The promotional campaign for The Killing (AMC, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET) asks, “Who killed Rosie Larsen?,” as if hoping to telegraph its intentions or to trigger a Pavlovian response. The line is an unapologetic echo of the question motivating Twin Peaks —also set in the Pacific Northwest, also about the murder of a high-school beauty. The similarities end there—or at least they end after the score swells in an eerie, ethereal Angelo Badalamenti manner as the cops discover Rosie’s dead body—so let’s chalk up the reference to the chutzpah of a crime show eager to advertise its boldness and delivering on the promise. In the suspenseful early hours of The Killing, Rosie’s family goes about its bereavement in muted tones, and a subplot about a mayoral candidate drawn into the crime’s eccentric orbit flashes with potential, and, primarily, our expectations for cop shows are teased, gratified, and artfully upended.
The show, adapted from a Danish series titled Forbrydelsen, is set in Seattle, which is variously shot to look like an Everycity of the present, an imposing metropolis of the daydream future, a no-frills noir backlot, a Turner painting, and its quietly proud rain-splattered self. The opening moments juxtapose scenes of a faintly haunted detective and a distinctly hunted victim. Here is homicide cop Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) out on a jog on a paradisal green morning, with her strawberry-blonde ponytail bouncing, her translucent skin aglow, and the pessimistic set of her full lips conveying the loneliness of a long-distance runner. She hoists her chin as if she’s a stand-out cadet at the Clarice Starling Academy for Perseverance.
And there, a night or two before, was Rosie Larsen—still nameless at this point in the narrative and mostly faceless beneath the gloom of the trees as she struggles to scramble away from her pursuer. There is just enough light to see that whatever she’s wearing is on the skimpy side. The prologue practically functions as a schematic diagram of all the police procedurals—with their virtuous investigators and their quasi-necrophiliac tone—that The Killing seems to deconstruct and reassemble on a higher plain.
After a detour from her jog—where the rotting corpse of an animal is pressed into the slightly corny service of setting a mood—Sarah answers her cellphone and heads to a murder scene. A uniformed cop tells her which way to head to find a corpse that’s just been called in and, in passing, tells the audience that this is supposed to be Sarah’s last day on the force. Sarah descends into a murky labyrinth in pursuit of the remains of a Jane Doe, the beam of her flashlight following a trail of blood splotches to a body wrapped in plastic and hanging as if on a meat hook. The heroine whips away the wrapping to discover a blow-up doll wearing a blonde wig, lavender scanties, and a “Bon Voyage” sign. A half-dozen colleagues—meaty gray men in trenchcoats—burst forth to slur that she’s a very good fellow. A surprise party! Another gesture acting as an X-ray of a genre.
So then we sober up to face realistic grief, heightened realism, and above-average exposition. Sarah’s day is supposed to consist of nothing more eventful than cleaning out her office so that she can move to California wine country with her sullen kid and her rugged fiance. But productions such as this render easy getaways logistically difficult and existentially impossible. “I thought you had a plane to catch,” says another cop. “Don’t you got a plane to catch?” taunts another. She will certainly not be catching any planes until she solves this case and exorcises personal demons yet to specified.
The murder of this 17-year-old—ostensibly an unimpeachable good girl—forces her to partner up with the new kid on the homicide squad, the fabulously inappropriate Stephen Holder, who is played by Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman and who steals his every scene. Stephen has purple bags beneath his insinuating eyes, a skeevy scratch of goatee, and an attitude so loose as to prove thoroughly incredible and incredibly transfixing. Near the end of Sunday’s premiere, he offers a joint to two of Rosie’s schoolmates in order to discover which fetid nook of campus wayward students like to party in. You’ve seen plenty of detectives who don’t play by the book; Stephen has destroyed the book and used its pages for rolling papers.