Last week, I wrote about Breaking Bad and endings in this post, and today I’m going to look at another show’s season ending, and discuss some writerly things about endings in general, particularly for crime writing.
Spoiler Alert: If you aren’t caught up and don’t know who did it, go get caught up…then come back.
Sunday, June 17th was the big Season 2 finale of AMC’s The Killing. Like with Breaking Bad, I came to The Killing late in the game and just started watching it this year. There are a lot of things I really like about this show, most notably atmosphere.
The Killing does a superb job at creating an atmosphere unique to the show. There are a lot of dark colors and everything is tinged in varying shades of blues and greys, creating the watery, cloudy and cold feeling of October in Seattle. The imagery of the show is shadowy and dark and distinct.
As a person who has lived in Seattle, I sometimes think they take it a bit far because people in the Pacific Northwest do indeed have indoor lighting and heating, but the way they take it just a bit over the top actually works, helps create a look, a vocabulary of scenery all their own.
Another thing that The Killing does really well is the reality of the main characters. Linden and Holder are both incredibly flawed. And they’re both fairly plain-looking compared to most TV leads. They’re attractive but they look and dress in ways that make them seem like real people and more believable as the detectives they each are. I like that Linden is so serious and mostly matter-of-fact, not ridiculously and unbelievably witty like a lot of TV characters. Holder is more on the funny side with his little quips but the way he talks, it just seems real, not ridiculously smooth.
A lot of this goes for other characters too. There’s so much imperfection in the way they respond to and interact with each other that it lends the show a lot of believability. There’s also a slowness, which I think bothers some viewers, but I like it. There’s something natural about it.
Now onto the finale and how it applies to writing.
I was recently reading (can’t remember where or I’d link it up) a reminder that a good ending should feel both surprising and inevitable. It’s a fine line to walk. You want to plant the seeds, the guns in Act I, but you don’t want to make it too obvious. It can be a difficult aspect to be in control of as a writer because you do, at least at a certain point, know what that ending is so it’s hard to get perspective. How can you tell if something is too obvious or too subtle when you don’t have the experience of reading it without knowing the ending? One of the ways is to watch and read others do it and see what does and doesn’t work.
As far as network crime shows go, I’ve watched Medium, Life, Numb3rs (gotta love the physicist and mathematician crime solvers) and Veronica Mars religiously, and CSI here and there, and I love, love, love Bones. So I’ve seen my fair share of hour-long crime solving and I imagine it’s hard to write. You have to make everything fit into basically 42 minutes, include some twists, leave room for B (and sometimes C and beyond) storylines and create an ending that’s neither too subtle nor too obvious. There’s a little bit of a license in that type of show to be a little more obvious because you’re only keeping the audience guessing for such a short while.
Maybe I just watch too much TV (definitely true) but it’s gotten so endings don’t seem surprising anymore. There was one episode of Bones towards the end of last season that I was only half-watching as I was getting ready to leave for the day. Even with limited attention, this one woman that Bones and Booth approach (not as a suspect) makes a comment towards someone else (not about the crime) and you just could tell immediately the woman was the killer. When I got to the end, there was some satisfaction in having guessed it right, it was an inevitable ending, but I also felt a little disappointed by the lack of surprise.
Like I said, this may stem from the fact that I just watch way, way too much TV but I also think it points to the limitations in hour-long crime solving. And for the record, I’m not dissing Bones in any way, it’s up there in my top three shows on network TV. I’m just making the point that telling a murder mystery on an hour-long show is different from telling it in a 26 episode arc.
So a show like The Killing has a great opportunity to tell a much longer story. This murder mystery took place over two seasons, 26 episodes, and an endless amount of delicious twists and turns. It kept you guessing. The forums were full of theories involving every suspect possible, including the main characters and people who were not listed on the online Suspect Tracker. The main suspect changed week to week, with elaborate theories spun around all of them. It was really, really great to be kept in the dark.
And was the ending both inevitable and surprising? In the end, I have to say yes. Let’s take both doers one at a time. It’s great that both were characters on the show from the very beginning and yet the writers were still able to keep you guessing away from them. It would have felt a little cheap if the killer had turned out to be someone who was really peripheral. And personally, I’m glad it wasn’t Alexi cuz I kinda loved him.
At the beginning of the finale, when you’re led to believe that it was just Jamie, I felt kind of let down. Believable? Yes. But inevitable? Not as much. Sure he’s introduced early on as someone who will do anything to help Richmond get elected. And he’s been slimy all along, resorting to all types of douchebaggy tactics to help Richmond’s campaign. You can see that if someone got in his way, he could resort to murder. The surprise in Jamie as a main suspect came two episodes back, when Holder and Linden realized the key card was to Richmond’s office instead of Adams’ and it just built from there to narrow in on Jamie.
But it was Terry as the other killer that really lends the surprise and the inevitability, and adds another dimension to the murder of Rosie Larsen. It would have seemed a little lacking if the political element was the only thing at play. There had to be a personal motivation and Terry had that, not to kill Rosie but to, in her mind, do something to keep Ames. It also lends another level of believability because it was unrealistic that Jamie would have driven a Richmond campaign car into the lake, he’s way too sly and slimy and smart for that.
Terry was surprising because they never question her as a suspect until that last moment when she’s in Rosie’s room. They ask her about Ames earlier on but they never really question Terry. And then it seems so cut and dry about Jamie, with maybe some involvement from Ames, until they see that tail light in the garage.
But Terry was also inevitable. She was my second suspect (the first was actually Mitch, she seemed so off and it was hard to tell if that was just grief or included some guilt). You could get a feeling in season 1, when Linden and Holder almost exclusively referred to the killer as male that it was probably going to end up being a female. And Terry wasn’t the most stable of characters. She had secrets. And there’s that wordless scene between Terry and Ames at Rosie’s funeral, the first hint at the troubled relationship between them that led Terry to set the car going into the lake. I love that it was nestled into the series so early on, in a subtle way. Surprising but inevitable.
There were other great things about the finale that lent it that ending feeling. The Larsen family is moving, and they got closure from Rosie’s video. Richmond moves on and into his new role as mayor. These were some happier moments without being too sentimental, sweet or tidy. Then Holder gets a call about a new case, a nice segue into a potential new season if there is one.
And I hope there is. I know some people don’t–we all have our preferences–but I like Holder and Linden and all their weirdness. I also have some burning questions like what’s up with Linden’s (ex) fiance being her psychiatrist? And we never do find out who put that picture of the trees on Linden’s fridge. Unlike BrBa, I think The Killing could really end here if it doesn’t get a Season 3, for the most part things are wrapped up and there were no major shifts in character dynamics that need to play out, but I’m glad they left an opening for more, and am really hoping for a Season 3.