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'The Killing' season finale review: Who did it, why, and where does it go from here?

The Killing concluded its first season with an ambiguous ending that seemed less thought-out than anxious – for something that would strike viewers as worth the 13 episodes we’ve spent in the cold Seattle rain; for something that would leave us gasping with surprise (consider me un-gasped); and for something that would be so open-ended that it would compel AMC to renew it for a second season (mission accomplished).

When I’m thinking about a show’s business decisions as much as I am its dramatic content, that’s usually not a good sign for my, and possibly your, involvement in it. And indeed, there were weeks during The Killing’s slow, sagging middle – those hours spent with what almost always felt like a red-herring plot about the Muslim school-teacher as a suspect; or those long moments when the camera held onto its close-ups of Michelle Forbes’ Mitch doing variations on silent, depressed grief – which practically invited our minds to wander. These were occasions to remove ourselves from the (in)action and idly think about whether it was really as uncomfortable, chilly, and damp as it looked when the actors filmed this thing, and whether stars such as Joel Kinneman (as cop Stephen Holder), Billy Campbell (as politician Darren Richmond), Kristen Lehman (as campaign coordinator Gwen), and Brenden Sexton III (as the mommy-issue working-man Belko) were being directed to remain perpetually poker-faced because any one of them might turn out to be the killer of Rosie Larson, but they hadn’t been handed those crucial script pages yet.

Most of all, we had ample time to contemplate Mirielle Enos’ Sarah Linden, as good at police work as she was bad as a mother and fiancee. Enos deserves a majority of the credit for sustaining interest in The Killing, since she managed to maintain the series’ dedicated dour mood while always taking advantage of those small cracks in the episodes that permitted her to show us Sarah’s torn loyalties, her parental guilt, her ambivalence about and irritation with the guy she was supposed to be leaving her job to marry (kudos to Callum Keith Rennie for playing the half-baked role of Rick as though it had a real narrative through-line, which it most certainly did not). And about mid-way through the series, once it was revealed that Holder was an addict in active sobriety, Kinneman really got to release Holder’s loose-limbed wryness, sarcastic pessimism, and a convincing fondness for Linden that even the ending could not contradict. I can’t think of anyone this side of Eminem who’s wrung more changes on white-boy hiphop mannerisms in a manner that didn’t irritate but which actually illuminated, even made eloquent, his state of mind.

So, how about that ending? In last week’s episode, we were led to believe that Richmond might be the killer, since his email alias “Orpheus” received the I-know-what-you-did-style messages Linden was sending. But we are experienced TV watchers – we know that whoever is 100% sure to have done in the penultimate episode will never be the person revealed as the true malefactor in the final episode.

And so it was here. Sort of. Pretty much. The big reveal: Holder is corrupt; he doctored the toll-bridge camera photos and is seen climbing into a car with someone else, saying confidently of a framed Richmond, “Photo worked – he’s going down.” The lingering questions are, who was in the car with him (you may say Jamie; I say perhaps Gwen), and how will this play out next season, since in the final scene, Belko was advancing upon Richmond at a public rally to assassinate him.

This conclusion was twisty, to be sure. But it’s one that leaves me disappointed. I don’t want Holder to be a villain – this is the character that supported the show on his knobby shoulders when it was at its shakiest. He’s the guy with the funky sense of humor. Now we have to think of him as a bad guy? Or is he pulling a noble scam, closing in on the real killer by pretending to play along? Simply knowing that The Killing has been renewed, and that Kinneman has received raves from viewers and critics, makes me think the series doesn’t want him to come back next season only to be arrested and sent away by Linden.

Furthermore, what does it say for The Killing that the likely murder of Richmond (do we know whether Campbell has signed on for a second season?) seemed not to matter beyond its shock value? It made me realize how little I had invested in that character. Campbell’s performance was fine, but he was written as a predictably weaselly pol in a manner that David Simon would have sent back for multiple re-writes on The Wire.

I think the weaker aspects of The Killing might be traceable to producer Veena Sud’s evident style on CBS’ Cold Case. The initial seasons of that series followed Kathryn Morris’ intriguingly disheveled, quietly tough cop trying to solve murders that would bring some peace to both the dead and their living mourners. The show had a gray palette, and was frequently shot in the (supposedly Philadelphia) rain. In its later seasons, Cold Case had become repetitive and mawkish. In its first season, The Killing could barely sustain its organizing conceit, the approximately one-day-per-episode exploration of a disheveled, quietly tough cop trying to solve the murder of a girl and bring comfort to her extravagantly grieving parents.

In considering the plot threads left dangling – Holder’s role in the crime; Sarah’s possible marriage; the unhappiness of her son – I am not filled with anticipation to find out how these will be snipped or woven into a satisfying dramatic fabric. Instead, I find myself wishing The Killing would start anew, with Enos at its center, with a fresh case and some clearing skies. I also wish Holder would be by her side, helping her track down clues with his drawling sarcasm and barely contained frustration at being paired with the only cop in Seattle who presents even less of an affect than he does. Yes, those are the wishes of someone who’d actually like it if The Killing was either more conventional or more drastically, experimentally different. But at this point, none of what I hope for seems very likely, does it? So I’ll just hope for the best Killing possible.

Twitter: @kentucker

Originally posted June 20 2011 — 2:36 AM EDT

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