The Killing wraps up its first season on Sunday night, and what a roller coaster it’s been. (We’re not the only ones who think so.) It started off as an oh-so-promising moody thriller, but then between the rain, the red herrings, and the basic police incompetence, everything got soggy and scatterbrained. Now we’re on the cusp of finding out who the murderer is, and we can’t get past just how important it is for politically minded prostitute users to silence their e-mail alert system. But if we clear our minds (but how did they miss Rosie’s involvement in an escort service?! Okay, deep breath), we can remember our initial feeling about the show: that a multi-narrative, season-long mystery set in atmospheric Seattle sounds like it would make for good viewing. So, in the interest of making the next season of The Killing a better one, we’ve identified nine ways this season went wrong, and how it can be fixed going forward.
1. We don’t care about the characters
Linden blew off her own wedding to fart around on a case she barely seemed capable of solving, and her whiny, immature partner smoked fake weed and got rained on. Mitch and Stan wept. The mayoral race … is a thing. We know next to nothing about Rosie Larsen, the ostensible central character. So far, all we know about her is that she was smartish, secretive, possibly a prostitute, and was once really into the Grand Canyon. That’s not a lot to go on. Even grody Aunt Terry mused, “Maybe none of us knew Rosie.” That’s not a selling point for a character.
How to Fix It: Build more character development into the early episodes. As the show has gone on, Linden and Holder have become a lot more sympathetic and interesting (though the same cannot be said for anyone attached to the mayoral nonsense). Belko eventually got some depth, and Aunt Terry finally had an illuminating conversation — in the penultimate episode. Hunt down fewer red-herring suspects in the early installments and give the characters some clearer wants and needs beyond just the case. As for the victim, how about a cohesive identity? The fragments we know about Rosie don’t add up to anything. Her Super 8 movie was a start, but the audience needs a clearer entry into the victim’s life so we feel more invested in solving her murder. A diary, perhaps? More examples of what she was like, or how she behaved? More characters who miss her throughout the day, as opposed to just two who can’t delegate any of the grieving?
2. If you have thirteen episodes, use thirteen episodes
The selling point of The Killing was that with a whole season dedicated to one case, it was going to be able to dig deep and explore all the nitty-gritty developments glossed over in most procedurals, while developing three-dimensional characters. Sounds great! But it didn’t work out quite that way. The pacing has been so off that, in hindsight, you could have watched the pilot and then tuned in for the last three episodes (that’s including the episode where Holder and Linden wander around Seattle not working on the case. Character: just as important as plot!) and you would know everything there is to know about the investigation, the murder, and our protagonists. Having thirteen episodes to tell a story shouldn’t be an excuse to tell a flabby one.
How to fix it: Pursue multiple leads concurrently, and make each one seem viable at least for a bit, but preferably longer. Alternately, they could narrow the investigation down to the one real suspect early on, but get a cat-and-mouse story going wherein that person briefly evades arrest due to some kind of dramatic twist. (See: the first season of Dexter.) Make the red herrings lead to something, even if it’s just more relevant information for detectives. Looking back over the season, we should be able to watch every episode and answer “Yes” to the question “Do we need this?”
3. It’s disrespectful of its audience’s innate TV IQ
The beginning of the show set up the premise that mayoral candidate Darren Richmond (or someone on his campaign) might have been involved with the murder. But when they were exonerated and the detectives moved on to other red herrings, we kept in touch with the Richmond camp and their seemingly irrelevant leaks and million-dollar jump shots, even as they were ancillary to the main plot. Anyone with an interest in television knows that this is not how TV works: A show doesn’t pay a third of its cast to be irrelevant. Yes, technically Bennett Ahmed’s reign as suspect technically affected the campaign, but not in a way that warranted spending this much time with them if they were truly distanced from the crime. So a savvy viewer always knew that by the laws of TV, even if the politicos weren’t relevant through Episode 11, they’d eventually be relevant again. And lo, along came Episode 12, making it clear that the killer is from the political realm (though it probably won’t be Billy Campbell’s Richmond: TV rules also say there always has to be one more twist in the finale). A viewer shouldn’t be able to get closer to IDing the real killer by using meta-logic than by following the scripted clues. It’s like if you could solve a Sherlock Holmes mystery from the color of the cover.
How to fix it: All the story lines need to at least appear to be relevant to the investigation throughout the entire run of the show: If the politicians had been “proven” innocent in the middle of the season, as opposed to the beginning, their long-term presence would have made more sense. Or if they hadn’t been ruled out entirely, just in all likelihood. Alternately, they should have more characters appearing in every episode even after they’ve been cleared. If Rosie’s friends had kept recurring, even though they’d been deemed innocent, the councilman’s continued presence would have seemed less glaringly anomalous.
4.The technology is laughably outdated
Our recapper has been harping on Linden’s phone habits all season, and yes, her absurdly loud flip phone — and inability to put it on vibrate — tops the list of our complaints. But there was also the “Delinquent Kid Forwarding Crime-Scene Photos to His Friends” plotline, which could easily have been avoided if Linden didn’t share a computer with her 15-year-old son. Surely a detective for a large police department would have access to a work laptop of some kind? Or at least some password protection for highly sensitive and disturbing information? (The police officer we asked sure thinks so!) While we’re at it, if Linden did have a laptop, maybe she wouldn’t have to call a travel agent every time she needs a new midnight ticket to Sonoma. Or perhaps she could do some background research on the super-shady adult escort services based in Seattle, just in case that info comes in handy. In short, it’s 2011, and the two detectives’ total unfamiliarity with (and refusal to use) the Internet is absurd. Case in point: last week’s Bockmail/e-mail alert fiasco. Andy Greenwald handled it beautifully here, but just to review: A random detective is forced to sit around monitoring e-mails, Darren Richmond only has twelve messages in his in-box, and his “new message” notification chime can be heard across the palatial apartment. He also leaves his e-mail open when expecting company. Also, he is using Bockmail. Too much.
How to fix it: A laptop, a BlackBerry, a “silent” button, and an Internet connection. Just give us some light Googling in the detectives’ office. That’s all we ask.
5. Linden and Holder are bad detectives
The two experts were kinder, but let’s be real: Candy Cane and Homeboy have made a lot of mistakes. Sure, the evidence against Bennett Ahmed was compelling, and technically, the misidentification of the Grand Canyon T-shirt was Mitch’s fault. But the bad policework — wandering into random warehouses, hopping into FBI vans, overlooking bus and taxi records, ignoring basic leads like the “Adela” note — is obvious even to civilian eyes. And if Linden hadn’t shared too much with the Larsens, Ahmed wouldn’t be in the ICU, Stan wouldn’t be in jail, and Mitch wouldn’t be so mean. All that mediocrity we could maybe forgive, on the premise that some cops are just not very good at their job, except for the fact that even not-very-good cops do thorough background research on everyone close to a random murder victim, as well as the victim herself. Not these two! Maybe if they had, they would have learned that Rosie’s aunt had a sideline as an escort, and thus uncovered that random call-girl company about four episodes earlier.
How to fix it: This one is tricky, obviously, because the show’s structure dictates that the case remain unsolved until the end of the season. But surely there’s a way to string out an investigation without forcing as many errors on the two main detectives. (Why wouldn’t Linden check with headquarters before barging into the warehouse? Or why couldn’t either detective do a quick Google/Lexis/anything search on “Adela” before heading out on an inspiration run?) Make the case more intricate so the clues are tougher to track down, not just overlooked — hey, whaddya know! An escort service! — or make the detectives’ mistakes less boneheaded.
6. It’s just a glorified episode of Law & Order
Drawing out a single investigation over thirteen episodes should have given The Killing license to break the procedural model. Hell, it should have required that it do so. But instead, the show has hit every beat and every trope from the Dick Wolf encyclopedia. Punk kids with their skateboards and their drugs! Teenagers engaged in illicit sex acts that ultimately have nothing to do with the case! Middle Easterners who are taped speaking in angry code that has all the trappings of a terrorist plot but turns out to be a plan to do something kindhearted! (Thank 24 for this one: They basically took the Three’s Company “kooky misunderstanding” playbook and substituted terrorism for sex.) Red-herring suspects who seem so guilty … but wait, what’s this?
Solution: For starters, pick a more interesting victim. Teen girl gets murdered as some kind of cosmic punishment for having a sexual identity? Yep, we’ve heard that one before. How about a victim who’s completely unsympathetic? Or one whose death comes as a relief to the police or his or her family? Maybe the death isn’t immediately ruled a homicide, and the police need to sort out what exactly happened. There are lots of ways to skin this cat. And then expand the scope of the storytelling beyond just the investigation. If you have a three-strand narrative, actually use it. We know how police investigations work thanks to millions of hours of crime procedurals, so pull back on that and use the time to tell stories from other areas of the victim’s life, not just from her understandably devastated family: Who else knew the victim? How are they coping? Go nuts! If the murder is a drop in the water, how far out do the rings go?
7. There’s too much chewing
We all knew Seattle was wet, but did you also know that everyone there chews loudly and conspicuously all the time? Well, thanks to The Killing, now you do! Never have we ever seen a TV show that so regularly films character violently smacking their lips. Prime example: the veritable chew-off that Holder and his old partner had last week in the squad car. Stop it. It’s gross.
How to fix it: Chew less.
8. There’s too little raingear
Someone please explain why raincoat and umbrella technology have failed to make it to The Killing’s Seattle, a place where it rains all the time. Those sweaters must be mildewy.
How to fix it: Import some umbrellas.
9. The killer wasn’t planned from the start of the show
Showrunner Veena Sud says she “had ideas in my head” at the start of the season, but hadn’t settled on one killer, and “So it was like, ’I know 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 could all be potential murderer for all these 7 different reasons, but you know…’ And the other writers too. All of us came in saying, ‘Let’s just follow these characters around. Let’s follow the logical progression, the story, the emotional progression and not come to a conclusion and the minute we came to the discovery together, it was like, ’… Yeah.” And you can tell. The identity of the murderer has not been satisfyingly woven through the entire season, and that’s been bad for the plotting (see No. 8) and the character development (see No. 2). Just compare The Killing to the first season of Veronica Mars, another show with a season-long murder mystery, to see the benefits of breaking your plot before you start writing your plot: You get a more layered story that actually bears up to scrutiny.
How to fix it: Solve the case before writing it. In fact, start now. See you next season!