[Part 1 – This is a relatively no-spoilers review of Season 4 of The Killing. Part 2 will be a spoiler-tastic post mortem.]
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
Detective Sarah Linden has long averted the gaze. The Killing’s most haunted character has always been running (literally and figuratively) from the steady eye of responsibility in her personal life. On the other hand, she has made it her professional duty to stare directly into the abyss, to be an advocate for those robbed of sight.
In The Killing’s season three finale, the all-seeing chasm finally swallowed her whole. She became what she hates, and in doing so has been forced to meet the suffering scowl of her many personal failings. What is worse for her: the crime, or what the crime has forced her to confront?
Season four, the final (really, they mean it this time) chapter of The Killing, is emphatically not a redemption tale. It’s a story of a smoldering wreckage, and if it’s possible for its protagonists to escape from it – not intact, but at least ambulatory. Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) have pulled each other up and covered the tracks of Linden’s crossing into darkness. But walking back from the edge? That proves to be the trickiest part.
Of course, this being a show about murder means that it wouldn’t be a new season without a fresh bout of spilled blood. No sooner had Linden and Holder “solved” the Pied Piper serial killings than they were gifted with a house full of corpses. The Stansberry family, happy and photogenic, somehow met their end in what is literally a house full of windows. At night, it’s a glowing hearth upon a hill, one noticed by forces both benign and perverted. When the detectives arrive, it’s a savage scene. If the home’s clear windows and plush white carpets once suggested a diamond, there’s more than a touch of ruby to them now.
There is a lone survivor, the turbulent adolescent, Kyle (played marvelously by Tyler Ross). Having been conveniently shot in the head, his memory is compromised. That doesn’t make him useless to the detectives, though. It turns out the remaining son is a cadet at St. George’s Military Academy (interesting symbolism, to say the least), an exclusive repository for the wayward youths of well-off families. He isn’t exactly well-liked there, being a tormented young soul. Interestingly, his fabulously wealthy parents thought it prudent to bestow his legal guardianship upon one Colonel Margaret Rayne (Joan Allen), the head of the all-boys academy.
Why hello, motive. Nice to see you.
Cue the red herrings, of course. Despite the move to Netflix and the number of episodes being halved to only six, head writer/producer Veena Sud just can’t help herself. Even with only an abbreviated amount of time available to her to tie up every loose end, Sud teases false leads left and right. In addition to the miraculous survivor (can’t ever rule out the only witness), we have his girlfriend, one peeping Tom, Col. Rayne, and pretty much every significant male at the Academy. This sort of misdirection has always been The Killing’s greatest weakness. You can’t have a decent whodunnit without some mystery, but Sud’s propensity for pointless meandering has always worked against the show.
[In fact, contrary to critical consensus, I’d wager that a good chunk of The Killing’s viewership was never terribly angry with the drawing out of the Larsen case in seasons one and two. No, it was the manner in which it was drawn out, with a constant stream of scene-chewing “look at how crazy/guilty I am” murder suspects. There were simply too many roads to nowhere.]
No matter. The upside of having only six episodes is that there isn’t so much time to dawdle here. Season four moves at a fairly brisk pace, with the final trio of episodes positively churning out fantastic content. This is due, in part, to some of the best casting on any television series of recent memory. The addition of Ms. Allen as Col. Rayne was a masterstroke – she plays a ruthless-yet-fragile hardass to the hilt, threatening to steal every scene she’s in. The only reason she doesn’t is that she’s often paired with Enos, whose performance as Linden beggars belief. You will not find a more layered, complex portrayal in any form of acting this year. She reaches new heights in season four, which is a staggering accomplishment when you think of what she’s already done with the character.
It’s a testament to Joel Kinnamon, though, that what we see out of Holder manages to rival anything else we see onscreen. Yes, with the censor off, we get some of his finest wry one-liners (we always knew Det. Holder had a lot of f-bombs in his arsenal), but his comic relief is never the main attraction. No one has more to lose in this final season than the scruffy, lanky detective. He has finally built himself a life, leaving addiction behind to attempt his hand at love. Holder finds out that a family, at long last, is possible for a guy like him. But his loyalty to Linden, to his partner, has pushed him into the darkest areas we’ve seen him traverse. We see the anguish of his failings and questionable judgment finally breaking him apart. Kinnamon makes you believe it.
Somehow, the rest of the cast finds space to shine, too. The young Tyler Ross earns his stripes here while acting with some absolute masters. Gregg Henry finally shows off that Reddick has skills as a detective that equal his loathable, slimy personality. Sterling Beaumon and Levi Meaden ably display the cruelty and comraderie of the young men at St. George’s, while old favorites Liam James, Annie Corley and Billy Campbell have appreciated cameos.
These performances are captured with incredible cinematography and direction. The most pulse-pounding moments are all stationary long shots, framed as if we’re meant to see something terrible happen (even if it never comes). Plus, has a cold, rainy, washed-out world ever felt quite so believable? Sud’s vision is a world of gray and blue, of characters with dark circles under their eyes and creases in their foreheads. The cloudy atmosphere fits a world of such cloudy morality.
The denouement is surprising, but less in the unveiling than its form. The flashback execution of each Stanberry, one by one, is terribly chilling. They are shot at very close range; the murderer can’t help but make this as personal as possible. And due to being on Netflix, the camera rarely blinks. We see almost all of it.
And yet, the resolution of this killing is very nearly an after-thought. Solving murders is nothing more than a day job for Linden and Holder, one that features a lot of rote investigating and desk work. They make the show’s procedural machinations captivating endeavors, while the near-constant stream of red herrings has always detracted from The Killing’s greatest assets. From day one, this has been the Linden and Holder show. Despite an incredible plot in the third season (its clever, crackling momentum leaves it the best of the lot, with this final season placing a respectable second), I’ve only ever watched the show because of the leads. Enos and Kinnamon have some of the most believable onscreen chemistry of any pairing in television. Their complex onscreen relationship is why The Killing deserved to be resurrected (twice). I wouldn’t have mainlined all six episodes in a row if I didn’t care, and damned if they didn’t make me do so.
Which brings us to the ending. That ending. Linden spent the entire season going against her character; she has previously lived in black and white, wrong and right. When wrongs needed to be righted, she would occasionally break rules, but always in the service and pursuit of light.
The final wrong to be righted is her own, a crime she could not outrun. She deals with it in a fashion that fits her character, and one that does not fully absolve her. But some form of absolution is no small achievement in this case.
What ultimately happens to her is best left unsaid, but the important thing is that Sarah Linden is no longer haunted. The clouds around her have parted. Her eyes tell you so.