The Killing returned for a fourth and final season on Netflix today with its greatest asset, its creepy-beautiful atmosphere, intact. Adapted from the superior Danish original by Veena Sud, this onetime AMC drama might feel like a classic if you projected it without sound on a large wall on the back room of a nightclub, where the show's voluptuously beautiful shots of misty mountains, rain-slicked streets, and characters traversing endless hallways could merge in the mind with a synthesized backbeat and whatever cocktails the place serves (probably something rain-themed). As is, The Killing has the same problems as always: a gravely solemn, we-are-reinventing-the-genre swagger that doesn't sync up with the stereotype-driven, sub-Special Victims Unit procedural you're actually watching; a fondness for red herrings and mistaken assumptions that make the two lead cops, Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), look like total dipsticks; pacing and emphasis problems that kill any momentum the show can muster.
Season three was easily the best, because it was the least interested in being a traditional whodunit. It was more about watching the wheels fall off the wagon in the Seattle Police Department's homicide division, climaxing with Linden discovering that her boss Skinner (Elias Koteas) was a secret serial killer of young women and was responsible for a murder that landed an innocent man, Ray Seward (Peter Sarsgaard), on death row. That one ended in a cliffhanger, with Linden killing Skinner; season four opens with Holder helping his partner cover up the crime. As the season unfolds, the investigation into Skinner's murder is cross-cut with Linden and Holder's investigation of a military-school cadet (Tyler Ross) accused of murdering his parents and sister. As the duo tries to get to the bottom of this crime while obscuring their own, we watch Linden spiral further and further downward while Holder, whose girlfriend is pregnant, frets over impending fatherhood and God and death and a whole lotta other things you might not expect a dude who sounds kinda like Roy on The Simpsons to obsess over, y'knowhatI'msayin'?
I kid; Holder is a great character, albeit one who should occasionally be subtitled. His chemistry with Linden, always the show's heart, is at its peak here, occasionally venturing into True Detective deadpan banter, with Holder proffering some elaborate philosophical or cosmological theory, à la Rust Cohle in Spiritual Pilgrim mode, and Linden glaring at him. Some of their scenes in this final batch of episode are so rich with humor and empathy that I found myself picturing them starring in a better cop show — something like the first season of Homicide, or Hill Street Blues. (Holder also has a church-basement 12-step scene later in this season that features some of the finest acting Kinnaman has ever done.)
The Killing, unfortunately, has for four seasons been so full of itself, occasional moments of levity notwithstanding, that could never do these two great characters justice, much less give us stories and supporting characters on the same level as the show's cinematography, editing, and sound design. It still seems not to notice or care when the clichés pile up: the creepy-hateful photographer who proudly declares himself a student of human misery and declares, "My home is my camera obscura" (is he a stand-in for the way Sud thinks critics caricature her show?); the creepy wall of pictures announcing somebody's secret perversion; a character smashing a mirror in despair and then staring into a Cubist reflection. There are even scenes where the poor cadet gets repeatedly, cruelly bullied by classmates who sexually taunt his dead sister and make light of the fact that his entire family just got murdered; that's an easy enough way to build sympathy for the kid, I'll grant you, but it's all just so cartoonish that you can't take any of it seriously. I admit to have gained a bit of respect for the show in this "burn it down, burn it all down!" final season, but when I look back on how many hours I spent waiting for it to be great, or consistently good, instead of fitfully engaging, I feel resentment. The show's not horrible, like the seemingly indestructible Walking Dead, but I wish it had amounted to more.