Home > Culture, The Killing > Blogging ‘The Killing’ II – an introduction (spoiler-free), and episodes 1-2

Blogging ‘The Killing’ II – an introduction (spoiler-free), and episodes 1-2

November 19, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

[All spoilers have been put below the fold]

The Killing (Forbrydelsen in the original Danish), my favourite current show on television, returned to the BBC for a second season of intrigue, complexity and the realistic pacing of criminal investigation that led it to be included as part of an entertainment movement of dubious acclaim – ‘The New Boring‘. Naturally, I completely disagree that The Killing is boring at all. On the contrary, it has a sweeping Dickensian quality to it that has quite rightly been compared to HBO’s The Wire (my favourite show ever) in terms of the rich depiction of its characters and the institutions in which they live and work. Of course, with a novel you can always turn to the next page, whereas with The Killing I have to wait a week for my next fix. I’m not sure how well I’m going to cope with this, as I got into Season 1 about three quarters of the way in to its broadcast on BBC4 and could therefore watch large numbers of episodes back-to-back on iPlayer…

Anyway, before I get into the spoilers and my thoughts on the beginnings of what I saw unfold, I want to talk a little bit about some aspects of the first season that made it stand out in its depiction of particular issues that are not often done nearly as well. For example, I am a huge Law & Order fan and especially of Special Victims Unit, which features an NYPD department tasked with solving and preventing crimes of a sexual nature. The show explores a number of themes on sexual violence, and I would say on this front it has been a net force for good in raising awareness of the issue. But it is constrained by its one-crime-per-episode format that doesn’t allow for much exploration of the victim’s background and relationships, as well as the effects of such crimes on them (if they survive) and their families and friends. The horror is often restricted to descriptions of the crime, which can limit the total impact of the violence by focusing our attention on just the act itself rather than what it may represent, or how its effects ripple through all those affected by it. Indeed, there is always the very real danger that you end up failing to straddle the fine line between the horrifying and the titillating; where the draw of the show becomes the very graphic depictions of the violence it seeks to condemn*.

The crime in season I of The Killing had a significant sexual element to it, and it was made all the more horrendous – and all the more real – by paying close attention to the anguish and turmoil it unleashed on the lives of those who knew and loved Nanna Birk Larsen. This is especially true given the lamentable real-life fact that the perpetrator of a crime like this is often a relative or friend, which ends up placing the grief-stricken under suspicion of the very monstrosity which has brought down their world. The Killing also filled out in detail the relationships and aspirations of Nanna, which takes her from being (for want of a much better term) an otherwise ‘generic’ young woman to a complete and compelling depiction of a person whose life project, in all its glorious complexity, was brutally and unforgivably interrupted.

Of course, I would be in serious remiss if I didn’t comment on the show’s centre of gravity: Detective Sarah Lund (played by the utterly mesmerizing Sofie Gråbøl). It says something of the sophistication of the show that while Lund is in many ways a ‘typical’ detective – devoted to the job, more competent than her peers and superiors, possessing an uncanny knack for detail, totally indifferent to how her line of inquiry may inconvenience those in authority, and someone who has difficulties balancing all the destructive elements of her personality which make her good at her job with her family and other commitments – the fact that she is a woman is simultaneously remarkable and unremarkable. Lund is remarkable for being in the mould of what is a much more traditionally ‘male’ character type, but the way the show is done makes her hypothetical existence totally unremarkable at the same time. It would have been all too easy for Lund to have come across as contrived (which SVU arguably stepped on the wrong side of by making Mariska Hargitay’s character a child from her mother’s rape). But luckily for us, what we instead have been offered is a realistic and powerful portrait by an exceptionally talented actress of a workaholic detective who just so happens to be a woman. I want to live in a world where Sarah Lund is remarkable for the right reasons, and I think The Killing is a positive depiction of a world where that is the case.

Now, this is the part where you go and watch season I if you haven’t seen it, watch season II episodes 1&2 on iPlayer if you have seen season I, and if you have done both those things – read on.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

*I think this is a serious issue in Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millenium Trilogy’, but that’s a topic for a whole other discussion

[SERIOUS SPOILERS FOR EPISODES 1 & 2 BELOW]

A dead woman, found with 21 stab wounds and tied to a poll in a memorial park with political significance. Her blood-covered husband, involved in a bitter divorce, immediately but incorrectly suspected. An inexperienced new justice minister, negotiating the passage of a controversial anti-terrorism bill whilst struggling to maintain a fractious coalition. A soldier in psychiatric prison due to unclear circumstances, hoping to be released back to his young family. A second body found, a friend of the soldier who then attempts to escape. A video recording sent to the justice minister, evidence of a terrible and initially misunderstood crime. And a fundamentalist Muslim, arrested for what he protests is merely his exercise of free speech and religious affiliation. How is all of this connected?

I have absolutely no idea. But there’s no one I’d want on the case more than Sarah Lund.

Lund begins season II languishing in what can only be described as a backwater policing job, and has clearly suffered professionally (and, since this is Lund, therefore personally) from the fallout over events in season I. It is hinted that she has been blamed by her colleagues (although maybe not officially) for the death of Meyer, and that significant changes to the police department have been made. But I was surprised at how timid she was in her first meeting with Brix and the new deputy commissioner Ruth Hedeby. She seemed almost afraid to challenge her superiors, as if she had been made to understand that being right is no guarantee against being being chewed up and spat out by a system that has as its ends a goal other than the pursuit of truth. But her old boss Brix is willing to give her another chance, and we get an indication early on of why that is a very good idea. In a fine piece of detecting tradition, just by looking at a bit of plastic wrapping Lund confirms her suspicion that the initial police theory of the crime must be wrong. When Brix asked her why he should let her work the case, her response was simple and right on the money – “This is what I do best“. And given that she can’t seem to hold together anything else in her life (which by this point is just her tenuous relationships with her mother and teenage son), there is no way in which that statement could be more true.

Very quickly into the investigation Lund gets back into her stride, and you can see the cogs turning in her mind through Sofie Gråbøl’s expressive eyes. One always has the sense that she is one step ahead of everyone else in thinking about all the potential angles, such as when she and her temporary police partner are questioning Myg and Raben’s colonel (and Raben’s father-in-law). The colonel asked how Myg had been killed, and just as her partner was about to speak Lund interrupts to say that they can’t reveal the details yet. Clearly Lund thinks that there may be more to this than Islamic extremism, and that the army might be involved and information is best kept on a need to know basis. But exactly what she is thinking, I don’t know yet (and maybe she doesn’t either). However, the photo Lund spots in the colonel’s office and Raben’s escape from the psychiatric prison after lying about knowing Anna Dragsholm suggests that she was most certainly right to be suspicious.

I’m intrigued to see how the politics of terrorism play out in the series, and I think it was a good move to shift the political focus from the Copenhagen Mayoral office to the nation’s ultimate corridors of power. It would have been a real writing challenge to come up with another story featuring Troels Hartmann, and frankly it would have been much less believable for Lund to have come out of exile if Troels was involved and had any say in the matter. It also allows the series to expand on one of the interesting features of the first third or so of season I – the attitude towards Muslims and immigration in Denmark – without just going over old territory. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the series takes itself on this front, although knowing The Killing it could end up being a complete red herring from the perspective of the investigation. Immigration and cultural diversity is a recurring theme in another excellent Scandinavian crime series – Wallander - and the challenges this issue appears to be presenting in what us Anglo-Saxons tend to think of as the most ‘liberal’ societies on the planet speaks to the real philosophical and political challenges it poses to modern liberalism (although I could definitely benefit from swotting up a bit on the dynamics of the Danish political party system)

If I was a betting man, I would say that the Islamic extremism angle to the story ends up as not quite a red herring, but as a tool used by someone with a different agenda. But this is The Killing, after all. Even if I had Sarah Lund’s detective skills, I would know that there is still a lot more evidence waiting to be uncovered. And yes, I’m going to have some serious trouble waiting seven days in between episodes. It’s a good thing the BBC is showing them in double bills, otherwise I think I would literally not be able  to cope.

I only have one minor quibble with the plot, which is that I’m fairly sure it shouldn’t have taken a detective of Lund’s astuteness to figure out that the original murder was not a crime of passion. The stab wounds just looked too clean, and how could they possible miss the lack of defensive wounds? I’ve watched enough Law & Order to know that this is something even a rookie detective would have thought to consider. But maybe the writers of The Killing are making a different point – that given the publicity around the case and a plausible suspect in the form of a bitter soon-to-be ex-husband with financial motive, everyone was encouraged (implicitly or otherwise) to turn a blind eye to any contradictory evidence. The fact that the generally sensible Brix called for Lund’s opinion clearly seemed to suggest that he didn’t think it was an open and shut case (which Lund points out), and of course there was the fact that the evidence wasn’t good enough for the police to hold the man and charge him. (And also, what is the deal with the memo Agger referred to at the end of episode 2? How did anyone know the murder was linked to terrorism before Buch took office? Was the Special Branch clued in to what was really going on, but didn’t want to involve the police in the probably correct fear they would compromise the investigation? Or are they in on some kind of conspiracy?)

Like any good whodunnit, any answers The Killing gives as the investigation progresses just throw up yet more questions. What is the connection between Myg, Raben and Anna Dragsholm? Will the seemingly idealistic Thomas Buch face the same obstacles to political success and personal integrity that Troels did in season I? What is in the mysterious ‘memo’ Agger was referring to before her press conference? Is Khodmani telling the truth about his contact with ‘Fellow Believer’? What exactly led to Raben’s confinement in the first place, and why was he thought to be psychotic?

Feel free to post any thoughts in the comments section (no spoilers beyond episode 2, please).

Categories: Culture, The Killing
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