How many shows get cancelled twice and still live to see another day? In the new age of television, one show pushed that limit. The Killing received much attention at the start of its first season, but that quickly and rightly turned to scorn by the end, with most checking out of the show and avoiding the second season entirely. When the show was cancelled after Season 2, many cheered at the idea that AMC had shown some sense for quality control. The cheering turned to shock when it was announced the show had been uncancelled. In an even more shocking turn of events, the third season was good. Very good, in fact. So it was sad when AMC cancelled it again. Thankfully, Netflix saw fit to pick it up for one more season to close off the story of detectives Linden and Holder.
The Killing had a lot of problems in the early going, but none were worse than the appalling mismatch of tone and execution. What was pitched as The Wire for murder investigations, turned out to be little more than a subpar Law and Order episode stretched two season long and made way more somber and depressing. Creator Veena Sud had high ambitions, but clearly her years on Cold Case had taught her the wrong lessons about constructing a whodunit. It’s hard to take the story, themes and characters seriously when the moronic plot machinations are treated like realistic and revelatory exposés of urban society. That the first season ended with the mystery unresolved was only a further slap in the face to those who had at least hoped to get answers in lieu of pathos.
Season 3 was the miracle. The show had already died, but here it was, back again. It shouldn’t have been good. Amazingly, it confounded expectations. Sud stepped the show back from its malfunctioning observant eye, and decided to embrace the seedier side of the murder investigation procedural. A genuinely compelling serial killer storyline was paired with a question of innocence over a man Linden had help put on death row. The casting was even better than in the first season, particularly with Amy Seimetz, Elias Koteas and Peter Sarsgaard in the mix. Crucially, by allowing the show to accept its own genre conventionality, the pathos came about naturally. Character who once felt defined by ham-fisted personality flaws now had actual plot motivations for their rough edges. By the end of the season, Linden had completely broken, and watching her get to that state was gut wrenching in the best way.
So we come to Season 4. The final season. Commissioned by Netflix to serve as a capper to a somewhat unresolved incident at the end of Season 3. Off the bat, it needs to be said that this final season is not quite as good as the previous one, but it does work very well as a closer, letting the series end on its own terms and with some dignity. Two main plots run concurrently in the season. The central case involves a brutally murdered family and their military academy son who may or may not have committed the crime. Running behind it through all six episodes is the clean-up from the Season 3 finale, with Linden and Holder’s careers at stake.
What The Killing discovered in its last two seasons was that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in the lurid, pulpy side of crime investigation dramas. A serial killer picking off young homeless girls is bleak, but it’s also nasty and makes for exciting plot mechanics. Season 4’s plot with the murdered family and the military boarding school is a little too on the nose in playing off the central theme of broken families, but still Sud and her team let the it play out as the lurid entertainment it truly is. Sneering psychotic kids. Joan Allen as a hard-assed ex-Colonel and current headmaster. Truly sickening revelations about the superficially perfect family. It’s all right at home in the world of crime fiction, and it doesn’t preclude strong emotion at all.
Also noteworthy is the treatment of Mireille Enos’ Sarah Linden. Her performance has always been top-notch, but the broken and haunted female lead feels like a tired trope, especially after Homeland ran it into the ground. Luckily, while Linden makes horrible decisions and does a lot of pained crying, her character never loses her dignity. It’s a fine balancing act the writers have pulled off, and certainly Enos’ excellent performance is just as crucial to making it work. She never stops being a character the audience roots for, and that’s an important contrast to the larger, much bleaker world she lives in.
Netflix decided to give The Killing a six-episode run, with episodes lengthened to 60 minutes. The HBO model works well for the series, each episode allowing for more quiet space and lending weight to even the most preposterous plot elements. The directing on the show has only gotten better over time, particularly in the series finale directed by Jonathan Demme. Shallow focus constantly isolates the characters within the callousness of the world surrounding them, but also makes the moments of lightness or happiness work intimately.
I didn’t watch Season 2 of The Killing and I have no intention of ever going back to fix that. But with Season 3 and now 4, the show became what it should have been all along. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the series ends on a hopeful note, and once it gets you to that point it feels completely earned. There’s a satisfaction in knowing these people might be okay, and it’s even more satisfying knowing a show that started off on such a wrong foot managed to pull it together and become one very much worth your time.