TV Review: AMC’s THE KILLING Pilot—The Cage

AMC’s The Killing premiered last night with a compelling two-hour episode that could set the standard for the new procedural drama. Did you see it? Give us your thoughts in the comments.

AMC’s The Killing premiered last night with a compelling two-hour episode that could set the standard for the new procedural drama. The show’s pacing and tone are incredibly sophisticated, presenting a simmering, subdued mystery that is complex without resorting to convolution. The premise is simple, familiar to the point of archetypal: who killed Rosie Larsen? A beautiful teenage girl with loving parents disappears after a Halloween party. A seemingly impenetrable detective is consumed with the case, shuffling her own life and family to the periphery in her determination to find Rosie’s killer. These are customary plot points in any murder mystery, but the show is rich with nuance, offering authentic details and shrewd commentary that establish The Killing as something more, something new.

At the heart of The Killing is the elegant performance by Mireille Enos as homicide detective Sarah Linden. Linden is a role unique to American television: taciturn, stoic and unnervingly insightful, she is a character unrestricted by gender norms. She makes a solid figure, gazing quietly at the crime scene with knitted brow, gathering conclusions from the scattered details without saying a word. You’ll read plenty about the deglamorization of the naturally stunning Enos, but the truth is that Linden just looks practical. She dresses in roomy sweaters and eschews mascara, sensible choices for investigating wooded fields in the incessant Seattle rain. Linden can appear indifferent when dealing with Rosie’s devastated parents, but she is only matter-of-fact, having neither time nor any particular capacity to dispense sympathy when her job is to solve the murder and move on. For, adding to the familiar, Linden is a day away from retiring to Sonoma with her fiancé and her son.  As she becomes more rooted in the mystery, colleagues keep asking her, “Don’t you have a plane to catch?” My money’s on Linden not making that plane until the twelfth episode airs and we (hopefully) know who killed Rosie Larsen.

Impressively, the secondary characters surrounding Linden and the mystery of Rosie’s death are nearly as abundantly realized. Linden’s replacement on the force, the man with whom she will be partnered for the duration of the case, is Stephen Holder, played by an inscrutable Joel Kinnaman. Holder’s been working undercover for narcotics, and his methods are unorthodox at best, shady at worst. He’s pretty twitchy and disrespectful, but he gets results, and his underhanded techniques will likely be as crucial to solving the case as Linden’s unerring intuition.

Rosie’s working-class parents, played by Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton, are engulfed in guilt, not having realized that Rosie was missing over the weekend while they were on a camping trip with their two little boys. As they attempt to function in their daily lives for the sake of their sons, they move and speak as if dreaming, all normality obscured by the intensity of their grief. The amount of time the show spends on Rosie’s family, even spotlighting the anguish of her two younger brothers, invests in the audience a position of empathy that is unusual in a show of this nature. As we watch the Larsens try over and over to process the enormity of their loss, we are complicit in their grief.

We also have City Councilman Darren Richmond, played by Billy Campbell. Richmond is running for mayor and displays a suspicious amount of integrity for a politician, absolutely willing to sacrifice important campaign proceedings in order to assist the cops with the investigation. The discovery of Rosie’s body in the trunk of a car belonging to the Richmond campaign implicates him to a degree that is not yet clear. Richmond’s two aides, one of whom is his lover, add to the murky pool of suspects and red herrings that also includes an ostensibly earnest teacher and a sketchy ex-boyfriend.

The Killing is executive produced by Veena Cabreros Sud (Cold Case), who wrote the first episode. The first hour of the pilot was directed by Monster‘s Patty Jenkins, and the second half by Ed Bianchi of Deadwood and The Wire, and it’s evident. Although The Killing is close in premise to Twin Peaks with its Pacific Northwest setting and beautiful teenaged murder victim, the show is closest to The Wire in tone: taut, serious, and absolutely riveting. But The Killing does play on its Twin Peaks legacy with the opening scene, as Linden approaches an indistinct shape sprawled on the coast one gloomy dawn. But rather than coming upon “Laura Palmer, wrapped in plastic” as poor Pete Martell did, Linden only discovers a dead seal.

 The Killing is based on the Danish show Forbrydelsen (“The Crime”), and the American version has a particularly Nordic atmosphere. Set in Seattle but filmed in Vancouver, The Killing is drenched in dark blues and greys, dampening each scene with a noir sensibility. Wide, gorgeous shots of mostly sea and sky infuse the setting with a reverent but isolated tone. Like AMC’s cornerstone show Mad Men, no shot is accidental here; every glimpse is carefully crafted to contribute to the story and the atmosphere. Search and rescue team members in black windbreakers scatter through tall grasses, and we pull back until they resemble ants vacating a recently disturbed hill. Water drips and pools on linoleum, as the camera pans up to reveal the water is falling from Rosie’s matted hair spilling off a mortician’s gurney. Even something as TV-prosaic as a bloody handprint on a wall is made new and significant when we read the growing determination in Linden’s eyes as she gazes at it.

The Killing airs on AMC Sunday nights at 10/9c. Each episode will tell the story of a new day in the investigation of Rosie Larsen’s murder. You can watch the first episode in its entirety for free at the AMC website. And you should.

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