Monday, 14 May 2012

Killing Off The Killing

There's a story I dimly remember from my childhood in which a man is killed, and three different people confess the murder to the rajah, only to find out the man had been dead all along, and the three men had, in increasingly implausible way, concurrently "killed" a corpse.  As a piece of storytelling, it was admirable in structure, but it had no interest in wandering into anything in the vicinity of plausibility.

That story went through my mind as we at long last finished off watching The Killing following a seven-hour binge this weekend, partially because the show finally built up steam in its final spurt, but mainly because, as The Other Half said, "I just want it to be over." [1]

The Killing reminded me of that tale, even though the victim in the central murder investigation was very much alive when she was driven into the river to drown.  In order to keep the police investigation both on the move and not getting anywhere close to the identity of the actual murderer, The Killing had to rely on slowly revealing an increasingly ridiculous patchwork of events, in which a half dozen suspects all turned out to have lied about the events leading up to the murder, and a healthy sub-section of those proved to have done things it was originally assumed was the work of the killer.

Of course, as I say, that's the only way a serial of this kind can work, short of revealing the murderer earlier than expected and turning the show into a man-hunt rather than a detective serial, which causes its own problems in terms of tonal shift and audience drop-off (see Twin Peaks season 2 for the exemplar case of how things can go entirely off the rails once a killer is unmasked).  A certain degree of suspension of disbelief is required, one that sits uneasily with the kind of gritty, filter-heavy atmosphere the show wants to evoke. 

Much like my position on The Avengers, I'd say The Killing comes close to having made the best possible job of presenting something inescapably problematic.  The show does an excellent job of making us care about the characters, lessening the frustration when each new piece of evidence leads to yet another blind alley, and the inclusion of the political angle with Troels Hartmann's mayoral campaign provides a sufficiently new angle to avoid this feeling too much like treading over long-familiar ground.  That said, the inclusion of the campaign combined with the focus on the grieving Birk Larsons brings along its own problems, a kind of Catch 22 whereby each of the ancillary story lines either feel too far removed from the investigation, or which brush up against it so many times that credibility is stretched still further.

The show is also much better at remembering its own past and avoiding ridiculous left-field developments than many similar shows, including, from what I've gathered from angry reviewers, its own American remake.  The final reveal of the killer leaves several unanswered questions (at least two of which should have been real priorities), and negates a long-running implication without mentioning it or explaining it away.  I can't say much more about the latter without giving away too much, but imagine if the last episode of BSG revealed Baltar really had just been delusional all this time, and Head Six had no purpose or direction after all (not that what we got was much better, of course, but that's a conversation we've had many times before).  That's not quite a fair comparison, we're talking about something less pivotal than Baltar's visions, but you get the idea.

In short, then, the series is strong but flawed, and whilst much of the praise it has been given has been hyperbolic, were I to rate entertainment using the five star system, this would comfortably get four, and on occasion look like stealing another half.  It could have easily been done with a shorter series, and indeed that would have allowed at least one prime suspect red-herring to be done away with, but it keeps you interested, really picks up speed about two thirds in, and at least manages to keep you guessing (even if I had the murderer pegged by their second appearance on screen).

I'm curious to try at least a bit of the American version as well.  Howls of outrage from the critics notwithstanding, I'm intrigued by what I know of it, which basically suggests they took a show that was already heavily indebted to Twin Peaks and decided to increase that debt by throwing in brothels on Indian land, a flurry of hyperbolic cliffhangers, and a refusal to actually answer the one question they're pretty much trading the whole show on.  That's about as Peaksy as you can get, though apparently they forgot to include the most important part of Lynch's show: it wasn't boring as shit.  Still, we always forget something, right?

[1] In fairness, I think she was referring more to how difficult it is to concentrate on a serial when circumstances dictate we can only watch it every fortnight or so, but we certainly could've gotten through it faster had we felt the motivation to do so.

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