OK, I’m in for the long haul. The Killing’s first 3 episodes have revealed all the ingredients of a serviceable murder mystery: good acting, taut dialogue, bone-chilling atmospherics and a promise of intricate plotting. That’s more than enough to keep me watching.
But there’s a promise of something more than diverting melodrama in the interplay between the two main characters, Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnamen). A classic murder mystery in a visual medium is told in the third person without cheap flashbacks. The dramatic challenge is to make it work simultaneously on the level of sight and the level of vicarious hindsight. We watch the murder investigation happen in a semblance of real time through our own eyes and piece together how the murder happened by looking backwards through the eyes of the main characters investigating it. What we see of the past, then, is a function of how they see the present. And what the main characters see, in turn, is a function of who they are.
That’s what I was getting at last week when I said that Linden “sees” the murder by putting herself in the shoes of the victim while Holder “sees” it from the shoes of the murderer. Let me expand a little on the thought.
Linden’s not part of the sordid world she investigates; she navigates her way through it out of a sense of professional obligation, like an anthropologist who doesn't like her work. For her own part, Linden doesn’t want to be there, especially now when she's supposed to be in California planning her wedding.
That doesn’t mean that she lacks compassion for the people she encounters, but that her compassion is mostly a matter of feeling the victims’ pain. Recall how her lieutenant roped her into the investigation. Linden was on her way out the door when he stopped her in her tracks by forcing her to imagine what it must have been like for Rosie Larsen when she was trying to claw her way out of the trunk of a submerged car for ten minutes before she drowned.
Holder’s so much at home in the world where murders are regular occurences that you wonder whether he has the clinical detachment it takes to solve one. Last week he looked like seducing underage girls was right up his alley. This week he was provoking Linden’s (and our) disapproval by having a little too much fun beating up a drug dealer who's at least a material witness to the murder.
In both cases, Holder's base instincts pointed him to the truth; the girls he was pretending to seduce lead him to the place where Rosie was raped, and the drug dealer he was abusing turns out to be one of the rapists. Yet when Holder assures Linden that the joint he has been using as a prop isn’t really a controlled substance, we don’t know whether to believe him. He looks like a guy who could murder someone himself on a bad day.
The Killing's creators showed me something last night by conveying all of this and more with a deft dramatic juxtaposition. Linden goes to the Larsens' house to question them about whether Rosie knew a young drug dealer and used drugs herself. Before asking those disconcerting questions, she thinks she's obligated to tell the visibly distraught parents that drowning was the cause of their daughter’s death. Yet, feeling their pain, Linden lies through her teeth to cushion the blow. When, gasping for breath, the mother asks Linden whether her daughter suffered, Linden says that she was probably unconscious when the car went into the water.
Compare that to a conversation between Holder and the mother of the drug dealer he’d soon be abusing. Having cruelly lost her son to drugs, she looks like a victim too. So we don't blame her for asking Holder for a little absolution by telling him that her wayward son still has a mother who loves him and would do anything she could to save him. Holder’s eyes are cold when he tells her the hard truth: “they all do.”