Monday, April 18, 2011

The Killing: "The Soundless Echo"

As I noted last week, standard murder mysteries invite us to observe a murder investigation happen in a semblance of real time through our own eyes and to piece together how the murder happened through the eyes of the main characters investigating it. The good ones all cast a memorable character in the role of the investigator. But famous examples of the mystery genre differ according to how radically the investigator’s perspective differs from the one we bring to the story.

Take Sherlock Holmes. He’s one of literature’s most memorable characters on account of his spectacular personal eccentricities and unfathomable powers of rational inference. Yet he reconstructs a crime from a coldly impersonal perspective that would be immediately accessible to us if only we could keep up with him. His character is expressed in how he comes to see things rather than in what he sees. You could say substantially the same thing about a Hercules Poirot or an Inspector Morse. They’re all cast in mysteries that turn on plotting that's intricate enough to confound us, but not them.

Then there are mysteries like those featuring a Lord Peter Wimsey, a Sam Spade or a Philip Marlowe. Wimsey reconstructs murders through the whimsical eyes of an aristocratic dilettante with unusual powers of empathy. Spade and Marlowe are rough characters who know their way around the underworld well enough to recognize the victim and the suspects as kindred spirits. The plots constructed around them have to be just convoluted enough to present them, and us, with a puzzle to solve. But, in each case, the thing driving the story dramatically is our coming to see why the murder has special meaning to the investigator.  By the story's end we recognize how it went down as being as much an expression of his character as it is of the victim's or the perpetrator's.

Luckily, The Killing falls in the second category. I say “luckily” because its plotting is already starting to seem tiresomely formulaic. Last week’s episode ended by making an ex-boyfriend and a childhood friend of Rosie into the prime murder suspects through the discovery of a video in which they appeared to be raping her the night she disappeared.  That impression was obliterated within the first ten minutes of last night’s episode when we discovered that the girl in the video wasn’t Rosie after all. Yet by the end of the hour our suspicions had been redirected to Rosie’s earnest-looking teacher who was writing her secret letters and taking her to Richmond campaign quarters across town (which may mean he had access to the car in which Rosie drowned). How much do you want to bet that those suspicions will be undercut just as completely in the first ten minutes of next week’s episode?

What redeemed last night’s episode was watching Linden and Holder continue to project aspects of their own personalities onto the murder victim. Linden is a woman to whom life happens. She was about to move herself and her son to California at the urging of her insistent fiance, only to be roped into staying in Seattle to conduct the investigation by her manipulative commanding officer exploiting her instinctive identification with a helpless murder victim. Last night, we learned that this isn’t the first time that Linden has been thrown off course contemplating a girl's fate when her fiance interrupted a highly orchestrated seduction to ask her: “It’s not happening again is it? Chasing after a dead girl.”

Linden can’t help projecting her own passivity onto Rosie. When she discovered the video, Linden jumped to the conclusion that Rosie was lured into the cage out of misplaced trust in an ex-boyfriend and a childhood playmate. Now, after finding some hidden letters in Rosie’s room, Linden’s already fastened on another betrayer of Rosie’s innocence, an apparently predatory teacher willing to use his professional authority as an instrument of exploitation. It never occurs to her that Rosie could be at all complicit in her fate.

Some such complicity has always been Holder’s working assumption. His suspicion that Rosie might have been after a little consensual sex is what drove him to discover “the cage.” Holder took an interest in the childhood-friend-turned-drug-dealer on the theory that Rosie’s drug habit had gotten the best of her. And when he sees the photo in the high school gymnasium that reveals her extra-curricular relationship with her teacher, you know that Holder's thinking about a high school Lolita.

Holder never suspects that murder was something that just happened to Rosie because passivity is utterly alien to him. When, during his interrogation, the drug dealer recognizes a little bit of himself in Holder, we know for sure that, as an undercover narc, he jumped into the drug culture with both feet. You’d expect a veteran police officer to have reconciled himself to the chain of command, but Holder still bristles noticeably every time Linden pulls rank on him. The look of quiet desperation on his face while he rides the bus Rosie took from the school dance the night she was murdered says it all.  He's only there because Linden ordered him to look for clues about where Rosie might have gone that night.  And even though he'll soon find some explosive evidence, he can’t stand the thought of being taken for a ride.

Linden and Holder may be partners.  But so far they're investigating different murders.  Neither is going to discover who did it without discovering something about (her)himself.


Anonymous said...

I came here from your political commentary. Your post makes me want to watch that show.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting show with an interesting premise. But the characters are very uneven. I agree with you that Holder seems to be the most interesting and complex. But some of the secondary characters are weak and not very believable. Like the mayoral candidate - the dialog seems so wooden, like it was written by a tenth grader. And the scenes with the parents of the dead teenager - making funeral arrangements, etc. - seem a bit unreal to me. I'll keep watching, but this is not looking like it will ever reach the level of a Sopranos or Mad Men.