Spoilers for The Killing (the English-language U.S. version, not the subtitled Danish version that the UK got to see, and loved) after the jump:
Twitter really exploded with rage about this episode. I mean, the show had been getting a mixed reaction for the last while, because it hasn’t been awfully good, but people stuck with it because they wanted to find out who the killer was. And then they didn’t. They got a bunch of cliffhangers and suggestions that we can’t trust anything or anyone we’ve seen up to this point. Hence the rage and vitriolic insta-websites.
I know Twitter is not a representative sample of the viewing public, and neither are online reviews, but I have to think that some of The Killing‘s two million regular viewers will be a little annoyed. It’s not the delay in solving the mystery, though that certainly is irritating. The producer is already trying to justify it by pointing out that the original series had 20 episodes to wrap up the first season, and she only had 13. But the effect of the season finale, after several episodes that already seemed to be dragging this thing out, was to make the show seem like it didn’t have a clear interest in providing satisfying resolutions, that it just wants to mess with us.
So many shows reach that point, but the good ones take a few seasons to get there: they throw in enough resolutions and answers and satisfying episodes that we don’t really know that the writers don’t have a plan until it’s later in the run and the show is feeling a little exhausted as a whole. The Killing seems to assume that it’s so great we will follow it wherever it leads. Sud’s interview, where she praises it for not being a regular formulaic cop show and compares it to The Sopranos and Lost, also seems to take the show’s greatness as a given. (Not only are those greater shows, but she’s talking about epic series finales, not the answer to a simple question of who committed a murder.) In another interview, she basically seems to convey the impression that if a show aspires to be non-formulaic then it must be good. (It’s the old “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” syndrome – Sud is hardly the only Hollywood producer who ever has gotten it or ever will.) But you know the old saying: you have to know the rules to break the rules. A great show tends to be one that leaves you confident that it knows what it’s doing, that it subverts our expectations for a good reason.
Now, by “you” I mostly mean “me,” of course, and the episode might get a different, and equally legitimate, reaction from a viewer who really liked what the U.S. Killing has done up to this point. (I’ve had major problems with it that are unrelated to the question of who was going to be the murderer – actually, I sort of figured that was the one thing they would have in hand – so naturally I was less favourably inclined to it tonight.) The angry fan reaction online is inseparable from the doubts that have been expressed about it in recent weeks. Lost and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Mad Men can do more or less what they want because they seem to know what they’re doing. These are shows that are just as solidly written and structured as a good “formula” show. That’s the baseline – to be great, a show should first of all be good.
The extra fan anger over this episode may stem from AMC having built up a very strong brand in a very short time. Maureen Ryan’s impassioned anti-Killing piece sets out this idea. After striking gold with its first two series pickups, AMC made its small but loyal audience trust it, believe that it would offer something special – which is how they got a lot of people to watch a murder-mystery cop procedural who normally steer clear of this kind of show. It’s less disturbing for me, because a) I wasn’t sure about the show (I mean the U.S. version) to begin with, and b) I’m a rank cynic about networks; I may trust individual producers to deliver quality but rarely a network. I wouldn’t recommend cynicism when it comes to creatives, but when it comes to TV networks, I think the cynicism makes some sense.
My experience watching the season finale included this sinking feeling at about the halfway point, the feeling that we weren’t going to get anything. It started with little hints, like a feeling they were running out of time to wrap things up. The feeling got even stronger when they just weren’t spending enough time on the solution – it seemed like the sort of solution you get when you have to wrap up a 42-minute murder mystery, not a 13-episode one. And then the “this isn’t over, is it?” feeling got stronger and stronger until I felt like Jerry Seinfeld watching a two-part episode of Lassie. He described this 20 years ago, but except for the fact that most shows don’t have “TO BE CONTINUED” signs any more, the tell-tale signs are exactly the same. As is the feeling that you’re being screwed with – unless the show has fully convinced you that it has earned the cliffhanger.