A few days ago, FlowTV ran an interesting piece by Kristen Warner and Lisa Schmidt that took a different look at the series, and its much-commented-on season finale. In “Reconsidering The Killing as a Feminine Narrative Form,” Warner and Schmidt argue that “The Killing allowed its melodramatic emotion – not to mention the camerawork – to linger beyond the boundaries of its official generic conventions and connect itself to another genre that is closely associated with television: the daytime soap opera.” They note:
Sud’s series functions with a similar serialization strategy that withholds narrative closure: the focus on the pathos of the characters more than on the logic of policework; the emphasis on Seattle’s never-ending rainy season (tears anyone?) rather than on naturalistic settings; the insistence on sudden histrionic verbal exchanges between characters where no new information is provided rather than on perfunctory dialogue used to advance the narrative.
All of these choices are found in the daytime soap — which ultimately speaks to the strategy of viewing The Killing through a feminine lens.
They add, in a commentary on a piece by one of the many critics of the show’s finale, “Sure, this critic was absolutely spot-on in pointing out how illogical and perhaps occasionally absurd many of the narrative turns and dialogue were in the episode. But this immediately calls to mind the soap opera, a genre whose storylines and dialogue indeed tend to the illogical and the absurd.”
I can buy the central idea that The Killing needs to be seen through a different lens, that the frustration over the lack of resolution re: who killed Rosie is misguided. I admit that I’m not won over by an argument that seems to be in favor of the illogical, absurd storylines and dialogue; that doesn’t sound like good television no matter what genre. But I can also see how the show makes more sense as a soap opera than it does as a procedural, although there is something paradoxical in the idea that the show makes more sense when you accept the illogical and absurd (i.e., the non-sensical).
But I don't agree that it was successful as a soap opera, nor that it succeeded in exploring emotional truths. (“This is a show that dwells on the personal, social and communal aftermath of a murder, not necessarily in realist terms but in ways that are meant to explore emotional truths.”) Many critics, like myself, found ourselves a bit confused by “Missing,” an episode near the end of the season (and I think Warner and Schmidt help explain our confusion, in a way I hadn't considered before). It's the episode where everything pretty much stops and we get an hour of the two detectives getting to know more about each other ... the main "crime" of the episode is that Linden’s son is missing. There was some agreement, at least among the critics I read, that we found this to be perhaps the best episode of the series since the pilot. (Alan Sepinwall wrote, “I enjoyed ‘Missing’ more than most of the last two months' worth of episodes. … ‘Missing’ felt like an episode of an entirely different show, but it was probably a better show - and one I'd be much more likely to watch next season than the version of ‘The Killing’ we've been getting all spring,” while Maureen Ryan, who later gave us perhaps the most entertainingly vehement screed against the finale, said of “Missing” that “My main reaction after watching the episode was mystification: ‘Now 'The Killing' decides to be a character drama?Now?’ This hour would have been much, much better as the fifth or sixth episode of the season, not the eleventh.”) We didn't know what to make of it, because it was so unlike the rest of the season. It wasn't about plot resolution, or even about moving the plot forward, even glacially. It was only barely about the procedural genre. No, it was a slow, muted character study of the detectives ... precisely the kind of thing Warner and Schmidt think we couldn't see because we were trapped in a desire for resolution.
I, at least, would have been much happier with the series if it had done a better job with the soap opera aspects. Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman were terrific, making the most of every scene they were in. But Sud et al showed just as much disdain for us as they did for those who wanted only to know who killed Rosie. It took almost the entire season before we got a chance to examine those detectives on an emotional level. And since the series was clearly not going to satisfy any need in the audience to find out who did what, the only thing we had left was our emotional attachment. And Sud ignored that for long stretches of time. In this way, the real slap in the face wasn't that we didn't find out who was the murderer, but that Sarah's partner Holder was semi-revealed to have some secret thing going on. Does that work as a soap opera twist/cliffhanger? Sure. But it made me feel that my investment in the character (not the procedural, but the character) was wasted.
Where I think their argument works better is in examining the secondary characters. The Killing took its time with the grief of the Larsens, which is rare for series television. Even there, though, I think they do the critics a bit of an injustice, since the critics tended to applaud the show for that very aspect, glad to finally see grief presented in an honest way. Admittedly, though, there was some frustration that it took a long time for anything to come from that grief, which (perhaps realistically) became somewhat monotonous over time. Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton were praised to the skies here, as well ... one thing the critics never lost was a love for the acting in the show.
Finally, there is the character of Sarah Linden. The FlowTV piece gives me a different perspective on her attempts to balance her dogged pursuit of the murderer and the problems in her private life. This might be an example where the combination of the procedural and the soap opera blended well. Except I liked Linden as a character in part because she didn't seem at first to be yet another woman worrying about the family while she went about her job. What mattered was that she was the best detective, not that her personal life was a shambles. I didn't need her to be perfect, and I didn't need for her personal life to be ignored as they do in something like Law & Order. But I wanted her to be a good detective. So, for me, the emotional/soap opera side of the character of Sarah got in the way. And unfortunately, to keep the series running, Linden had to end up being a really poor detective ... the need to make things last for 13 episodes, or 20, or whatever, meant that red herrings were introduced, and even if I accept the argument of Warner and Schmidt that those red herrings were an essential and positive aspect of the show's soap opera tendencies, they were maintained in large part by making Linden a dumb detective ... when the need for the red herring had exhausted itself, then Linden (or she and Holder) would figure out what was really going on, but by that point, they had made lots of stupid mistakes when they should have figured things out much sooner.
Ultimately, I found Warner and Schmidt’s approach interesting and even necessary in showing how The Killing could be seen from a different perspective. What they never managed to do, though, was convince me that The Killing was a good series.