Variations On A Theme: Looking Back At The US Version Of The Killing

the-killing-us-season-3.1

Caution: spoilers ahead.

The original Danish version of The Killing was the show that kicked off the craze in the UK for ‘Scandi-crime’ or ‘Nordic Noir’ shows. While not the massive hit that the media might have you believe (the gushing Radio Times coverage would make you think the show was challenging Eastenders in the ratings, rather than being a niche series tucked away on BBC4), the show did gain a considerable following among the right kind of people – the sort more likely to discuss it over a dinner party than the water cooler, and who felt justified in watching a crime show because it had subtitles and was therefore more socially acceptable.

The US remake was always heading for trouble, then. In a sense, it was a gift from the gods for people who like to sneer at ignorant Americans, with their insular attitudes and resistance to subtitles that ensures they have to remake foreign films and TV shows. There is, of course, some truth in that, though a dirty little secret that no one likes to talk about is that US remake rights are often the thing that ensures a film of TV show actually gets made in the first place these days, the guarantee of extra cash being a great incentive. As it turned out, not for the first time the US version actually proved to be an impressive work in its own right, getting positive reviews from reluctant critics.

the-killing-us-season-1

This was helped by the fact that the US version of The Killing was less a remake and more an adaptation of the general format, with only the main characters and the general formula having any connection to the original show. The American version quickly went off in its own direction, making nods towards the original series and taking certain narrative moments but essentially telling its own story. This makes a lot of sense. As show runner Veena Sud comments in the extras, the existence of the internet means that simply retelling the same story is a bit of a non-starter – spoilers would be everywhere immediately.

So the US take on The Killing is an alternate version of the theme, rather than a remake. A localised version of the concept. Nothing wrong with that, especially if you get it right. And The Killing proves to be a very impressive series, showing no hints of originating anywhere except America. The fears it explores are often very specifically American in nature, and the characters are deeply rooted in US crime drama culture. It is, essentially, and entirely original work. If the whole ‘remake’ thing has somehow put you off watching this, then you should rethink.

Oddly, watching The Killing put me in mind of Twin Peaks, if Twin Peaks had been a more straight forward crime drama. Like that series, this is the story of what appears to be a straight forward murder investigation that uncovers dark secrets, both from the victim and those around her, as well as spilling out to seemingly unconnected worlds of politics and corruption. Even the wording of the original promo posters, ‘Who Killed Rosie Larsen?’ echoes the famous Twin Peaks cry of ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer?’. Another Peaks connection is that at the end of season one, we still haven’t had that question answered, much to the understandable dismay of viewers. While we are now used to the idea of a story playing out over a season arch, we do still expect the final episode of that season to wrap things up, and I’m not sure the series did itself any favours by making this mystery last for two seasons.

the-killing-us-season-2-2

Rosie Larsen is a teenage girl whose dead body is found, bound, in the trunk of a car that just happens to belong to the Seattle mayoral campaign of councilman Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell). The car had been reported as stolen, but the crime is still linked to Richmond by the media, encouraged by his electoral rival. Investigating the case is homicide detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), who is supposed to be handing the case over to rookie detective Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), newly transferred from narcotics where he had developed a serious drug habit while working undercover. Though Linden is officially on her last day before quitting to move to California, but she is unable to let go, constantly postponing her exit as the case gets under her skin and becomes more complex.

This investigation runs through the 26 episodes that take up the first two seasons, and involves assorted red herrings and sideways shifts. The first suspect is high school teacher Bennet Ahmed (Brandon Jay McLaren), who seems to have had a rather too close relationship with Rosie, something made more suspicious by the fact that his pregnant wife is also one of his former students. Worse still, Ahmed is a muslim who seems to be connected to extremists, playing into America’s post 9/11 paranoia and briefly taking the show into 24 territory. Of course, the first suspect in any show like this is unlikely to be the killer, and attention shifts to Richmond himself, who went missing for a few hours on the night of the murder and arrived home soaking wet. The show neatly swerves his personality from idealistic politician to sinister figure, suggesting that he could well be the killer.

the-killing-us-season-2

Meanwhile, we are finding out more about Rosie herself, including her mysterious visits to an Indian Casino, her deposits of large sums of cash in a secret account and her connection to a high-end escort website. Linden and Holder start to investigate the possibility that she was working as a prostitute (another Twin Peaks nod, perhaps), though as with many of the story threads, this will develop in unexpected areas.

Beyond the crime investigation itself, what’s interesting about The Killing is the emphasis on the effect the murder has on Rosie’s family and friends. This is something all to often ignored by crime thrillers, but here as much emphasis is placed on the devastating effect on her parents Stan and Mitch (Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes), her aunt Terry (Jamie Ann Allman) and her two little brothers as on the crime investigation. These people too have secrets – Stan is a former mob enforcer and killer, Terry a part-time escort who perhaps inspired Rosie. When Stan almost beats Bennet Ahmed to death, convinced he is the killer, it adds a new twist to the story, especially when it’s shown that he is mistaken.

For all the side characters and sub plots though, it is the investigation by Linden and Holder that holds the story together. They are the classic mismatched team – she’s obsessive, emotional and possibly unstable, he’s the laid back wigger who she immediately finds grating (and rightly so – it takes a few episodes for his character to stop seeming like an annoying stereotype and become relatable) but finally learns to trust. It’s all the more shocking then, that at the end of season one, he seems to have betrayed her and joined a conspiracy to frame Richmond. Season two therefore opens like a paranoid conspiracy thriller, with Linden thrown off the case and trying to uncover just who is tampering with evidence, and why. As it turns out, Holder was more naïve than corrupt, and soon joins her in attempting to uncover the truth.

the-killing-us-season-1-1

To be fair, two seasons is perhaps a bit of a stretch for the story, which sometimes feels like it is deliberately padding things – particularly in the political side of the story, as it follows Richmond’s attempts to overcome suspicion and an assassination attempt and secure victory against a ruthless opponent. It’s not that this isn’t an interesting story in itself, but it would perhaps be better off in a different show. Similarly, when Mitch leaves her family to try to cope with her daughter’s murder in her own way, it involves a lot of soul-searching that adds nothing to the narrative. But I’m not going to say that this should’ve been wrapped up in a single season. Allowing the series the space to tell the story somehow feels vital. Of course, watching the entire run back to back makes it much easier to not be bothered by the inconclusive cliffhangers of season one – the moment the final episode of that season had finished, I simply slipped the next disc into the player and carried on. Having to wait the best part of a year might have been more annoying.

Ironically, after allowing the story to develop so slowly, the final episode of season two seems a little rushed, and the final revelations of who the killer is – and this itself is full of twists and additional revelations – seems a bit unconvincing. It requires a sudden character leap that hadn’t really been hinted at, and is less a dramatic shock as it is a ‘WTF?’ moment. It has a certain emotional charge, thanks to the performances (the whole series features flawless acting), but it doesn’t feel right.

Season three is all change – a new case, with only Linden and Holder as returning characters. It’s more of a straight murder mystery this time, with no politics playing in the background and little of the family devastation we saw last time either. This makes it a tighter thriller, but a less complex tale.

the-killing-us-season-3

Set a year after the previous story, it sees Linden now off the police force, working for the Transit Authority. She’s pulled back in when Holder and his new partner Riddick (Greg Henry) investigate a murder that seems to tie to one of her former cases – a murder for which the convicted man, Ray Seward (Peter Sarsgaard) is about to be executed, and which she has to convince her boss and former partner and lover James Skinner (Elias Koteas) to reopen, as it soon turns out that a series of teenage runaways and homeless girls have been killed (Linden finds the bodies in a visually arresting but narratively unconvincing moment) and so she and Holder investigate, even as more girls vanish.

With its narrative mostly split between the murder investigation and the plight of the almost certainly innocent Seward, this is a far leaner season. The show also probes the desperate lives of the runaways, working as underage hookers to feed habits and keep alive, with boyish lesbian Bullet (Bex Taylor-Kaus) forming an uneasy relationship with Holder as she pushes him to find her missing friends. Interestingly, while the season no longer follows the family devastation caused by murder, it is if anything more emotionally charged. And it takes a chance by apparently ending the investigation with two episodes to go. The penultimate episode then follows the fate of Seward, as Linden desperately tries to find the piece of evidence that will at least grant him a stay of execution. It’s a powerful hour of television that keeps you on edge until the last-minute, and has a fairly devastating power to it, almost working as a stand-alone piece. The whole season has been less than complimentary about the US justice and prison system, and so you suspect that this won’t end well, but the show at least offers hope.

The final episode is where we finally find out that the real killer is none other than Skinner – cop turned child rapist and murderer – and unlike the last season, this unlikely revelation works. It works in part because the final act of the episode sees Linden held captive by Skinner as they drive out to the middle of nowhere and he calmly explains his reasons. This is a tour de force scene with one of the most chilling monsters you’ll ever see, and it becomes increasingly emotionally raw, as Holder desperately gives chase, not so much to save Linden from the murderer as to save her from herself. The sudden, abrupt ending is pretty extraordinary, as Linden loses control and executes the man who betrayed her, the pair having just rekindled their relationship.

the-killing-us-season-4

It’s hard to see where the show could go after this devastating ending, but the fourth and final season deals with the fall out of this execution, wrapped around a fresh murder investigation. At just six episodes, it very much feels like a wrap up, giving the fans proper closure to a story that might have otherwise seemed to end rather abruptly.

This time, the murder story sees Linden and Holder investigating the massacre of a seemingly perfect, wealthy family, with only the teenage son, Kyle Stansbury (Tyler Ross) surviving. All evidence points to him having attempted to shoot himself, and so he becomes the prime suspect, but as the pair investigate the crime and the private military school that Kyle attends, presided over by the cold Colonel Margaret Rayne (Joan Allen), and home to secrets, bullying and a host of socially dysfunctional suspects.

Within this story, we also see Linden and Holder dealing with the consequences of their crime – hers the murder of Skinner, his helping cover it up – as both fear and guilt play on their minds, while Riddick has been doggedly investigating the case, slowly adding up the clues. The two stories converge is a finale that sees characters from earlier stories returning and the truth in both cases emerging. The murder case is a little frustrating in its revelations – some are telegraphed far too much, others seem a bit of a leap, and the story of military school bullies and abusive relationships seems to be one that has been rather done to death – but it ultimately manages to be satisfying and, in contrast to season three,  admirably low-key in the way it eventually ends, allowing the killer to remain a victim as well as a murderer. The wrap ups for the two main characters drag on a bit and risk sliding into sentimentality, but for the most part it is well handled – and the cynical denouement to the cover up, in the form of yet another cover up, is all too believable.

the-killing-us-season-4.1

It seems the modern way to judge a TV series – especially when released as DVD box sets – is how inclined you are to binge on it. If that’s the case, then maybe season three is the best of them all, as I tore through it in two sittings, as oppose to the five or six it took to get through the previous episodes (season four was also consumed in two sittings, but with fewer episodes, that’s less impressive a feat). But feeling the need to watch four episodes in a go isn’t bad.

On a more sensible level, The Killing is a gripping, twisting, sometimes annoying but always intriguing series. Enos has the right level of quirkiness, vulnerability and emotional instability to make her character sympathetic and likeable, and Kinnaman adds a much-needed humour to the story while still seeming edgy and potentially dodgy. The supporting cast for all three seasons are all excellent and the production values impeccable. It takes a couple of episodes to get into, admittedly – I can’t say I was immediately hooked. But some point into the fourth episode, you start to get hooked, and the show holds you in from then on.

This is quality television and even if you think the original version is the best thing ever, you should give this take on the idea a try. You will be pleasantly surprised.

DAVID FLINT

BUY IT NOW (UK)