Can Grief Make Good Television?

The Killing wrestles with mourning like very few series have before. But is its nuanced portrait of loss making viewers impatient?

Brent Sexton plays the grieving father Stan Larsen in The Killing

Television has never known what to do with grief, which resists narrative: the dramas of grief are largely internal—for the bereaved, it is a chaotic, intense, episodic period, but the chaos is by and large subterranean, and easily appears static to the friendly onlooker who has absorbed the fact of loss and moved on. (Iris Murdoch: “The bereaved have no language with which to speak to the unbereaved.”) It can seem an unbridgeable gap, at the bottom of which lie shattered heaps of weeping women and tight-lipped men. For these reasons, shows like 24 have elected to portray grief as something to be muscled through or suppressed; when an aide asks if the president might not want to mourn her son longer, the president responds, “There’s not a day that goes by… when I don’t think about my son. But I’m about to take this nation to war. Grief is a luxury I can’t afford right now.” In Six Feet Under, Alan Ball neatly dramatized the other problem of looking too long at grief: two brothers are “throwing” dirt on their father’s grave—actually, they’re jiggling it from a receptacle that looks like a large salt shaker—when one suddenly grabs a fistful and hurls it down, shouting, “I refuse to sanitize this anymore!” When his brother shushes him, the first demands, “Why does it have to be such a secret?” The answer is obvious: Grief makes us uneasy.

And so The Killing, AMC’s moody police procedural about the murder of teenager Rosie Larsen, had its work cut out for it when it decided to tie its murder-investigation plot to a closely observed portrait of the grief of Larsen’s parents, Stan and Mitch. Grief is not an easy sell to the American public in the best of circumstances. To portray it authentically is to risk alienating viewers. In addition to being an internal experience that’s hard to dramatize, grief can make the bereaved seem prickly and standoffish, difficult to sympathize with. After a warm critical reception, The Killing has indeed stumbled lately, with The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin and Salon’s Matt Zoller Seitz pointing out the show’s many flaws—the way our relationship to main characters like the mayoral candidate and the detectives fails to deepen and the sketchy politics of the recent terrorist bait-and-switch subplot. To judge by the increasingly impatient responses from fellow viewers I’ve talked with, the Larsens’ plight has started to grate as well. Ironically, though, it is probably the show’s most original feature. If frustration with the detective story is due to The Killing’s all-too-risible plot twists, frustration with the Larsens is tied up with the show’s more-nuanced-than-usual portrait of grief.

The show’s dilemma is embodied best in Mitch, the mother of Rosie, whose grief is portrayed (persuasively) as a numbed ennui. In its first episodes, The Killing powerfully evoked the anomie that settles over the bereaved—the miasmic sense one has of walking through water. Mitch, about to take her kids to school, runs into the house to get something, leaving the car on, exhaust filling up the garage. She forgets her boys, leaving them dangerously exposed until her sister comes home and finds them. The show’s writers elide any confrontation between the sisters, allowing us to participate by proxy in Mitch’s daze. At other moments we see Mitch in bed as her two young sons make breakfast for themselves, heading out to buy milk on their own; or smoking cigarettes and staring out windows, in a bathrobe, hair messy, scenes that verge on cliché but get at early grief’s claustrophobic exhaustion—the way it rises and subsides; the confused realization that though the world has been utterly changed, chores remain to be done, for the world insists on continuing, to one’s indignation and despair.

Of course The Killing indulges now and then in the usual trite images of sorrow—the family standing stony-faced by the grave, for example—but at other times it has found an original language for conveying how shattered the mourner’s sense of self is. Many of the show’s best moments have been not verbal but visual: Stan with his two young sons on a hill preparing to fly a kite against a backdrop of denuded, dead trees—it’s stark and strangely indelible, a powerful analogue for how grief can feel. For me, the single sharpest moment in the show was when Mitch, exhausted, trying to help herself, draws a hot bath. I sucked my breath in as I realized that being in water was going to remind Mitch of how Rosie died—drowned in the trunk of a car. Indeed it does: She gets in, sinks under the water for an uncomfortably long time, and then emerges gasping for breath. In that one forceful moment we see her understanding that the thing she thought might comfort her is what killed her daughter. It’s devastating. So too is a scene when Stan, who has had to be strong for his wife, runs into a rest stop bathroom to weep and slide to the floor in exploding anguish; he is cracking inside while lacking the emotional language—or the cultural permission—to express it as his wife does.

But how to stay with grief episode after episode? The Killing may have made this task harder for itself by choosing to have each episode correspond to one day of the murder investigation. When six weeks have passed for us and only six days have passed for the family, you may test the patience of even the most sympathetic viewers. Friends of mine (especially those who have not experienced a loss) have told me how impatient they are with Mitch—”Get it together, woman! You have kids!” one yelled at the screen.

Grief also has an inexorable narcissism, and one thing I actually like about the show is that Mitch isn’t exactly likable; she is closed off, quick to judge when the detectives make a small slip—qualities that make her seem authentically adrift. Yet it is difficult and even irritating to watch. It’s worth remembering that Shakespeare’s play about grief, Hamlet, dramatizes a descent into an existential despair that makes Hamlet hard to like at moments; the wealth of Shakespeare’s language is what keeps our interest even when Hamlet acts mad, capricious, and cruel.

If television tends to sanitize grief, it does so primarily by peddling the idea that one should (and could) really just shake it off and move on, heading tidily through grief’s so-called “stages” (now debunked but often invoked on TV) toward acceptance. The Killing, happily, resisted all of this, at least at first. In recent episodes the show has made something of an about-face for the sake of drama: In the seventh episode, Stan cleans out Rosie’s room in a bid to get Mitch to focus on their sons—”It’s time to move on,” he says, gruffly. He is voicing what friends and family of the bereaved often feel, unable to understand the true intensity of grief, and the viewer, for whom the show started nearly two months earlier, can relate, even if she is still sorry for Mitch. But then the choked-up Mitch replies, “It’s been a week, Stan”—joltingly reminding us that the show’s time is unfolding more slowly than ours. I doubt any parent has decided it’s time to “move on” a week after the death of a child, and with this coaxed-up confrontation the show went from feeling reasonably credible to hokily manipulative.

In recent episodes, The Killing has begun to devolve into a revenge drama. No one can forgive—not Mitch, and not Stan, who this past week brutally beat one of the many suspects who have turned up during the investigation. The Killing had an ingenious premise. After all, as a friend noted, grief is like detective work: The mourner is searching fruitlessly for the lost one. But this twining of themes, so promising, has grown merely melodramatic as the mourning Larsens engage in ever more violent behavior. The Killing could have been just the show to remind us that while a murderer may be arrested, grief rarely is; it’s just absorbed and alchemized into a new self. And what endures about loss isn’t just sorrow but the complex realization of the materiality of time, and the peculiar privilege of love.

Read Meghan O’Rourke’s series of essays on grieving, which became her book The Long Goodbye.