Playing a death row inmate in the third-season premiere of The Killing, Peter Sarsgaard looks through the window of his new cell and asks if anyone ever washes it. “It makes everything out there look murky,” he says. Long-time viewers of this show have had occasion to know just what he means. Despite its roots in a Danish TV series, in its first season The Killing often felt like a dream of Twin Peaks, set in a world that was more naturalistic but not much more realistic. It gradually wore out its welcome with many viewers (including two, count ‘em, two previous A. V. Club reviewers) the same way Twin Peaks did: By seeming to stretch a single murder-mystery plot beyond its natural limits. Like such love-hate TV phenomena as Peaks, the David Caruso of NYPD Blue, and the fourth season of Community, it at least has the consolation of knowing that people only feel that betrayed by something they once really, really liked. Now, rescued from the cancellation pile thanks to a deal with Netflix, the series is returning with a new storyline intended to let it begin again fresh while still making the most of its core assets: Mireille Enos, the magnetic Joel Kinnaman, and a setting that offers an inexhaustible supply of sinister atmosphere. With the Rosie Larsen case finally closed, Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton have disappeared from view, though if the show had tried to convince us that either of them had somehow been appointed Chief of Police just as an excuse to keep them around, I for one would not have complained.
A year has passed since the events of last season. Holder has traded in his casual-junkie look for suits, though he still talks as if he were at a swinging Pawnee club, pitching a business plan to Tom Haverford and Jean-Ralphio. (Complimented on his new work clothes, he tugs his lapel and grins, “You know how we do!”) He’s now on the career fast track, working with a cynical new partner, Carl Reddick (Gregg Henry, reveling in his character’s obnoxiousness), and has put seven cases to bed. Linden has moved to the country and is sleeping with a guy she works with on a ferry; like McNulty at the start of the second season of The Wire, she rides the boat. They reconnect when Holder spots similarities between the murder of a 14-year-old runaway girl and a case that Linden worked on years earlier with her then-partner, Skinner (Elias Koteas).
Reddick sees the runaway’s killing as a non-starter and is eager to dump it on anyone who’ll take it in trade, and Linden herself advises Holder to not get gummed up in. “Not every victim’s worth it,” she says. “You start caring, you end up like me, working minimum wage on a ferry.” The dismissive way that Linden sums up her current life at the end of that speech seems to contradict her assurances to Holder, when he first shows up on her doorstep, that things have gotten great since she left the police force, and you don’t have to have seen a minute of the previous two seasons to know that she’d actually hate it if Holder stopped caring. Throw in Linden’s boast that she’s quit smoking, and this episode already has more lies flying through the air than a season of The Bachelor, and the cops haven’t even started interviewing witnesses yet.
The Larson case’s political-campaign plotline, which was probably meant to make the murder case (and the show) seem more important, was usually the weakest (and vaguest) thing about it. Season three’s murder case casts Linden into the world of homeless street kids, children who have gone on the run from the unendurable into the unimaginable and are renting their bodies out for food money. It makes for a better fit. Bex Taylor-Klaus plays Bullet, a tough little lesbian who Holder—and the viewer—first mistakes for a boy. Bullet maintains a hard, threatening façade, but when Lyric (Julia Sarah Stone), the girl she has a crush on, sits down next to her, Bullet reverts to a confused, emotionally vulnerable little kid and, doing her best to make interesting small talk, blurts out, “A giraffe’s got four stomachs!” Bullet’s best friend is Kallie (Cate Sproule), a 14-year-old who still has access to some kind of home life, though the brief glimpse we get of it serves to explain why anyone might prefer the warm, welcoming scene down at the homeless shelter. Kallie and her mother (Amy Seimetz) have a scene in which they tentatively bond over cosmetics (“Pink is our color.”) before Mom brings up the subject of her boyfriend, who sounds like a peach. “When are you going to learn to watch your mouth?” she says. “Show him some respect? You know, he told me what you said about his truck!”
When Holder and Bullet are sparring with each other, their poses mesh in a way that’s fun to watch, and funny. More than ever, The Killing can use whatever humor it can get. (I also love the scene in which Reddick comes back to the office after picking up lunch at some burger joint and Holder has to remind him that he’s on a health kick and doesn’t eat meat. “Got you fries,” Reddick shrugs.) The most regular breaks from the raw, heartbreaking homeless culture of the street kids are the scenes in the death house, where Sarsgaard’s Ray Seward, the man Linden and Skinner put away for murdering his wife, is making life difficult for his future executioners by insisting that he die by hanging instead of lethal injection, and summoning the chaplain for a conversation that begins with the announcement, “I don’t believe in Jesus and all that shit, so you can leave it alone,” and goes downhill from there.
It’s hard for a show that’s perceived as having outlived its sell-by date to get a second chance with viewers. It took nerve for the makers of The Killing to go this dark after winning a third season by the skin of their teeth, but towards the end of its second hour, tonight’s premiere veers close to going even darker than the material and milieu can justify. (Auteur alert: The second half was directed by Lodge Kerrigan, whose movies Clean, Shaven and Keane were both attempts to express the disordered mental state of unstable men dangerously obsessed with little girls. Peter Sarsgaard starred in Kerrigan’s unreleased Steven Soderbergh-produced film In God’s Hands, about the effect of a child abduction on a family.) A New York Times reviewer even suggests that viewers thinking about checking out the new season when the episodes come to Netflix watch Spiral instead, because the French locations are so much prettier. The show continues to be both visually entrancing and rich in mood, but when Jewel Staite turns up for a couple of minutes of screen time as Holder’s new girlfriend (Dude! Where did you buy that suit!?), it’s like the clouds finally parting after a week of rain. As a set-up for a murder thriller and 10-week tour of the lower depths, it’s awfully compelling, though, and the complaints I’ve been reading that the show stands revealed as “just” a well-made police procedural fall on dead ears among those of us who haven't fully recovered yet from the cancellation of Southland. Viewers who were already planning to tune in to AMC tonight for Don Draper’s latest pouting session may find it a worthwhile contrast to spend some time with characters who actually have good reason to feel miserable.
- Grace Zabriskie, who played Laura Palmer’s mother, turns up in a small role as the minimally helpful clerk at a no-tell motel. The Killing may have moved past its Twin Peaks fixation, but you never get over your first love.