If Wikipedia’s entry for “police procedural” is any indicator, AMC’s The Killing is not commonly thought of as one. But despite being a traditional whodunit, it has many of the features of that genre; it depicts “a number of police-related topics such as forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation.” And like the modern classic in this domain, The Wire, The Killing also pays close attention to its political, cultural, and media contexts, thus demonstrating that crimes do not take place in isolation but spring from, and are nurtured by, a prepared ground. (The Wire did not care too much about its depiction of Baltimore’s weather; The Killing is obsessed with cloaking itself in the Pacific Northwest’s moisture and incorporates as many grey, cloud and rain-soaked scenes as it can.)
These features often make the show compelling despite some of its admittedly strange story-telling choices in the first season. I first heard of the show in a New York Times profile of its creator and writer Veena Sud, which alluded to the overwhelmingly negative reaction to that season’s resolution; at this stage in the show–I am only caught up till the eleventh episode–I have some idea of why fans were so disappointed. (Spoilers ahead.)
To wit, the Linden–Holder investigation of the Rosie Larsen killing goes wrong; it has been distracted by a red herring of sorts, resulting in the unfortunate villification and violent assault of Bennett Ahmed, Rosie Larsen’s schoolteacher. While such a plot development may be seen as a gigantic tease by some, it seems to me that in the police procedural context, it makes eminent sense. After all, police work often goes wrong: seemingly conclusive evidence turns out to have been merely circumstantial; personal prejudices interfere with the dispassionate evaluation of witnesses and suspects. These can result in gross miscarriages of justice, disrupting and ruining the lives of innocents. We are used to seeing diligent, enthusiastic detectives thwarted in their bold pursuit of criminals by bureaucratic procedures and legal restraints; The Killing‘s first season reminds us that those constraints are there for a reason. These motivations were less visible in The Wire, which often made it seem like legal restraints on law enforcement only worked to the advantage of the drug trade and corrupt politicians. (Of course, Ahmed is not hurt by a warrantless search; he is hurt because details of the investigation are not kept secret but the broader point, that even suspicion can hurt the innocent, still stands.)
The red herring of the first season is also of especial modern relevance: much law enforcement work now relies on data collection and analysis in the formulation of its investigative hypotheses and profiles. While no such techniques are on display in The Killing, its protagonists are led astray by their uncritical reliance on stereotypes, on the not-fully-understood and only partially perceived behavior of suspects. These kinds of missteps have yet to be eliminated in today’s law-enforcing data mining systems.
The Killing does not provide the satisfaction of a resolved mystery, but it does, even if hamfistedly, serve up a useful cautionary tale of how law enforcement can go wrong.
2 thoughts on “The Killing as Cautionary Police Procedural”
I also love how the viewer is taken down the wrong path right along with the detectives. When the evidence started pointing to the teacher, I was of course suspicious of a red herring. After all, he started becoming a suspect within only 3 or 4 episodes, and the writers obviously weren’t going to solve the mystery central to a three season series that fast. And what’s more, was the show really going to cavalierly have a black man with a Muslim last name be the killer in this day and age? But as the story progressed, I started to feel like if this was a red herring, the show had dug itself too deep. How were they going to explain away all the evidence pointing to Bennet?
Well, they did, and I think they actually did it quite well. When I later reflected on what made me so sure that this guy was a total creep, namely, (1) marrying an ex-student (even though she was only a few years younger than him at the time and they got together after she graduated), (2) the similarities between the letters he used to write to his wife and the letters he wrote to Rosie (even though there was nothing bad in those letters except basically “you are smart” and “follow your dreams”), and (3) his conversation with his friend Muhammad on the phone where Bennet says, “the police don’t know anything,” (which ultimately only showed that people can have secrets but still be innocent), I realized that each piece of evidence only seemed to point to Bennet because that is what our heroines, Linden and Holder, wanted.