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Why Do We Care Who Killed Rosie Larsen?

Television
by Terry Curtis Fox
June 6, 2012 6:08 AM
4 Comments
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In two episodes – as AMC’s trailers insist – we’ll know who killed Rosie Larsen.

Given that the show isn’t about Rosie – it’s about Sarah Linden and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Holder and Darren Richmond – why is it so important that Rosie’s killer is revealed?

The show’s ethic is intensely realistic, and, in real life, there are plenty of cases that go unsolved.

Indeed, "The Killing" is a police procedural, and there are plenty of examples of using the procedural to create a drama of failure.

Television does failure well. (Movies used to – think of "In a Lonely Place" – but not that much anymore. It’s one reason that "Cabin in the Woods" is so refreshing.) "The Wire" was nothing but failure. And, like "The Killing,""The Wire" was a realistic character drama clothed in procedure.

"The Wire"’s McNulty failed spectacularly and repeatedly. Yet when the first season of "The Killing" ended with a false arrest, viewers revolted.

The difference can be found in the two series forms. "The Wire" was never a mystery: it was the epitome of an “open” story. (In “open” mysteries, the identity of the killer is known to the audience; the question is whether or not that killer can be brought to justice. In “closed” mysteries, the killer’s identity is hidden from both audience and detective. One of the genius strokes of "Law and Order" was to create a “closed” first half hour – there was always an arrest – and then an “open” second half, which could end in a successful or failed prosecution.)

"The Killing," being a closed story, demands an explanation. We are involved in Linden’s quest – therefore, Linden’s quest must come to a successful conclusion. (The same revolt that happened with "The Killing," of course, occurred when David Lynch refused to reveal who killed Laura Palmer at the end of the first season of "Twin Peaks," a show that could not have been clearer that plot was not central to its ethos.)

As Jacques Barzun famously explained, the form of the mystery is that the orderly universe is disrupted (by a killing) and then, in the end, put right (by the solution). That "The Killing" is not a puzzle does not change this equation. What matters is that the series revolves around a single, central event, a “mystery.” In fiction, unlike religion, mysteries must be solved.

"The Wire"’s characters could fail because the show was based on a struggle between the police and the drug sellers; a battle that could be fought to a stand-still. And (like "Homicide," "Hill Street", and "NYPD Blue") "The Wire" ran multiple stories. Unlike its predecessors, those stories were not balanced between victories and failures, but that didn’t matter. Multiple stories tipped us off that this was going to be as messy as life.

The world of "The Killing" is just as grim – as in "The Wire,"all families fail in this show and innocent people are as likely to be hurt as the guilty.  But by virtue of having posed one question, audiences are demanding an answer.

We know that in life there are unsolved cases; but we also know that in fiction, if you ask one big question at the beginning, you expect it to be resolved at the end. (Spoiler alert: the world may be destroyed at the end of "Cabin in the Woods," but at least we know why.)

Television has become so good at failure that it might, in fact, be possible to write a show in which the detectives never get to the truth. If carefully prepared, I’m not sure you couldn’t take an audience through an entire season’s show and end with a mystery that never gets solved.

To do that, however, you’d have to prepare the audience for the possibility all along the way.  That was, of course, what "The Wire" did. From the pilot onwards, failure was written into its DNA.

What "The Killing" has prepared us for is a hollow victory. I haven’t seen the last two episodes (nor the Danish original) but as a viewer I’m fairly sure that while Rosie Larsen’s killer will be “revealed,” the solution is not going to feel good.
 

Television
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More: Television, TV, AMC, Reviews, Critics

4 Comments

  • NJLNJ | June 8, 2012 9:06 AMReply

    Interesting article featuring possibly the worst spoiler alert I have ever seen. Nobody is going to assume that is a spoiler alert for a random movie not mentioned in the article until then. Anyway I disagree with the other comment that this is some kind of attention span issue -- obviously attention span isn't the issue for people watching a monotonous, sometimes painful hour of TV every week for two seasons. The acting is mostly tremendous but this story did not need to be two seasons long. The amount of twists for twists sake are absurd. It's not an attention span issue it's simply that some stories (no matter how good) are only meant to be so long. Most people didn't want to watch this same story for two seasons. In addition, while you could argue that a show about a murder shouldn't have any moments of humour I think the lack of any tension breaking laughs or just any moment other than another "you thought we couldn't get more depressing but guess what? we just did!" moment makes this a tough watch. A little gallows humour or something to break up the poisonous bleak blanket covering this show might make people slightly more generous with their opinions.

  • Chris | June 6, 2012 9:02 PMReply

    It seems people in 2011 and 2012 have the attention span of a gnat. 30 episodes of Twin Peaks to reveal who killed Laura Palmer and no one whined about it. Everyone raves about the Danish version, but only because it has been spoiled of who the killer was. In order to get somewhere you go from A to B. Maybe CSI, Psych, Bones, House and other shows that do miraculous detective work has spoiled people because they solve a crime within crazy time limits and absolute on the nose coincidences. The Killing isn't perfect but it is that bad either as the haters claim and yet they still watch the show every single week and complain, moan, groan and bitch about it. Then why watch?

  • jd | June 6, 2012 1:15 PMReply

    There's a very significant element missing from this piece -- the role of "Who Killed Rosie Larsen?" as the centerpiece of the show's marketing.

    When the author mentions a "carefully prepared" audience, it's an implicit reminder that AMC has long refused to sell the show as anything BUT the answer to that question. They created that requirement, not the show's viewers. (Or the show itself, for that matter.) Take away the promise of a reveal, and the show's shaggy-dog complications go down a lot more easily.

  • AndrewK. | June 6, 2012 7:22 AMReply

    I won't offer a defense of the show per se, because if it doesn't work for some people explaining it won't change things, but as unusual as it was to not be given the identity of the killer at the end of season 1 it made sense in the context of the show's mood which has always been overwhelmingly dreary, which makes me agree with you completely that whatever the outcome is and who we find out to be the killer it's not going to feel good.

    For me The "killing" has always been less about the death and more about the grief that kills.

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