In two episodes – as AMC’s trailers insist – we’ll know who killed Rosie Larsen.
Given that the show isn’t about Rosie – it’s about Sarah Linden and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Holder and Darren Richmond – why is it so important that Rosie’s killer is revealed?
The show’s ethic is intensely realistic, and, in real life, there are plenty of cases that go unsolved.
Indeed, “The Killing” is a police procedural, and there are plenty of examples of using the procedural to create a drama of failure.
Television does failure well. (Movies used to – think of “In a Lonely Place” – but not that much anymore. It’s one reason that “Cabin in the Woods” is so refreshing.) “The Wire” was nothing but failure. And, like “The Killing,””The Wire” was a realistic character drama clothed in procedure.
“The Wire”’s McNulty failed spectacularly and repeatedly. Yet when the first season of “The Killing” ended with a false arrest, viewers revolted.
The difference can be found in the two series forms. “The Wire” was never a mystery: it was the epitome of an “open” story. (In “open” mysteries, the identity of the killer is known to the audience; the question is whether or not that killer can be brought to justice. In “closed” mysteries, the killer’s identity is hidden from both audience and detective. One of the genius strokes of “Law and Order” was to create a “closed” first half hour – there was always an arrest – and then an “open” second half, which could end in a successful or failed prosecution.)
“The Killing,” being a closed story, demands an explanation. We are involved in Linden’s quest – therefore, Linden’s quest must come to a successful conclusion. (The same revolt that happened with “The Killing,” of course, occurred when David Lynch refused to reveal who killed Laura Palmer at the end of the first season of “Twin Peaks,” a show that could not have been clearer that plot was not central to its ethos.)
As Jacques Barzun famously explained, the form of the mystery is that the orderly universe is disrupted (by a killing) and then, in the end, put right (by the solution). That “The Killing” is not a puzzle does not change this equation. What matters is that the series revolves around a single, central event, a “mystery.” In fiction, unlike religion, mysteries must be solved.
“The Wire”’s characters could fail because the show was based on a struggle between the police and the drug sellers; a battle that could be fought to a stand-still. And (like “Homicide,” “Hill Street”, and “NYPD Blue”) “The Wire” ran multiple stories. Unlike its predecessors, those stories were not balanced between victories and failures, but that didn’t matter. Multiple stories tipped us off that this was going to be as messy as life.
The world of “The Killing” is just as grim – as in “The Wire,”all families fail in this show and innocent people are as likely to be hurt as the guilty. But by virtue of having posed one question, audiences are demanding an answer.
We know that in life there are unsolved cases; but we also know that in fiction, if you ask one big question at the beginning, you expect it to be resolved at the end. (Spoiler alert: the world may be destroyed at the end of “Cabin in the Woods,” but at least we know why.)
Television has become so good at failure that it might, in fact, be possible to write a show in which the detectives never get to the truth. If carefully prepared, I’m not sure you couldn’t take an audience through an entire season’s show and end with a mystery that never gets solved.
To do that, however, you’d have to prepare the audience for the possibility all along the way. That was, of course, what “The Wire” did. From the pilot onwards, failure was written into its DNA.
What “The Killing” has prepared us for is a hollow victory. I haven’t seen the last two episodes (nor the Danish original) but as a viewer I’m fairly sure that while Rosie Larsen’s killer will be “revealed,” the solution is not going to feel good.