Television is a basically a death factory. If you watch just a couple of hours of primetime fare, you’re almost guaranteed to see at least one dead body and probably a couple more. Watch it for a whole year and you’ll see hundreds upon hundreds of bodies. In real life, death is the thing we fear most, the thing from which all our other fears stem. And yet we subject ourselves to it every night and call it entertainment. It is, if nothing else, curious.
Less curious is why television has turned itself into a death factory. Shows are under constant pressure to make it seem like the stakes are serious, and life-and-death situations are the easiest way to create this illusion. So there are a lot of cop and doctor shows, which have the advantage of intrinsically high stakes. And with these shows come the steady stream of corpses.
Crime procedurals use death almost exclusively as a plot point. Every murder mystery has to start with a murder, after all. The problem with this is that it almost inevitably results in the dehumanization of the victim. As a rule, the victims are less characters than mere excuses for their given episode to exist. Shows like CSI, Bones and NCIS that rely on forensic investigation turn victims into objects riddled with clues. In Criminal Minds, meanwhile, victims are playthings for sadists, murdered for titillation. Life and Pushing Daisies* use dead bodies as centerpieces in elaborate set pieces–death as art. And in Law & Order and CSI: Miami, victims are frequently reduced to a punchline. Within these shows, death is a mundane evil. By bringing the murderers to justice, the characters defeat that evil. So these shows rob death of its power in two ways, first by making it a mundane occurrence and then by never letting it be open-ended, by always finding someone to blame. We watch these shows in part precisely because they desensitize us to death.
(*Though I use it as an example here, Pushing Daisies could also be used as a counterpoint, given that its victims always get a chance to speak for themselves and have backstories. They are, in this way, actual, legitimate characters. And yet, despite this, it’s hard to deny that the show has a generally casual attitude towards to death.)
Medical shows tend to use death more to teach their characters lessons and provide an emotional shorthand. Most medical shows are dramas, obviously, but Scrubs offers maybe the best example of how this works. As a sitcom, one of the show’s chief objectives is to make people laugh, so there’s always plenty of wacky hijinks going on. But the show also wants us to care about the characters, and the medical setting lets it ground itself in life-and-death situations. These situations not all that infrequently result in patients dying, so the audience knows the stakes are real (real being a relative term, of course). And when patients do die, the audience can always count on JD’s voiceover to explicate the very important lesson we have all just learned. Even though death is emotionally serious in a show like this, it’s bearable because it’s always meaningful, and we can take some kind of comfort in that.
Serialized shows use death in similar, only slightly different ways.* When a serialized show uses death as a plot point, for example, it’s likely to be a plot point that alters the dynamic of the show in some fairly significant way. Unlike a procedural, in which a large part of the appeal is that it rarely changes, serialized shows are supposed to change all the time. Characters are supposed to grow and regress and get thrown into wildly different circumstances from storyline to storyline. And every so often, a character needs to die. Maybe the character’s arc has run out of steam. Maybe the actor wants off the show. Or maybe the show just needs to change some more. Regardless of the particulars, if an actor wants job security, he’s probably better off signing onto a procedural, because serialized shows tend to murder regular and recurring characters, rather than just guest stars.
(*When I talk about serialized shows, I am also talking about the serialized elements that exist in shows that would still be described as procedurals. Nearly every show has a serialized element now that these rules apply to.)
The advantage to killing off characters the audience is familiar with is that the death feels more real, and the emotional pain of the living characters and the lessons they learn more immediately identifiable. And because the character actually served a purpose within the show, the stakes can seem significantly higher than with the death of a victim-of-the-week in a procedural. When handled well that is.
Killing off a regular character is a much riskier proposition than killing off a random guest star, and the margin of error is significantly higher. When handled poorly, killing off a regular character can seem extremely exploitive or just outright cruel. Serialized shows tend not to help themselves in this regard by frequently relying on shock value in their death scenes.
Tara’s death in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is pretty representative of the way death is generally handled in serialized shows, as she’s killed with absolutely no foreshadowing by a stray bullet. Her sudden, shocking death acts as a plot point that kicks off the season’s final story arc by throwing Willow into a serious emotional turmoil that turns her evil. This storyline represents a significant departure from The Trio’s storyline, which had dominated the season up to that point. Willow eventually recovers from her turmoil and gives up her evil ways after learning a valuable lesson about friendship. Not all serialized shows follow the template quite this closely, but they’re certain to employ at least a couple of these elements in any given death sequence. This particular story is fairly controversial* among viewers, but it demonstrates that serialized shows have both a great potential to depict death in an emotionally real way and a tendency to simply use death for shock value or plot considerations.
(*This is probably an understatement.)
Television news has by far the most problematic relationship with death, as it takes real-life tragedies and presses them through the same narrative wringer writers use in crafting the fictional shows described above. Theoretically, the news should be able to provide the most realistic and serious portrayals of death on television, what with the way the stories are real and all. And on very rare occasions–usually in cases of severe national tragedy–it succeeds in doing that. News footage from 9/11, for example, is still incredibly powerful. But it’s powerful mostly because the networks simply got out of their own way. Most of the time TV news has the effect of trivializing personal pain by taking local tragedies and turning them into national entertainment. It does so by applying narrative devices to real events. So a war becomes a plot point in an electoral campaign, a senseless attack becomes a lesson about the need to enact some sort of policy, and the murder of a pretty young girl becomes the shocking kickoff to a real-time murder mystery. And through all of this, it desensitizes us to death more than something like CSI ever could, because it teaches us to treat real death like it actually is something from CSI.
The Killing fits squarely within this culture of death. It’s a serialized procedural about the shocking, brutal murder of a pretty, young girl that reaches towards lessons about the society in which we live. By involving a political campaign, it even invites comparisons to the way tragic evens are used in the public sphere for personal gain. And yet despite employing all of these familiar tropes, the show manages to carry an emotional power unlike any other show on television right now. In fact, it manages to carry that emotional power precisely because of the way it employs–and at times subverts–all of those tropes.
Rosie’s death is, obviously, The Killing’s initial and central plot point. But the show resists the tendency of other procedurals to dehumanize the victim. Rosie’s body is never presented to the audience as an object to be studied, nor is her suffering ever displayed prominently for the viewer’s enjoyment. Indeed, the show’s restraint in this regard is remarkable. The pilot opens with a few short shots of her running through the woods gasping, trying to escape some unseen threat, but thus far there’s been no long scene depicting her murder. In the third episode, when a tape emerges depicting her apparent rape, we see only brief snippets of unclear footage. Upon finding her body, no character cracks wise or attempts in any other way to dismiss the significance of her murder. While the crime scene is meticulously shot in such a way as to give it artistic meaning, it’s not at all like the candy-colored tweeness of the crime scenes in Pushing Daisies and Life. Those shows created crime scenes that intentionally undercut the tragic nature of the crime, whereas The Killing shoots its crime scene with an eye toward enhancing the tragedy, with Rosie’s body curled up like a fetus in the trunk of a submerged car. The forensics, meanwhile, are all conveyed second-hand, generally through conversation. A scene in the fourth episode, in which the Larsens see forensic photos of their daughter’s body when Detective Linden accidentally leaves a door open, actually acts as a direct rebuke to the CSI aesthetic. There’s nothing gratuitous here. Nothing wasted. No easy jokes. We see just enough of the horror and the pain and the tragedy to begin to understand it, and not one second more.
In the face of that horror, The Killing reaches in a general sense towards the kind of lessons we see in other television series. There’s a pervading sense that something is wrong, that our society is fundamentally broken. It raises questions about how we raise our children and how we react to murder. It draws parallels between the grieving family and the other characters on the show, such as Linden and the son she never spends enough time with. But it rebuffs at every opportunity any easy answer to these issues. Most striking is the scene in which Terry can’t help herself any more and asks Mitch why she never called Rosie over the weekend she disappeared. Mitch was able to answer that question earlier in the episode, but at this point she has no answer, so the question just hangs. It’s a painful scene precisely because the question is both so unfair and so natural, and it makes explicit not just the thoughts running through Terry’s head, but also the thoughts running through Mitch’s head. But the moral of the show is clearly not that Mitch is to blame for Rosie’s death because she didn’t call her that weekend. No more than the moral is simply that Linden needs to spend more time with her son. (And what? Let a murder go unsolved?) Rather, these fit into a larger aesthetic of intrinsically flawed people living in a far more intrinsically flawed world than they deserve. Parents and children and spouses constantly let each other down, but consequences do not flow evenly from those mistakes as in some sort of karmic storybook. Mothers forget to call, parents work too much, kids have sex and use drugs, and fathers are never around, but none of it explains why Rosie died or what anybody’s really supposed to do about it.
Part of what makes this open-ended thematic style work is the serialized format, which The Killing uses to great effect in general. Serialization allows, for example, for the show’s very deliberate pacing, which in turn allows the show to spend a lot of time with the Larsens even though they’re tangential to the actual crime-solving, and it’s the Larsens that provide a fair amount of The Killing’s emotional impact. Indeed, the show is as much a study of a family beset by tragedy as it is a police procedural.
The deliberate pacing also allows for The Killing’s pervasive gloomy atmosphere, giving the director and cinematographer time to linger over shots that do little-to-nothing to advance the plot, but nevertheless create a sense of place and mood that provide a darkly immersive experience for the viewer. Even most serialized shows rarely bother with stuff like this, as they tend to be obsessed with moving the overarching plot forward (or at least giving the impression that they’re moving the overarching plot forward). The Killing is, of course, plenty plot driven; each episode has thus far ended with some new, significant piece of information pertaining to the investigation. But instead of wheel-spinning in between plot developments, we get lots of mood-setting. It’s an example more shows should follow.
In addition to the police investigation and the Larsen family drama, there is a third major plotline involving a mayoral campaign. This plotline has received a fair share of criticism, and those criticisms have not been entirely unfair. But it’s significant to note that the show appears to be using it to address the way in which personal tragedies like Rosie’s murder play in the public sphere. The news media, which has thus far been depicted only tangentially, is desperate to connect the murder to the campaign and create a scandal for mass consumption, while the campaigns all jockey to turn the murder to their political advantage. Lost on the vast majority of these people is how their actions affect the family and the investigation; even something as simple as a newspaper headline proves devastating when it shows up on the Larsens stoop. The only exception is Darren Richmond, a mayoral candidate who’s wary of disrupting the investigation or using the murder politically because of a what is at this point vague past tragedy involving his late wife. But even he feels a great deal of pressure to distance himself from the murder and even turn it to his advantage. It’s not entirely clear where this plot is going at this point (which is probably responsible for some of its criticism), but a subtle critique of the public sphere’s handling of death is apparent. Whether the show does anything with this critique remains to be seen, of course.
And that applies to the show more generally. Finding the right balance between employing the standard narrative devices and subverting them isn’t exactly an easy game, and it’s not hard to see how it could all tumble down into a series of clichés. But for now anyway, The Killing has just the right balance.
- The Killing’s good, but it’s not perfect. Its depiction of youth culture seems especially and unnecessarily alarmist to me. And I have some concerns about what the show is doing with Stan Larsen.
- That said, both Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes have been utterly fantastic as the grieving parents.