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Shadow of a Doubt: Franz Kafka and TV’s ‘The Killing’

By posted at 6:00 am on June 18, 2012 16

coverHow far would you go to learn the truth? In AMC’s detective drama, The Killing, “the truth” is the identity of 15-year-old Rosie Larsen’s killer in a perpetually-overcast Seattle. Would you risk losing your teenaged son, like Detective Sarah Linden? Ditch your fiancé? Would you work fifty hours straight, like her partner, Detective Stephen Holder? Endanger your sobriety by stepping into the den of your old meth dealer? Would you wrench your family even further apart, like Rosie’s father, Stan Larsen? Would you fight City Hall? Would you give up your badge and your gun?

Would you watch 13 hours of television? 26? 39?

This is, essentially, the question asked of us by The Killing, which just ended its controversial second season. The show began as one of the most critically acclaimed new shows of 2011, nominated for three Critic’s Choice awards and six Emmys. Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter declared it “excellent, absorbing and addictive. When each episode ends, you long for the next – a hallmark of great dramas.” But a few months later, that same reviewer was singing a different tune. “Did The Killing Just Kill Itself?” his review of the first season finale asked.

For those who have not become as addicted to this show as I have, all you really need to know is that, after thirteen incredibly tense episodes, all the evidence began to point toward the charismatic Mayoral candidate, Darren Richmond. Most damningly, a photo from a toll booth showed Richmond driving away from the scene of Rosie’s abduction in the car where her body was later bound inside the trunk. But then, seconds before the credits rolled, Detective Linden discovered the photo was a fake. Meanwhile the innocent Richmond was shot by a friend of the Larsen family. The season ended, and the show’s fans rioted.

When I first began to watch The Killing two months ago, I told a friend who’d been watching since day one. His reaction was vehement. “Goddamn FUCK THE KILLING. I keep watching it and it keeps NOT GOING ANYWHERE. I keep thinking “OK, THIS is it” and theeennn… nope. And yet I cannot stop watching.” This same friend directed me to the website, fuckthekilling.com, which is essentially a short, explicit open letter to the show from its fans.

Most critics were just as outraged. Many cited the fact that The Killing is based on a Danish TV drama Forbrydelsen, or “The Crime”, and the pilot episodes were nearly identical, shot-for-shot. They argue that while the first season of Forbrydelsen ended satisfyingly, by disclosing the true identity of the murderer, The Killing broke that unspoken pact between itself and its audience: watch this show for 13 weeks and you will be rewarded with the truth. Subverting our expectations has brought great acclaim to other AMC shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but with The Killing, the move appears to have backfired.

As the second season began, Goodman issued the show a stern warning. “By not revealing who killed Rosie Larsen in season one, this season could implode.” But in this same breath he complained that Veena Sud was compounding the problem by speaking out and directly assuring fans that the Larsen case would be solved by the end of season two. This creates a major suspense problem. “In the first 12 episodes, viewers will never believe a suspect is about to be revealed or that detectives closing in on a suspect in, say, episode seven, has any real relevancy. It certainly doesn’t make that storytelling immediately essential. Secondly, it’s telling viewers that they will be rewarded with a resolved mystery after 26 hours of television. If you see the appeal in any of this, please fire off a flare.”

Well, Tim, consider this my flare.

Think about it. How can we be upset when the truth is withheld just when we most expect it, and when someone promises that it will be delivered, right on time? But we in the audience always want to have it both ways: we want to have our expectations met, and at the same time, confounded. Novelist Elizabeth Bowen observed that “Story involves action[…] towards an end not to be forseen (by the reader) but also towards an end which, having been reached, must be seen to have been from the start inevitable.” Figuring how to get out of this double-bind has been the failing of many a writer. In all mediums, we reserve a large segment of our judgment until we see how well an entertainment ends. A great ending sends reverberations back through everything that transpired to reach it.

In the second season finale on Sunday night, The Killing achieved one of these great endings for the Larsen case. Sud kept her promise and revealed the truth about Rosie’s murder. The conclusion was satisfying, in that it did not satisfy. Rosie’s killing turned out to be caused by two different villains, one somewhat expected and the other utterly unexpected. In the end, these truths bring neither clarity nor comfort. Not to the Larsens or to the detectives. The truth behind Rosie’s killing turn out to be so meaningless and darkly ironic that we almost wish we didn’t know it. We know how Detective Holder feels as he shakes his head in his dark office. “Just the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes it just comes down to that I guess. Just randomness.” He comes to understand, as we must, that the truth is never as holy a grail as the quest we took to find it.

“Sounds like LOST,” another friend of mine scoffed, when I described my love of The Killing, “Never making that mistake again. LOST took away my ability to trust other people.”

Like The Killing, LOST steadily alienated its huge initial audience when writers decided to take the show in unexpected directions and then readily admitted to viewers that they did not have the truth about the mysterious island quite worked out, but that they’d figure it out as they went. The result was seven seasons filled with great drama and action, but also dead-end plots, quickly forgotten clues, and pointless characters. All of this stalling produced one loose end after the next, and there was simply no way to tie them all together in the end.

Tim Goodman likewise criticized the first season of The Killing for introducing too many “red herrings.” A red herring is a staple in most mystery stories. It is a misleading clue planted to distract us from the eventual truth. It is a kind of intended misdirection, which keeps an audience on their toes. The term originates in the training of dogs. A red herring would be run along the ground away from the scent that the dog was meant to follow. The idea was to train the dogs to eventually recognize when they were being fooled.

But while LOST dropped misleading clues haphazardly here and there to buy more time, The Killing has thus far used red herrings intentionally to lead both viewers and detectives in the wrong direction, not simply to kill time, but to make us interrogate our own assumptions about these dead-ends.

Did candidate Richmond really fit the bill? Wouldn’t it have been pretty lame for the oh-so-charming politician to wind up being a sociopathic killer? And why would he have been stupid enough to arbitrarily snuff out a call girl, two weeks before his election?  And did it ever make sense that sweet, sheltered Rosie Larsen would work part-time as a high-priced underage hooker? Sud turned Richmond into yet another red herring, and this should have made us, like the detectives, wonder why we were so desperate for the truth that we’d have preferred that patently ridiculous answer. The innocent Richmond was shot and crippled for our eagerness, just as the previous nonsensical suspect, Rosie’s teacher Bennett Ahmed, was beaten nearly to death. Did anyone really think they’d make him into a secret terrorist? Now that we know the truth, it is easier to see how red those herrings really were.

It is telling that Veena Sud’s upcoming film project is a remake of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion. Hitchcock was the rare artist who managed to entertain audiences and subvert their expectations at the same time. Hitchcock achieved this most often by using a “MacGuffin,” allowing the initial mystery itself to become the red herring. Use a MacGuffin right and you can accomplish almost anything; do it wrong and your audience will never trust you again. Just ask M. Night Shyamalan.

coverThe Killing is often compared to the Hitchcockian TV drama, Twin Peaks, which captivated America in 1990. Director David Lynch brought us Detective Dale Cooper, who was also searching for the killer of a young girl deep in the woods of Washington State. Twin Peaks used Laura Palmer’s murder as a MacGuffin to lead its viewers closer to the bizarre townsfolk, through surreal dreams, and chasing after a one-armed man. It became the most popular show on American television, but when Lynch ended his first season without delivering answers, audiences were rabid. Lynch gave in and revealed early in the second season that grieving father Leland Palmer had killed his own daughter.

And after this reveal, Twin Peaks lost its audience anyway. Soon the show ranked 85th out of 89 shows on the air. Now that Veena Sud has kept her word and revealed the killer, she runs the risk of finding her audience evaporating just like Lynch’s.

Fans and critics might well be outraged at The Killing’s anticlimax. Some might even wish Sud had decided to just leave us all in suspense for another year. But hopefully this ending will encourage viewers to stop trying so hard to see The Killing as a typical police drama and wake up to the fact that it long-ago metamorphosed into something much more fascinating. It has been, from the start, a show that makes us question – like Detectives Linden and Holder – the value of the truth, and what we will invest of ourselves in order to know it.

Last year, in an interview with Alan Sepinwall, Veena Sud defended the integrity of the show. “We said from the very beginning this is the anti-cop cop show. It’s a show where nothing is what it seems, so throw out expectations. We will not tie up this show in a bow. There are plenty of shows that do that, in 45 minutes or whatever amount of time, where that is expected and the audience can rest assured that at the end of blank, they will be happy and they can walk away from their TV satisfied. This is not that show.”

covercoverVeena Sud worked for four years as a writer and producer for the CBS cop show Cold Case, a cop show which follows a tight formula: a long-forgotten case somehow surfaces and eventually is solved through the use of “modern techniques” of DNA processing and microfiber analysis. In truth, cold cases are rarely solved, and lawyers today cite The CSI Effect to explain how juries accustomed to TV crime dramas have come to expect an unrealistic level of certainty in evidence. An FBI study done in 2010 showed that since 1980 only 63% of murders have been solved, nationwide. This ranges from highs of 82% in North Las Vegas and lows of only 21% in Detroit. Perhaps this explains why we are so buoyed by the prospect that a single hair follicle might lead detectives to a killer within hours of a murder. No one ever said red herrings didn’t smell good.

Perhaps Sud asked herself what it says about audiences that we will watch essentially the same unrealistic episode of Cold Case, again and again? That show ran for seven years. CSI has run for thirteen years so far and has spun off two other series, both still running. Law & Order ended after twenty-years, after spinning of four new series. There’s NCIS, times two. Bones. Criminal Minds, times two. Hawaii Five-O all over again. Each show, in its own way, comfortingly repeats the formula, delivering the truth right on time, usually with an arched eyebrow and a wry quip. Perhaps The Killing isn’t breaking a pact with us, but staging an intervention.

It’s suggestive that Detective Holder is a former meth addict, and some of the dialogue between him and Linden revolves around the nature of addiction: what you’ll give up for your high and what rock-bottom looks like. Linden too, is depicted as an addict, not to drugs but to the case. She is, like us, addicted to the truth. Years earlier, Linden had a similar case which was never solved, and it landed her in a psychiatric institution. Then, facing the impossibility of knowing the truth drove Linden crazy. But at the end of the second season, she sees that knowing the truth is almost as unnerving. When Holder insists, for the second time that day, “We got the bad guy,” Linden’s only response is a chilly, “Yeah, who’s that?”

Because The Killing began as an adaptation of the Danish TV drama Forbrydelsen, many compare it to Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books. But while it has some of that same icy edge and atmosphere, I think a better comparison is to the novels of another introverted writer from a gloomy European locale, whose work also went on to great acclaim only after his death: Franz Kafka.

covercoverKafka’s most famous story, The Metamorphosis, is about a man who wakes up one day mysteriously transformed into a bug. But this strange mutation is a MacGuffin. We want to find out how poor Gregor turned into a bug, and so we delve deeper into Gregor’s sad predicament. Like Hitchcock’s The Birds, Kafka gives no explanation in the end, by which time we are so moved and awestruck that we’ve forgotten what we came for.

Another classic tale, “In the Penal Colony,” involves a man journeying to a remote prison to see a machine of elegant torture. An Officer there explains that it painfully tattoos a criminal with the phrase “Be Just” until they eventually receive a mystical revelation and die in ecstasy. The Officer is so excited by this magnificent torture that he jumps into the machine – only it breaks and kills him before he can find out truth the criminals received.

covercoverThe Killing would fit right in with Kafka’s two best-known novels, The Trial and The Castle, which each feature a protagonist known as “K”. Both novels stretch on for hundreds of pages as K attempts to learn some sort of unobtainable truth. In this absurd pursuit K loses everything, breaks down utterly, and gets nowhere. And because neither novel was even finished at the time of Kafka’s death in 1924, even K’s total ruination is never quite completed.

Both novels show K toiling futilely against the systems of the law. In The Killing the inverse proposition is examined: two lawmen attempt to bring justice and to uncover an important truth. Their truth becomes just as elusive as the one sought by poor K. The deeper they dig, the further away it somehow gets.

Modern detective work, despite microfibers and DNA, is still rooted in the rational principles of the 16th century scientific revolution, when thinkers began to re-embrace the Classical idea that logical inquiry could lead us to the truth. The scientific method makes a kind of pact with us: collect evidence and probe it until the rational world gives up its secrets. Develop a logical hypothesis and test it out. If it fails, then you have at least eliminated something that is untrue. Start over. Try again. Keep looking. You’ve almost got it.

Four centuries later, we live in a world in which astronomers have discovered incredible things about the nature of matter, right down to the tiniest subatomic particle, and charted the expanses of the universe for light-years in all directions. And yet each answer has given us a hundred new mysteries to solve. We’ve interrogated the human body down to the smallest acellular organisms, and for each truth we have learned, ten more questions have popped out from behind it. We’ve learned much, but for all that we understand, perhaps the greatest thing we’ve learned is how much more there is to learn.

In the case of killings, there will are always unsolved cases, wrongful convictions, and unreliable witnesses. But even when we do know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that one person killed a second person, and we arrest and punish that first person, there’s still so much we don’t know. The Killing makes this uncertainty its very heart. Is imprisoning the killer any justice. Is killing them? Can we ever understand how the killer did what they did? What is the measure of that lost life? What is the measure of the killer’s?

Don’t get me wrong. The pursuit of truth is a noble ambition. Asking if this pursuit is futile is itself but one more truth we should keep pursuing.

People often mistake Kafka for a nihilist, but his books can be very uplifting. In echoing the human struggling we often feel, we can feel less alone in that struggle – we may even laugh at it. Novelist David Foster Wallace explained how he would get his students to see the humor in Kafka. “You can ask them to imagine his stories as a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don’t know what it is, but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward – we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.” (Roughly translated, this means, “That’s pretty funny.”)

coverThe Killing does not want to tell us an easy truth, but a difficult one. Hollywood Reporter Tim Goodman has himself argued that difficult shows can be worth the effort it takes to understand them. “You know what else is difficult? The first chapters of War and Peace. Also, great gobs of Remembrance of Things Past. Did you also know that diving in to William Faulkner can leave you wondering what the hell is going on?”

Plenty of us, of course, don’t have the patience to read the classics, or to even watch The Killing, but this does not mean that we wouldn’t be rewarded if we developed some. By embracing the entertainments of difficulty, we can learn, like Detectives Linden and Holder, to become more aware in our pursuit of the truth. We can begin to see that we are the ones who are forever tattooing that fervent Kafkaesque wish upon the world, “Be Just.”





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16 Responses to “Shadow of a Doubt: Franz Kafka and TV’s ‘The Killing’”

  1. Byron
    at 7:39 am on June 18, 2012

    But while LOST dropped misleading clues haphazardly here and there to buy more time, The Killing has thus far used red herrings intentionally to lead both viewers and detectives in the wrong direction, not simply to kill time, but to make us interrogate our own assumptions about these dead-ends.

    —————–

    I’m sorry but you know this how exactly? Sounds like rationalizing a poor second season to me.

  2. Sandee
    at 8:57 am on June 18, 2012

    Screw the haters that want instant gratification and neatly-wrapped cases of the week tied up in a pretty bow. I loved “Killing”. Loved the acting, loved the focus on one case. Unfortunately the decision not to just tell people that the case would cover two seasons bit them in the butt for the majority of viewers. Frankly, if this show were on one of the major networks, it could have been done in one season in about 20 episodes. But a lot of cable shows call 10 – 13 episodes a “season”.

    I need more Linden/Holder. For that reason alone, I’ll tune in to see Season 3. Although I’m not holding my breath that there will be one.

  3. Keats
    at 10:21 am on June 18, 2012

    Byron: LOST writers also admitted to being unsure where their show was going, there is obviously something more meditated to the plot turns.

    I thought this was a really well thought-out piece. Making a TV show (I admit to having only seen a few episodes of) sound incredibly literary. It’s not just confusion for confusion’s sake, or disappointment in a cynical or cruel way. It’s realistically bleak and satisfyingly unsatisfying. Kafka is an apt comparison.

  4. sonmi451
    at 10:50 am on June 18, 2012

    There is a level of self-satisfaction to “The Killing” defenders that I find as loathsome as the show itself. All these – oh, screw you plebs who are too dumb to appreciate complexity, who just wants easy trash entertainment, bla bla bla. Oh please, The Wire is complex entertainment, The Killing is just pretentious tosh made for people wjo think they are oh-so-literate for comparing a crappy TV show with Kafka.

  5. Jane
    at 10:54 am on June 18, 2012

    Agreed. Great piece. The finale of season two was perfect. And for people who like a “happy” ending, there are the Larsens–who have lost family and friends–smiling and crying as they watch the video, not knowing whether to feel happy or sad, feeling both at the same time, but no longer utterly, desperately miserable. If you’ve ever experienced the murder of someone you love, you recognize this as realistic: a kind of chaos of feeling but different from the depths of despair you are emerging from.

  6. sonmi451
    at 10:59 am on June 18, 2012

    Poseur alert phrases: “satisfyingly unsatisfying”, “The Killing does not want to tell us an easy truth, but a difficult one.”.

    Also, you might want to cool it with the literary comparisons. Faulkner? Tolstoy? Kafka? THIS is the show you want to compare to those authors’ work? Maybe you need to watch better TV shows.

  7. Yorick
    at 11:54 am on June 18, 2012

    Fantastic piece.

    And if you’re looking for less literary comparisons, maybe The Millions isn’t the best site, considering their demographic. I would recommend Entertainment Weekly or the TV Guide channel instead.

  8. sonmi451
    at 8:50 am on June 19, 2012

    It’s not the literary references that is the problem, it’s throwing off names after names to compare to a crappy TV show, just to show off.

  9. Z Vasquez
    at 3:04 am on June 20, 2012

    No, no, no, no, no. You like The Killing? Fine, good for you. But you cannot hold up the hatred for this as viewers being frustrated by not getting “easy answers” or a happy ending.

    The hatred of this show is based on its TERRIBLE writing (and bland performances). Just break down the story on a piece by piece level. Every single character who was a red herring was doing something completely secretive on the night this dumb girl was killed. The Polish mob, female circumcision, suicides on the anniversary of a beloved wife’s death, dozens upon dozens of coincidences (such as the murderer of the girl being her aunt, who’s going out with the father of the girl’s kind-of-boyfriend, who she just happens to spy on in a secretive meeting, and who happens to be in bed with the mobsters who her fake dad used to work for…ugh).

    Yeah, this is really the anti-cop show cop show. It’s actually more convoluted and dumb than CSI. Beyond this basic problem, it fails on every other level.

    The understanding of politics on this show is absurd (and not in a Kafka way. In a way that makes it seem as though the writers have never read a newspaper.) They make Seattle seem like an urban hell-hole. Characters are bone-stupid and act in completely non-human ways. The dialog is atrocious, the acting is terrible…

    Seriously, you do not get to act all high and mighty about what, after accounting for intent and pretensions of profundity, might be the worst drama in television history.

  10. Barnstorm | Wednesday Linkstorm
    at 10:34 am on June 20, 2012

    [...] Here’s an essay from The Millions comparing AMC’s The Killing to Franz Kafka.* Haha, what? Sure, okay. Everything is like everything! All things are the same as each other! *Scroll way, way down for it. You need a crack team of paleontologists (pictured) to unbury the lede in this one. [...]

  11. Mitchell
    at 6:03 pm on June 20, 2012

    There are an awful lot of strong opinions against this show, but all those comments completely neglect the article at hand here–which is incredibly well reasoned and interesting. I would highly recommend giving it a read, since this is a comments section about Jansma’s piece, and not a blog about a TV show. Skimming doesn’t count, folks!

  12. Theo
    at 12:29 am on June 22, 2012

    Lost only had six seasons.

  13. sean
    at 4:40 am on June 22, 2012

    I realize this isn’t an article about Twin Peaks, but you seem rather confused on this point. Nobody was outraged at the end of season one. Season one was all of seven episodes. People were just catching on. It became the massive hit you’re talking about only in the time off between seasons, when the first season aired again and everyone could see what was being talked about. The end of season one features a series of the greatest cliffhangers ever put on TV, specifically, according to co-creator Mark Frost, so they’d get a second season.

    For Lynch and Frost, the idea was never to reveal the killer. Not knowing was what held the show together, they felt, and argued. But the network forced them to reveal the killer. They did it beautifully, but as Lynch predicted it would, the show completely fell apart immediately following. The writers simply hadn’t thought of where it would go next. Lynch mostly lost interest, and so did the audience. Towards the end of season two (this back in the days of 22 episode seasons) they finally found another mystery to pursue, and Lynch returned to direct the completely bizarro final episode, but it was too little too late. Revealing the killer was the real end of the show.

  14. Kris
    at 8:26 am on June 22, 2012

    Sean – Thanks! That’s misleading, and I appreciate the information. I hadn’t realized the first season was only 8 episodes. I watched it for the first time on DVD and remember being rabid myself until I got the season two discs… but surely the experience may have been very different in 1990 when it was airing.

    And Theo – that’s my mistake there too. Maybe it just felt like seven seasons. :)

    And just to clarify: the comment about Faulkner and Proust at the end is a quote of Goodman’s, which I was citing to track his feelings about challenging TV after his earlier quotes regarding The Killing. I count myself among the people who struggle with the patience to read both of these writers, and certainly didn’t intend the comment condescendingly towards anyone.

  15. Miguel
    at 2:51 pm on June 25, 2012

    I never watched The Killing, but I found your article interesting. I think viewers should just trust the storyteller and wait to see where he takes them. If they were enjoying the first season, why couldn’t enjoy a second one? Why did the killer have to be revealed at the end of the first one?

    I just found your connection with Kafka far-fetched. I doubt anyone, or the majority, reads The Metamorphosis to know how Gregor turns into a bug. I think most people know it’s not that type of novel.

  16. Stewart Godshall
    at 5:48 pm on October 26, 2012

    As a great fan of The Killing, I’m late to the party here. No matter. Just an outstanding article on the show Mr. Jansma. Thoughful, insightful and your David Foster Wallace anecdote is brilliant and appropriate. Bravo.

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