The most impressive zombie act on AMC isn’t The Walking Dead. It’s the creative spectacle that is The Killing, a patchy bag of broken dramatic bones that should be six feet under after two frustrating seasons, yet somehow continues to stubbornly trudge forth, hungry for approval and attention. Do you dare to give this mystery serial about haunted detectives working the soggy streets and boggy backwoods of rain swept Seattle another piece of your brain? Because if you do, be prepared to take a chance on giving it more, for The Killing has crawled out of its grave with an infecting bite.
That The Killing lives at all is due to its actors. Joel Kinnaman holds the center of the early episodes as Det. Stephen Holder. One year after the convoluted conclusion of the Rosie Larsen murder investigation, the jittery-jivey ex-junkie is a portrait of personal and professional self-improvement, although the paint ain’t totally dry. He’s living right (despite the occasional smoke or two), eating kinda well (milk and fries, no meat), and he’s got a good thing going with Firefly’s Jewel Staite, who digs his maturity (as well as his ”Serenity” tattoo, wink-wink). Kinnaman plays the textures of his character’s will-it-hold? makeover as well as Holder wears his stylish black trenchcoat, and the marbled diction of his hipster-tough street patter remains an entertainment unto itself. I can try to listen to him for hours.
Holder’s riding a hot streak of closing cases, and promotion looms. His wise, wizened new partner (Carl Reddick) likes to remind Holder that what his up-and-coming ass needs most is to chase after sexy cases. The muddy mystery of a raped and murdered runaway? That’s a loser. Forget about it. But he can’t. The wreckage of innocence lost speaks to Holder—There but for the grace of God and all that—just as it once did to his former partner, Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos). She’s now living a semi-rural life on Vashon Island, working ferries and Afternoon Delighting with a nice-guy co-worker. She thinks she’s content. She’s not. She’s lonely (her son, Liam James’ Jack, now lives in Chicago with his father), she’s lost, and she almost knows it. The season’s first great scene comes when city-slicker Holder knocks on her farmhouse, wanting to know if there might be a connection between his slain streetwalker and The Case That Drove Linden Nuts, alluded to in previous seasons: The savage murder of a woman by her husband (Peter Sarsgaard), who is weeks away from execution as the story begins. Kinnaman and Enos masterfully play the unspoken agendas and conflicted wants of their characters, and their chemistry is so winning you want them back together, ASAP.
Yet The Killing makes you wait for it, for better and worse. Linden first has to put down the sham of her country-strong idle, and she does so via a tedious bit of metaphorical business involving some dying cows. Can you hear the cattle screaming, Detective Linden? Linden slow-burns her way into the season’s narrative, and so does Enos: Her performance doesn’t really catch fire until the story finishes chewing through Linden’s initial helping of murky existential cud. (Again: Moooo.) Fortunately, the season’s third rail of main character—replacing Billy Campbell’s MIA mayor—compensates by being electrifying: Sarsgaard rivets as Ray Seward, an evil man forged by as-yet-to-be-revealed influences, and he reveals the shades of his dark heart in a succession of great scenes with a prison chaplain, a gullible family man guard, and Linden herself. Seward wants to die with a furious need that feels suspicious. He wants it in-your-face, neck-crackingly noisy, and he wants Linden’s mentor/old-old partner James Skinner (Elias Koteas) there to watch it. Is Seward a rabid dog who knows he needs to be put down? Did this bad man really commit the crime he’s about to die for? The actors are good enough to make you care about the questions, as will your investment in Linden: Clearly, the answers are key to moooooving on.
Season three of The Killing has another subplot tracking the desperate lives of homeless kids who try to survive by selling themselves to sexual predators, and preying on each other. None of it is as compelling as it should be (Hollywood depictions of the hard-scrabble life rarely are), but it’s far more credible than the clunky political intrigues of previous seasons. By the end of the two-hour premiere, I found myself caring about Bullet (Bex Taylor-Klaus), a butchy-tough lesbian on a romantic quest, and most intrigued by Twitch (Max Fowler), a deluded hustler with a dream of becoming a model.
The premiere’s true capture-the-imagination moment comes in the final scene of its second hour, and while I’ll give you the obligatory SPOILER ALERT, AMC has pretty much given it away already with its marketing: Investigating a certain clue she’s been carrying with her for years, Linden discovers a dozen-plus bags containing dead bodies littering a marshy wetland. The arresting visual will hook you and reel you in, at least for another week. (The Killing has always been good at beginnings. Hopefully this season, it can close like Holder.) The image evoked for me a fiction (a graveyard of water-logged trash bags, a la Dexter) and the real-life Seattle-area horror story of the Green River Killer, Gary Leon Ridgway, who preyed on streetwalkers and dumped their bodies in clusters in wooded areas, and did so for years without anyone ever noticing. Among his many rationalizations, Ridgway believed the women he strangled were human waste and he was simply taking out the garbage.
This is all to say that The Killing has reinvented itself by becoming that most common of crime-time dramas: a story about a serial killer. Over time, it might even prove itself to be a superior example of its genre. There’s something to grieve here. The Killing was once a show that aspired to transcend its genre by being both a painfully intimate tale of grief observed and grand saga about fully realized fictional American city—a Pacific Northwest version of The Wire. Now it’s just another murder mystery about a bunch of dead girls and the monstrous misogynists who slay them. The biggest disappointment about The Killing’s surprising return is its strategy for cheating death: by dialing down the ambition, by becoming more conventional. Still: It’s good enough. And for this show, that’s a strong step in the right direction. The next one will be to sustain ”good” over an entire season. And if it can do that, then maybe next year, The Killing can take another shot at being something greater. B