Let me confess up front that one of the principal reasons I haven’t been blogging much is that I haven’t been reading as much as usual this winter. And this is primarily a book blog, right? There’s still a part of me that feels guilty about watching television instead of reading. But the availability of streaming television series, whole seasons and even whole series available for the bingeing, is changing how I consume media, as it is for so many people. I used to occasionally binge on a whole season of something good, back in the days of waiting for the DVD release. These days, hardly a week goes by without a streaming binge of one show or another, from OITNB to GoT to Boardwalk Empire. I’ve become obsessed with new content from new producers – Sundance (Rectify, An Honourable Woman, The Red Road), Amazon (Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle), Netflix (House of Cards, of course). Downton, Sons of Anarchy, The Good Wife and The Americans are among the few remaining shows in which I didn’t or can’t overindulge. Oh, and Mad Men, which is maddeningly STILL not back to wrap up its serialized Great Expectations tale of Don Draper.
The thing is, being able to keep watching numerous episodes in one evening, bingeing on a serial television program is starting to feel more and more like my old reading habits, staying up into the wee hours consuming chapter after chapter of an engrossing novel. Of course tv and books are not the same, and neither is watching vs. reading, but there’s something about some of the most compulsively watchable series that feels a little bit like reading an intricately plotted, un-putdownable novel.
And this is how it was for me with watching AMC’s The Killing. At first it was just beautiful and moody and arrestingly sad. Then it bogged down with its own pretension, and some ridiculous plot points, but the relationships, the characters and the actors, and the gloomy vision of a rain-soaked Seattle kept me hooked.
The other key ingredient was following episode by episode commentary from Vulture’s Starlee Kine. Her recaps full of pissed off commentary (about gaping plot holes, leaps of logic, cops being terrible at their jobs, implausible medical miracles and lack of appropriate law enforcement technology) resonated and deepened my attachment to the show. The show did garner a lot of critical attention, both positive and negative, for some of its risky and/or groundbreaking elements. But it seems I am not the only one to fall under the spell of the relationship at the center of The Killing, so much so that you’re willing to put up with all kinds of nonsense, just to keep watching this pair of damaged souls find their way. Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) and Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) kept me mesmerized.
SPOILERS BELOW ….. (but here’s a spoiler-free review of Season 4 by Jeffrey Bloomer for Slate)
And at the end of the final season…. a Happy Ending! As in a real live, romantically-together-at-the-end-of-the-story, HEA, or at least an HFN, for the series’ two protagonists. It turns out Holder and Linden really were the main couple in a four-season-long, made-for-cable-and-netflix, contemporary romantic suspense thriller. This was one of the most emotionally satisfying television finales since the brilliant end of Six Feet Under. But it felt very different, because of its close focus on just the two main characters, rather than showing us a montage of all the characters and their various fates. It felt like the end of a very long, very suspenseful, almost-DNF’d-when-it seemed-to-go-off-the-rails, romance novel.
Here’s how four seasons of a moody, pretentious crime drama (based on the Danish drama Forbrydelsen, or The Crime) ended up feeling like a romance novel, in a good way (and I find I don’t care about the tv noir fans who decried the happy ending as “too American” or too cheesy):
Tortured Hero Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), silver-tongued smoldering Swedish 12-stepper. He had a rough childhood, made his way onto the police force as an undercover narcotics officer, got addicted to methamphetamine, got sober, got promoted to Homicide, and has the most amazing soliloquies that are themselves an addicting blend of American street slang, laconic delivery, 12-step taglines, irony, self-deprecating humor, psychological insight, and Kinnaman’s nascent Swedish accent slipping in from time to time. It’s not that he’s always got his shit together, but he manages to rise above even his own most horrible behavior, to own his bad acts, make reparation, and see through his own posing. When he’s crushed by grief and guilt and doubt (there are some really bad and tragic things that happen to people in this show), he somehow even seems to embrace these as necessary steps on the path. His most vulnerable moments are heartbreakingly simple: when he’s forced to let down his nephew on the boy’s birthday in order to support Linden in a terrible circumstance; when he visits the grave of a murdered teen runaway he had tried to help, used as a confidential informant, and ultimately failed to protect.
Even more Tortured Heroine Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), enigmatic single mom; a supposedly brilliant detective whose empathy for victims pushes her to extreme lengths to catch killers even as she neglects her own tween son so much she almost loses him. A hard-knock child of the foster care system herself, she is a mass of denial and self-delusion/self-confusion about what she really wants, where she really belongs. For the entire first season she’s supposed to be leaving Seattle to move to sunny California and get married, but you can tell from the outset that she’s never really going to go that easy route, and that the guy who’s her intended mate is All Wrong For Her. But it’s done with such intensity and misdirection in terms of the writing that it actually feels stunning when it’s finally revealed that he was her psychiatrist during her most recent lockup — she has a history of compulsive obsession with a closed case she’s convinced put the wrong guy in jail, and it’s wreaked havoc with her mental health.
Meet cute Still, she’s a star homicide detective, so even though it’s her last day on the job, she gets assigned to mentor the new kid just promoted from Narcotics when they land a high-profile case of a murdered teen who may have been killed by one of half a dozen of Seattle’s leading citizens. The scenes where she’s trying to clear out her desk and leave while he’s trying to chat her up are fantastic. She gives him NOTHING, she’s so convinced she can walk away from the case and all she wants to do is get on that plane to California. Their boss does keep pressuring her to stay for this case because he doesn’t know/trust Holder yet. She insists she will give him only one day, then one more day. But somehow she just keeps missing the damn flight…. And Holder can tell she’s not going anywhere. His self-awareness gives him the compassion and capacity to “get” her before she can begin to get herself. There are numerous times when, in spite of his youth and charisma and hoodies, and her horrible mom sweaters and measured pace, he shows himself to be the more emotionally mature one. Meanwhile, she’s busy writing him off as a recovered-tweaker hipster who happens to have mad getting-street-people-and-teens-to-share-information-and-secrets skills. Their conversations are the best part of the show, and the episodes devoted to watching them ride around talking and smoking were some of my favorite hours of storytelling in a long time.
Rescuing each other, literally and emotionally It’s a darkly intense crime drama, so there are a lot of other things going on, from the raw pain of the victim’s grieving parents and siblings to corrupt politicians, snarky campaign operatives, and enough creepy possible suspects from all walks of life to fill at least a dozen different Law & Order cases. And like all noir-ish detective shows, the plot places the protagonists in grave personal peril – there is one beautifully produced sequence involving a kidnapped Linden secretly keeping her radio on and talking to her abductor for hours, using clues and codes that only Holder will comprehend, so that after a whole incredibly intense episode he is finally able to locate her and bring in the rescue operation. Of course this kind of thing is a metaphor for the ways in which they can rescue each other emotionally, if they are willing to be honest with one another.
A Happy Ending It’s not a surprise that Holder is the first to recognize and acknowledge their deep connection. The challenge, both for the characters and for the viewer, is having the patience and trust to wait for Linden to get there. The final episode delivers with a classic romance novel trope — the last-minute capitulation. It’s a year since they have survived their final horrific case, which includes some very bad business for which both of them have risked prosecution. Linden’s been drifting around the country, visiting her son who she’s finally placed in the more stable environment of his father’s (out-of-state) home. Holder’s been recovering his equilibrium and grounding himself further as a Narcotics Anonymous staff leader. She “stops by” to see him. They talk about how much they mean to each other. But she can’t see herself putting down roots anywhere. They embrace and he lets her go, but not without ratcheting up the sexual tension a couple dozen notches. Still, she walks away. And he loves her enough to know she can’t be chased. All seems dire. But then it’s several hours later and she’s there on the sidewalk waiting for him at the end of the day. And she’s finally all in. And that’s the end of the show – just some quick shots of their joyful faces, and not even a cliche’ clinch. (Not onscreen anyway – show creator and director Veena Sud has said that Enos and Kinnaman did in fact kiss during the final take, but the camera had moved on so it wasn’t captured.)
The heroine’s journey It was reading this Veena Sud interview that really affirmed the connection for me between the story of Linden and Holder, and the romance genre. While Holder was the more charismatic character, making it easy to focus on the ways Kinnaman made him really leap off the screen, the overarching narrative is Linden’s journey. Which connects The Killing to one of the ways the romance genre is often read, as a narrative formula that comprises the heroine’s journey from a state of incompletion and lack of self-knowledge, to wholeness, integration, and her emotionally proper place in the world. Linden finally tells Holder that she’s found her home, and it’s not a place, it’s him. Sud references this directly when she’s asked about a possible fifth season for the duo:
We brought her to the end of her journey. She found the thing that she was looking for all along. It’s the end of the story.
As is right and proper for a satisfying romance. It was such a treat for the show to end this way. Somehow they managed to pull off the happy ending in a way that feels believable, yet unexpected. I did stick with this drama even when I knew I was watching a show that was going off the rails in many ways, because of the chemistry and emotion between these two. It was often so bleak and damp and dark I certainly did not expect an HEA out of the experience. I don’t know if this is because I wasn’t paying close enough attention, or because Sud and her team just decided very late in the game to give fans the satisfaction. But I for one thoroughly enjoyed the emotional payoff – and I think people like me who hung in with this show deserved it.
I’m casting around trying to think of other shows where the two leads end up together when the show ends…. Maybe Moonlighting? I honestly can’t remember how that finally ended. How about the fun US Marshal drama, In Plain Sight – nope, that one ended disappointingly for some fans, with Mary and Marshall agreeing she was better as his work wife than she could possibly ever be as his real spouse/lover.
How many other tv shows are there where the ending has the look and feel of a romance novel HEA for the two main protagonists?