The Killing and Vigilante Justice

There are two instances of vigilante justice in The Killing‘s first season: Bennett Ahmed is brutally beaten by Stan Larsen and Belko Royce, and Councilman Darren Richmond is shot and critically wounded by Royce. Both victims were suspects in the murder of Rosie Larsen; both have been mistakenly accused, a fact that makes their fates particularly poignant. (I am currently caught up to the third episode of season 2; there are no updates yet on Ahmed’s health while Richmond appears to be paralyzed from the waist down.)

In an earlier post on Dexter I had noted the intuitive hankering for vigilante justice:

[I]ts appeal [lies in] an old weariness with the justice system…:the machinery of law and justice is antiquated and tired; it moves too slowly; it is worn down by procedural detail; it punishes the good and lets off the bad; it cries out for blunt, fast-acting saviors willing to leap the bureaucratic hurdles it puts in the path of those only concerned with letting all of us sleep a little safer at night.

The twist in The Killing is that at the time of the attack on the suspects, they have merely come under suspicion and have not yet been shown to be guilty. They have not entered the legal system and then been spat out as innocent in some miscarriage of justice that would prompt an act of frustration; the legal system has not had the opportunity to determine their guilt. In Bennett’s case, he has not been charged and arrested; in Richmond’s case, he has been arrested but no trial has taken place. These instances of vigilante justice then, are not grounded in a impatience with a legal system gone wrong. Rather, they stem from an anger that must find release, that seeks immediate gratification, that cannot wait for the legal system’s resolution of matters. Stan Larsen is able to resist the temptation for instant gratification once, but his resolution weakens when he is confronted by a grieving Mitch Larsen.

At some level, Stan, always vulnerable to self-doubt about a masculinity that had found expression in his earlier violent self, might be seeking reassurance that he is ‘man enough’ to avenge his daughter’s death, almost certainly caused by another man. (The racial aspect of the attack on Bennett is not explored to any great extent in The Killing but it is certainly present. The show also nods to an Islamophobia evoked by his acquaintance with man named Mohammed, his reading and study of the Koran, and his membership in a mosque.) Belko’s attack on Richmond, significantly, is the act of a man who has literally and figuratively lost the plot; an already unstable character descends into the depth of paranoiac madness, killing his mother, shooting Richmond, and then later, distraught by the turn of events, kills himself. The attack on Richmond appears as unhinged as it is.

As I noted in my last post on The Killing, these toxic developments emerge from a toxic brew: the interaction of anxious, edgy, stressed out cops–Holder desperate to make a name for himself; Linden haunted by a young girl’s death–with a grieving family and a hyper news media hungry for headlines leads to bad decision-making all around.

These instances of the unlawful dispensation of punishment gone terribly wrong illustrate well the problems with vigilante justice:

The central incoherence with vigilante justice is that it cannot be the norm, it cannot be universalized, it cannot co-exist with systems of law. To tolerate it is to ask for little less than a return to the bad old days–not that they have ever gone away–of unbridled revenge and all the social, emotional and moral costs that entailed.


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