Can Grief Make Good Television?
The Killing wrestles with mourning like very few series have before. But is its nuanced portrait of loss making viewers impatient?
But how to stay with grief episode after episode? The Killing may have made this task harder for itself by choosing to have each episode correspond to one day of the murder investigation. When six weeks have passed for us and only six days have passed for the family, you may test the patience of even the most sympathetic viewers. Friends of mine (especially those who have not experienced a loss) have told me how impatient they are with Mitch—"Get it together, woman! You have kids!" one yelled at the screen.
Grief also has an inexorable narcissism, and one thing I actually like about the show is that Mitch isn't exactly likable; she is closed off, quick to judge when the detectives make a small slip—qualities that make her seem authentically adrift. Yet it is difficult and even irritating to watch. It's worth remembering that Shakespeare's play about grief, Hamlet, dramatizes a descent into an existential despair that makes Hamlet hard to like at moments; the wealth of Shakespeare's language is what keeps our interest even when Hamlet acts mad, capricious, and cruel.
If television tends to sanitize grief, it does so primarily by peddling the idea that one should (and could) really just shake it off and move on, heading tidily through grief's so-called "stages" (now debunked but often invoked on TV) toward acceptance. The Killing, happily, resisted all of this, at least at first. In recent episodes the show has made something of an about-face for the sake of drama: In the seventh episode, Stan cleans out Rosie's room in a bid to get Mitch to focus on their sons—"It's time to move on," he says, gruffly. He is voicing what friends and family of the bereaved often feel, unable to understand the true intensity of grief, and the viewer, for whom the show started nearly two months earlier, can relate, even if she is still sorry for Mitch. But then the choked-up Mitch replies, "It's been a week, Stan"—joltingly reminding us that the show's time is unfolding more slowly than ours. I doubt any parent has decided it's time to "move on" a week after the death of a child, and with this coaxed-up confrontation the show went from feeling reasonably credible to hokily manipulative.
In recent episodes, The Killing has begun to devolve into a revenge drama. No one can forgive—not Mitch, and not Stan, who this past week brutally beat one of the many suspects who have turned up during the investigation. The Killing had an ingenious premise. After all, as a friend noted, grief is like detective work: The mourner is searching fruitlessly for the lost one. But this twining of themes, so promising, has grown merely melodramatic as the mourning Larsens engage in ever more violent behavior. The Killing could have been just the show to remind us that while a murderer may be arrested, grief rarely is; it's just absorbed and alchemized into a new self. And what endures about loss isn't just sorrow but the complex realization of the materiality of time, and the peculiar privilege of love.
Read Meghan O'Rourke's series of essays on grieving, which became her book The Long Goodbye.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Still from The Killing by James Dittiger/AMC © 2011. All rights reserved.