Linden actually gets to smile a few times. In the process, she helps guarantee Seward won’t get a moment to say goodbye to his son, who is out there waiting for his father to psyche himself up for their meeting. Linden gets to like Seward enough to indulge him until sufficient time has passed that Becker can pull rank and recite legal scripture, pointing out the inmate isn’t allowed any visitors within an hour of his execution. After Linden pulled rank and read the rules back to him, Becker is more than happy to return the favor.
Luckily, Holder is on hand, drunk and miserable over the death of Bullet, but still demonstrating that special magic that Linden calls his “way with kids.” (“Wanna smoke?” he asks Seward’s pint-sized son.) By mid-season, this show had three characters lined up who were in urgent need of saving: Bullet, Ray Seward, and Kallie. Going into next week’s finale, we’re down by two. But more than at any point in its history, The Killing doesn’t feel like a procedural where the fate of the endangered or capture of the guilty is the main point. It’s about identifying and acting on your opportunities to do some good in a society that would just as soon commodify children as raise them, where the justice system has warped itself into a huge machine that grinds up lives in the name of keeping the paperwork moving smoothly. In its first two seasons, the show’s title referred to a dead body at the center of a murder investigation. This season, it refers to a whole country’s way of life.