Series Premiere — The Killing, “Pilot” and “The Cage”

I’ve slowly recognized that reviewing pilots of big, anticipated series is sort of a frivolous game. By the time something like The Killing hits the airwaves like it did last night, it’s been discussed so much and been reviewed so frequently, it’s moderately difficult to think about the series in ways that the 923 reviews I’ve read did. Maybe that’s my own personal problem and maybe I should stop reading pre-air reviews, but that’s where I am. I don’t want to feel like I’m repeating things that everyone else said, but that tends to happen with the initial episodes without the context and history that come along with multiple episodes and seasons. When we’ve all only seen the first two or three episodes, there isn’t too much difference in what folks are saying unless there are those who just REALLY love it or REALLY hate it. In any event, I think that’s all a quick explanation to set-up the fact that this review might not be particularly long or detailed. I plan on writing about The Killing every week and expect that those reviews to end up being much longer than this one.

The Killing is very, very good. Everything that critics have been talking about in reference to the series is true. It has a lot of atmosphere to burn, there are a number of fantastic performances and the long-form crime thriller format is a perfect respite from all the procedural drivel out there that likes to glorify the gruesomeness of the murder. Because of the basic premise and the smart ad campaign people are going to be initially comparing this series to Twin Peaks, but outside of those two things the comparison doesn’t really hold up — and that’s fine. (Presumably) There are no supernatural evils, red rooms or anything out of the ordinary with this murder investigation. Rosie Larsen has been murdered and the series will follow a day in the investigation.

With a mostly familiar premise, The Killing smartly relies on things other than plot to drive the momentum of these first two episodes. Although we see her being chased in the opening sequence, there’s no real indication that Rosie is actually dead until the last three or four minutes of the pilot and when that reveal is put forth, it’s very well-executed. This isn’t necessarily a subversion of our expectations because anyone who has paid attention to the marketing campaign or is familiar with the concept knows that Rosie is dead, but the slow-burn at which the investigation unspools in both the pilot and second episode “The Cage” is really appealing. Because of the time constraints, even the best police procedurals speed through most of the investigative operations outside of a few major points of discovery so that week’s case can be solved in an episode. Stripping those constraints away allows this case to feel natural and realistic, but also frustrating and, well, slow. Even in the first two episodes, we get to experience the kind of roadblocks that come up in a real police investigation, even if it’s a fairly high-profile one. Those frustrating moments not only assist in stalling the narrative — something that’s going to have to happen regularly and thus might not be as charming in hour 9 — but it adds to the suffocating, dreary and depressing atmosphere. Being a murder detective isn’t as glamorous as it looks on an awful CBS procedural and The Killing makes sure to let us know that up front. Sarah’s job sucks, you can see the impact of it on her face and there’s really no wonder why she’s ready to run off to Sonoma, CA and get married.

What is particularly impressive about these two hours is how well they define the series’ primary characters. AMC deciding to air two episodes instead of just one was a tremendous decision not only just to give the audience more product to try up front, but to attempt to hook them with the characters. There will probably be a number of people who start watching this series because of the murder mystery plot and they should, but The Killing is going to be a much more rewarding experience that just that because the characters here are so intriguing, compelling and complicated. The plot is the plot and I’m sure there will be a sufficient amount of twists and turns along the way, but I was really interested to see if the characters could hook me like the plot and I was quickly shown that to be true. I never watched Big Love and therefore have no experience with Mireielle Enos, but she’s just fantastic here. Sarah Linden isn’t a showy role, but it’s also not completely subdued either. There’s a whole lot of intensity and pain behind Enos’ eyes and she sells every single moment of the investigation. She’s not the stereotypical “too emotional” female cop, but she’s not an animal either, she’s just a complicated individual. And I was actually the most surprised by her partner Holder. In the pilot he’s sort of a stereotypical “fish out of water,” but the second episode shows a much improved and intelligent Holder. He’s certainly an asshole and surely has a “dark” past or something, but he’s smart as hell and actually pretty good police. Great stuff from Joel Kinnaman.

Even with those fantastic performances on the investigation side, I’m not sure this series works without the great work from Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton as Rosie’s parents. The pilot episode, while good, only becomes something a bit more interesting when they’re forced to deal with the realization that their daughter might actually be dead. We have seen reactions like theirs in series and movies before, but the intensity and passion at which both actors play it is really impressive, especially in contrast to Linden’s steely resolve in the face of another dead body. I can’t imagine that either of them is actually involved in the murder, which means that most of their scenes will be about the recovery and survival after losing your daughter, but I’m 100 percent on-board with that. They are tremendous.

The Killing isn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel, but it does a damn good job of making us recognize what a slightly tinkered, greatly improved variation on the police procedural drama looks like. If you had any reservations about checking this out, do not.

Other thoughts:

  • I like Billy Campbell and he’s doing good work here as the soon-to-be Mayor of Seattle, but it’s still unclear exactly what his inner-office politics have to do with the investigation. The stolen car from his campaign is one thing, but the moles and all that nonsense is completely different. I’m sure that the purpose of all this will be identified in due time, but right now it sort of feels like the middling seasons of 24 with so much focus on politicians no one cares about.
  • This series looks so wonderful. I mean yeah, it’s raining all the time and it’s cloudy and awful, but boy does it look good in its rainy, cloudy awful-ness.
  • The music is also very fantastic here. Fits the mood and atmosphere perfectly.

2 thoughts on “Series Premiere — The Killing, “Pilot” and “The Cage”

  1. “AMC deciding to hair two episodes instead of just one was a tremendous decision not only just to give the audience more product to try up front, but to attempt to hook them with the characters.”

    There is an extra H in the fourth paragraph.

    Like

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