Prior to being remade for the U.S. market in 2011 by cable channel AMC, the original 2007 Danish series was a hit throughout Europe, spawning two follow-up series in 2009 and 2012. Perhaps due to the U.S. rights being tied up with AMC and Fox, the Danish seasons remain unavailable in North America, although each has been broadcast on the BBC in England with subtitles, and each season is available on DVD.
It’s a shame the old remake-rights headache has prevented Søren Sveistrup’s series from reaching Region 1/Region A land, because The Killing is a complex, confounding, convoluted, and ridiculously engrossing series that would’ve been unbearable to watch on a weekly basis.
Each episode ends on a nail-biting cliffhanger, and the show’s tactic of repeatedly misdirecting suspicions to and from and back to specific characters ensures no one can easily guess who killed Nanna Birk Larsen. The Killing does owe its success to a pair of U.S. series, each of which broke new ground in serial mystery: David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991), and Season 1 of Steven Bochco’s Murder One (1995-1996).
Like Peaks, the show begins with the discover of a dead girl being found in a watery (or dewy) grave, and the premiere episode is equally balanced between the initial grisly clues to Larsen’s death as well as the impact of her demise on the community. The writers repeatedly intercut the police investigation with the family’s ongoing struggle with grief, and their pain is never diluted nor exploited; Killing is a series obsessed with grief, and even when the killer is revealed, there is no sense of hope, because Larsen’s death seeded the destruction of several relationships, including several in high government.
Instead of the insular timber locale of Twin Peaks, Killing takes place in the big city of Copenhagen, and the police quickly find links between Larsen and power-hungry politician Troels Hartmann (Those Who Kill’s Lars Mikkelsen) currently prepping his own campaign to uproot a complacent and ultra-savvy mayor, Poul Bremer (Bent Mejding). The addition of political intrigue allows the case to be covered by various media outlets, and gave the writers room to indulge in political and media critiques, take shots at seething racism within conservative types, and broaden their depictions of characters from high and common backgrounds falling from grace with spectacular, and often self-destructive, missteps, as with Larsen’s father Theis (Borgen’s Biarne Henriksen).
Larsen, like Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer, is only seen in images – the opening killing montage, video footage, and stills – yet her presence remains strong throughout each episode. The End Credits start on a macro shot of Larsen’s eye, and pull back to an eerie photo of her vague expression, which assumes a kind of spiritual role where the victim seems to beg the viewer to ‘find out who killed me.’ It also helps that the chosen actress shares the same genial qualities as Sheryl Lee’s Palmer.
Killing’s link to Murder One isn’t accidental because the shows share the same approach of covering one case in a singular season, ending each episode on a cliffhanger, and leaving the killer’s identity until the very last episode, with plenty of misdirection and suspicions, as well as sudden arrests and discovery of secret relationships. That The Killing remains coherent and every character never becomes a blur to viewers is remarkable, making the series a template for any writer to envy.
Season 1 of the U.S. series reportedly ended 2/3 into the original Danish narrative, which was a foolish decision given the last 1/3 is where the writers ratcheted up the tension, and began to reveal the fine details of secondary storylines begun when Larsen chose to skirt a high school Halloween party for a secret rendezvous.
Linking the politics, corruption, family grief, and ongoing police investigation is the saga of Detective Sarah Lund (Nightwatch’s Sophie Grabol), a divorced single mother with severe tunnel vision that guarantees the case will be solved, and her own chances at a new life in Sweden with a skilled criminal psychologist are tenuous at best. Grabol’s portrayal of Lund is engrossing because her character never becomes a genre cliché, and there’s both humour and viciousness to her manners; even when peers and superiors have lost their patience, they respect her ability to hyper-focus and get results.
(It’s also their fault her potential hope for a new life are nearly ruined, because by asking her to stay and help her successor take over the Larsen investigation, their greed for quick results backfire with major personnel shake-ups. As with almost every conflict within the season, any decision has consequences, and the writers seem to take a certain joy in detailing the pain of those unwanted results.)
The season’s most vicious characters are the politicians, and being so far removed from ordinary struggles, they must indulge in playful acts of strategic humiliation and back-stabbing, of which Mayor Bremer is king. Towards the end of the season he gives Hartmann a piece of advice not for moral good, but to destroy his rival, and it’s the most cynical moment in the season. Hartmann’s final decision ends up being wholly logical, because he realizes in order to ascend to the mayoral chair, he must emulate Bremer’s worst tactics. Larsen’s death offers Hartmann a long learning curve, and each stumble and bloodied knuckle serves as a valuable lesson for the next battle.
Perhaps one aspect North American viewers will find quite surprising is the length of each episode: even with the opening recap, the average running time spans 50-54 mins., which today is unheard of (and is a throwback to the original running times of the 1960s). The 20 episodes offer a meaty diet of plot and characters, and stand as testament to what good plotting, characters, and social critique can accomplish when U.S. networks have dumbed-down their offerings to 40 mins. of program content with incessant ad breaks.
Grabol reprised her role as Sarah Lund in Seasons 2 [M] and Season 3 [M], with each season spanning a tighter 10 episodes. Sveistrup’s other TV series include Nikolaj og Julie (2002-2003), At the Faber / Hotellet (2002-2003), and Taxa (1998). Composer Frans Bak, whose music is a major component in the show’s ability to extract empathy and horror from viewers, scored both the original Danish and U.S. series.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan