May 30, 2011

The pain of The Killing

I can't decide if I think The Killing works.

I still can't tell, for sure, even though the first season concluded last night. The show, the first American crime show based on the hot-now sub-genre of Scandinavian noir, I think, clearly has high ambitions. It has been pretty widely praised, critically, but I don't know if it does what it sets out to do. I like The Killing, but that's not the same as thinking it lived up to its own ambitions.

There are parts of it that clearly don't work (e.g.). Parts that I'd criticize as failing in the way crime shows usually do. And parts that work really well.

I am a sucker for long-arc crime narratives and probably would have watched it for that alone. But there's also another reason:

The Killing puts a lot of work into the exploration of the experience of pain, the reality of how suffering is lived.

Just look at Stan Larsen, the father of the dead girl.

He's shown as filled with a rage that he doesn't know what to do with, or where to direct. He alternately focuses it on himself, the detectives, a suspect, another suspect, the world in general, his wife, his old criminal life, and himself again. It comes in outbursts, formless and frustrated, without articulation. There are outbursts even, early on, at his own dead daughter, and his other children.

After each burst of anger, though, he retreats, repulsed by his own rage, conflicted over how his desire to be a good father is now expressed as violence, when it was exactly violence he gave up to be a good father. So he retreats into silence, into depression and quiet crying.

You can see him drowning, emotionally.

He's overcome, also, in these silent moments, with his own impotance, his own failure at fatherly omnipotence, to protect his daughter. He's powerlessness to prevent it, or to make it right and fix it now that it's happened. The helpless feeling feeds back into the rage-that-needs-a-target, set off by fresh pain at a memory of his daughter, or seeing something that was hers or reminds him of her, or misremembering some detail, and taking that as evidence again of his failure as a father. It's set off fresh, also, by every advance in the investigation.

All of this is while he tries to care for his shattered wife, protect her from herself and other people from her anger, to financially provide for his family, figure out how to pay for the funeral, take care of his other kids, and explain to them what has happened.

Tell us what really happened, one of his sons says, with none of the stuff about angels.

The show is just as sophisticated in dealing with the mother's response to the murder, and the kids', and the sister-in-law's. There are long scenes which are basically about a family falling apart in emotional slow motion, and how they're trying, struggling, to just keep it together.

Expanding outward, we see, too, how this suffering shows itself and manifests itself in the lives of friends, in people connected in various ways. How the crack, in the community, cracks, and cracks inside the detectives and in their families too.

It's not all well done -- there's a scene, for example, where one character punches a mirror and shatters it and examines his own fragmentary face in the mirror, a visual cliche that doesn't carry the weight it's supposed to. There are other ways, though, where the show works it out deftly, with real sophistication and subtlety: the pinched face of the lead detective, Sarah Linden, as she absorbs the horror and the pain; the shocked, non-emotion of Bennett Ahmed, the girl's teacher, a suspect, as his students assume his guilt and walk out in protest; the ignored younger son of the Larsen family feeding himself cereal, and going across empty, weedy lots in his pajamas to get more milk.

Too often, pain and suffering is shown in our art as simple wailing. As if tears were the only way death is felt and that feeling's expressed. Too often, it's only a back story to explain some character's motivated and single-minded obsession. It's not always like that, though. Pain is variegated. Suffering, confused. It's expressed in a lot of different ways, and all at once, and in internal conflict, frustration and turmoil.

This, The Killing does well to explore. Whether it succeeds or not is still a question, for me, but this, by itself, makes the show worth watching.