Killing Surprises

Jason Mittell's picture

I’d been planning on writing up a summary blog post on The Killing‘s first season this week, looking back on what was ultimately a mixed bag of television over its first season. I liked the show overall more than a lot of the critics who’d turned on it midway through the season, as I was often willing to overlook the shoddy plotting and inconsistencies to revel in the visual style (especially in episodes directed by TV veteran Ed Bianchi) and engaging performances.

And then the season finale happened.

To be fair, I still like the show more than many critics – I have little of Maureen Ryan’s vitriol (although it amuses me), Matt Zoller Seitz‘s disdain, nor Alan Sepinwall‘s fury that ends with a very public break-up with the show. My thoughts are most along the lines of Cory Barker‘s, as we both treat our dislike at a safe intellectual distance. But having thought about the finale and overall season for a few hours now, I do have some (hopefully new) things to say about how The Killing failed to create an effective serialized narrative – and take the opportunity to compare it to another one of this blog’s favorite targets, 24.

(Spoilers to follow if you haven’t caught up with the show yet, and still want to…)

Scholars of narrative have categorized a number of ways storytellers create reactions to new narrative information in viewers/readers with three main types: curiosity, suspense and surprise. I’d boil down the show’s core problem to be overemphasizing surprise instead of curiosity and suspense, but some clarifying detail is useful.

Curiosity is the primary driving force of narrative momentum, propelling viewer interest forward into future installments. The basic function of curiosity is to get viewers to think “I want to learn more about X”, with the unknown being bidirectionally aimed toward both past and future events. (I’d call this temporal tendency “bi-curious,” but that term is already taken.) On The Killing, curiosity focuses around the past-centric tagline of “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” with the forward-looking question of “how will Linden and Holder solve Rosie’s murder?” There are other forward-looking points of curiosity – Will the Larsens’ marriage be saved? Will Linden ever get to Sonoma? Will Belko overcome his mommy issues? – but for the most part, the main stakes of future curiosity have been wagered on Rosie’s case. Likewise, there are intriguing narrative gaps in the past – What was Linden’s previous case that messed up her life? What’s Holder hiding? Did Richmond have something to do with his wife’s death? – but the show has failed to create real interest in such matters.

So The Killing‘s first problem is that it over-invested the dramatic stakes in one main question, both through its storytelling strategies (mostly by leaving the characters insufficiently fully realized to make us care about their curiosities) and its paratextual promotion centered around the core mystery. When you invest so much narrative energy in one point of curiosity, you better deliver on that question. Mo Ryan’s (and many others’) frustrations over not getting closure on Rosie’s murder is not because the show absolutely needed to resolve the mystery to satisfy viewers, but because there was nothing else driving the narrative forward. Compare this to Twin Peaks, where the lack of closure to Laura Palmer’s murder at the end of season 1 was sustained because there were so many other interesting things to care about. (Although those of us watching live back in 1990 were plenty pissed.)

Suspense is another narrative motor, arising when we anticipate an outcome to a situation that we really don’t want to see happen, but feel like it’s likely, usually tied to the protagonist in peril. The Killing features very little suspense for a mystery – the only really effective moments of suspense I can think of are Stan driving Bennet off to his potential doom, and Linden discovering the Orpheus emails dinging away in the other room. Suspense requires emotional investment in the outcome to override our understanding that the peril that is likely in the storyworld is actually quite unlikely in the realm of fictional conventions – our protagonist will almost certainly not perish midway through the season, but we should care enough about her to be concerned nonetheless. The email scene suggests that the show can pull off suspense, but both its lack of investment in characters’ fates and its preference for surprise undermines this part of its narrative toolbox.

Surprise is the weakest of these three storytelling tools, as its exhilarating effect is fleeting, it’s easy to abuse, and the impact diminishes every time it’s used – in other words, it’s the crystal meth of narrative. Surprise is the moment of thwarted expectations, when what you expected to happened didn’t. The Killing loves its surprises, and in this way is similar to 24 at its worst. And on both shows, the surprises are mostly hollow, without sufficient motivation within the storyworld except just to keep us guessing and chatting at the watercooler (or on the Twitter). 24 was good at making its surprises seem less hollow by combining them with suspense and cranking the tension and adrenaline up to eleven so we wouldn’t feel the let down after thinking about the ludicrousness of any given plotline. The Killing doesn’t do adrenaline, as the mood and style are all about low-key simmer, so the surprises stand-out as key moments of narrative momentum – and thus ask to be scrutinized. And more often than not, they don’t stand up to the scrutiny.

Last night’s finale seemed to offer two major surprises and one attempt at suspense, all of which fail to pass the sniff test. The first surprise was that Holder is corrupt, planting fake evidence to arrest Richmond. This twist is designed to make us all say “I can’t believe he did that!”, but it reeks more of “I can’t believe it.” There’s little in the plot to suggest that Holder was corrupt (a few odd meetings & phone calls early in the season, but nothing for a few weeks spent making both us and Linden care about him), and if he was really trying to nail Richmond all along, why did he pursue Bennett so doggedly? It doesn’t make sense given what we know – and the best surprises should make sense in retrospect, following the twist with a “I should have seen that coming!” And for most fans, Holder was the most compelling character on the show, so to make him corrupt seems like a betrayal of viewers’ investments. (And perhaps we’re to think that another twist will show that he’s not really corrupt, but that makes my Holder affections feel used & abused rather than redeemed.)

The second surprise is a meta move: “Can you believe that they didn’t reveal Rosie’s killer in the finale?” (Although Ginia Bellafante, in her baffling New York Times review, seems to have missed the final few minutes and thinks that the case is closed!) But such a twist only works if there’s something else pulling us forward to season 2, and as I suggested above, I don’t think there is. Instead, we’re left with the frustration that the case is dragging on, and we lose faith in showrunner Veena Sud’s abilities to manage her mystery and viewer engagement. Instead, the finale plays like the end of nearly every other episode, with a big surprising twist that will likely prove to be just another red herring, insufficiently motivating my interest throughout the gap between seasons.

Finally, the moment of final suspense is “Did Belko just kill Richmond?”, but I’m not sure what we as invested viewers are supposed to want to see happen. Since both Belko and Richmond are characters we’ve been asked to care about, murder seems like the less desirable outcome. But as a viewer, I’d like to see Richmond die just so we can move beyond the plodding political plotline and put away another red herring. In the end, do I really care what happens? Nope. Suspense test failed.

What I’m left with most of all after the episode – which I actually enjoyed for the most part until the final minutes – is a loss of faith both in the ability of Sud to craft a compelling serialized narrative, and the fictional Seattle police to investigate a murder case. Looking at both the first season of The Killing and the case file of Rosie Larsen yields numerous moments of bafflement as to why they did what they did, why certain leads were dropped, why others were pursued, and why the people we trusted to proceed in our best interest seemed to violate our faith in them. My faith would only be redeemed if they brought in a higher authority to oversee things – paging Dale Cooper and Mark Frost!

Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows Tagged: 24, The Killing, Twin Peaks

Jason Mittell

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 20 Jun 2011 15:50:34 +0000