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‘The Killing’ Review: “The Jungle; That You Fear the Most”

The Killing
AMC

The Killing‘ returns with a new season and a whole new case — this time, someone is out there killing wayward teenage prostitutes, and it might just be a someone Linden’s encountered before.

It’s strange thinking back to the first two seasons of ‘The Killing’ — it was a story that should, and could, have been told over the course of one season, and by the time we finally got the ending we desperately needed, it felt like too little too late. Both seasons had intense highs and dull, redundant lows filled with red herrings that bordered on intellectually insulting, but if ‘The Killing’ has been good at anything, it’s atmosphere and character. I’m happy to report the third season seems to have retained at least some of what made us love it in the first place — at least where it counts.

The first hour, “The Jungle,” begins laying out the plot threads that will be woven over the course of — hopefully just one — season. That’s not to say I don’t want to see ‘The Killing’ return for a fourth season; it’s simply too early to tell. But if showrunner Veena Sud and her writers learned anything from their near-death experience at the hands of AMC, it’s hopefully that spreading a story out over two seasons is languorous at best and self-indulgent at worst. But enough about the past — let’s talk about that first hour. We learn that someone is killing teen girls who turn to tricking for extra cash. These aren’t your typical prostitute types, either. These are just teen girls who need a warm place to sleep at night and have no choice but to turn to Johns for a few extra bucks. There’s a sad, effortless resignation to the way our new protagonist, Kallie, speaks of “taking a date.”

We also meet Kallie’s mom, Danette, played by the incredible Amy Seimetz. Their first scene together didn’t floor me, but knowing Seimetz’s capabilities, I expect great things to come. It’s here that the third season seems to be mirroring the first two, in a sense. Kallie goes missing at the end of the first episode, laying the groundwork for another story of a parent grieving the loss of their child. It’s not a particularly promising development, but Seimetz is a great choice to play that kind of role. Also introduced are Kallie’s friend, the butch girl named Bullett, and most importantly, Ray Seward, a convicted killer played by Peter Sarsgaard.

“The Jungle” plants a major seed with Ray, who was convicted of murdering his wife in the same fashion a young woman was found murdered in the opening scene. We already knew from season two that Linden had doubts that Ray killed his wife, based on the interactions with the couple’s young son. Given that Linden is the protagonist with whom we identify, we immediately presume Ray’s innocence, but his violent interaction with a prison chaplain seems to indicate otherwise. I foresee a season filled with “is he or isn’t he?” plot twists and turns, and based on the show’s previous two seasons, this could be fantastic or excruciatingly obvious in its manipulative overtures.

The best scene in the first episode comes late, as Linden is jogging and comes across an abandoned cattle farm. There are cow skeletons littering the mud, and back in the corner of a dank, old barn is a dying, emaciated cow. Linden identifies with the dying cow, and she knows she has to put it out of its misery, just like she needs to put herself out of her own misery — isolated and alone in her little corner of the state, in that big house all to herself (but dating a rather young man), surrounded by the ghosts of her past, Linden has to stick that gun to her own head and pull the trigger, figuratively speaking. She has to get back to work. And after Holder shows her the case file of the murdered teen girl, Linden knows Holder is onto something: he’s right to suspect that the man who murdered Ray Seward’s wife might not be Ray Seward, and might still be at large and on the prowl again.

But Linden can’t tell Holder he’s right because she just can’t admit to herself that he’s right, and she needs to come back on her own terms. And so we enter episode two, “That You Fear the Most.” Here’s what I fear the most as someone reviewing ‘The Killing’: Veena Sud’s primetime television inclinations, specifically in creating caricatures of her supporting characters, like the boyfriend of a young homeless woman named Lyric, who dreams of becoming a model and preys on Lyric’s insecurities. Bullet’s tough guy routine is similarly troublesome, as is the lead prison guard at Seward’s facility. But Aaron Douglas (of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ fame) lends some promise as a secondary prison guard who is either gullible enough to buy into Ray’s manipulations, or knows that deep down, behind his psycho act, Ray is innocent.

The problem with these early episodes is that the ancillary characters are all functioning as question marks, and what keeps us grounded is the solidity of our core characters: Holder’s need to solve this case, even if it means keeping his new partner down; Linden’s burning desire to solve this case, even if it means once again putting her sanity in jeopardy because she cares too much, and even if it means distancing herself from her son again. It’s no surprise that Holder turns to Linden, just as it’s no surprise that Linden visits Ray in prison to ask a few lingering questions. It seems that like Seward’s wife, the teen girl had her finger broken and a ring removed as a trophy post-mortem, and when faced with questions about what happened to his ring, we get our first inkling of why Ray is acting out the way he is: guilt. He may not have killed his wife, but he feels guilt that he couldn’t prevent her murder and left their child orphaned. It seems that our Ray Seward here feels as though he deserves his death sentence. But why demand a hanging over a lethal injection? There’s something twisted in Ray, perhaps understandably, perhaps a part of some greater mystery we’ll watch unfold over the course of this season — and with 30 days until Ray is executed, Linden better get back in the game.

Holder, meanwhile, is unaware of Linden’s own digging, but he has to know he sparked something in her, and as he’s her former partner, he must be aware that she’s not telling him the truth he already suspects about their two cases. (Side note: that was the incomparable Grace Zabriskie as the hotel manager Holder visits to ask after Kallie. Given her clout, here’s hoping we see more of her in the coming episodes. She’s too amazing to waste.)

Between these first two episodes, there’s a lot of misdirection at play: from Ray’s seemingly guilty and violent behavior, to the character of Goldie (Brendan Fletcher of ‘The Pacific’ and ‘Freddy vs. Jason’), a violently-inclined panhandler who assaults Bullett near the end of the second episode. It becomes evident that Veena Sud and Co. aren’t necessarily interested in changing formula, which is fine — keep Linden and Holder as our reliable anchors in a sea of red herrings. But the problem with this formula is that we’ve learned it already. We know there’s no way that rapist bum Goldie is the one out there killing young women. It’s completely improbable that any serialized drama would reveal its mysterious killer in the second episode, let alone ‘The Killing,’ which is so fond of introducing a totally viable and likely suspect before discounting them. A lot of people complained in the first two seasons that the show kept introducing suspects, making them look undeniably guilty, and then revealing that they were innocent — but that’s what detectives do. They find a primary suspect and track the lead to the very end. What was troublesome about the first two seasons (and I’m mainly thinking of season two here), was the flamboyancy with which Sud and her writers focused in on ominous everything — people, places, things — all accompanied with dramatic music and framing that all but felt like Dora the Explorer would jump out and ask if you could spot the suspicious element in the picture. It became redundant and excessive to the point of silly.

Misdirection on a show like this isn’t just expected, it’s good. It keeps us on our toes, it makes us think like and identity with our lead detective characters, and it fosters an air of mystery. But when you lead too heavy and too hard on it, it can become a crutch — it no longer feels sly, and instead feels arrogant.

That said, there’s some great stuff in these two episodes. The new mystery is engaging, and that it’s entwined with Linden’s murky past is especially promising. Atmospherically speaking, the show continues to be visually engaging — that last scene of Linden tracking down the location Seward’s son draws over and over in his pictures and finding red bags floating in the water? Fantastic. Elias Koteas as a detective with whom Linden used to work (and apparently have sex with)? Promising!

All right, ‘The Killing,’ I’m giving you another shot. Don’t let me down this time.

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