AMC's The Killing wrestles with mourning like very few series have before.

A study of bereavement.
June 2 2011 7:23 AM

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?

Still from The Killing. Click image to expand.
Brent Sexton plays the grieving father Stan Larsen in The Killing

Television has never known what to do with grief, which resists narrative: the dramas of grief are largely internal—for the bereaved, it is a chaotic, intense, episodic period, but the chaos is by and large subterranean, and easily appears static to the friendly onlooker who has absorbed the fact of loss and moved on. (Iris Murdoch: "The bereaved have no language with which to speak to the unbereaved.") It can seem an unbridgeable gap, at the bottom of which lie shattered heaps of weeping women and tight-lipped men. For these reasons, shows like 24 have elected to portray grief as something to be muscled through or suppressed; when an aide asks if the president might not want to mourn her son longer, the president responds, "There's not a day that goes by… when I don't think about my son. But I'm about to take this nation to war. Grief is a luxury I can't afford right now." In Six Feet Under, Alan Ball neatly dramatized the other problem of looking too long at grief: two brothers are "throwing" dirt on their father's grave—actually, they're jiggling it from a receptacle that looks like a large salt shaker—when one suddenly grabs a fistful and hurls it down, shouting, "I refuse to sanitize this anymore!" When his brother shushes him, the first demands, "Why does it have to be such a secret?" The answer is obvious: Grief makes us uneasy.

And so The Killing, AMC's moody police procedural about the murder of teenager Rosie Larsen, had its work cut out for it when it decided to tie its murder-investigation plot to a closely observed portrait of the grief of Larsen's parents, Stan and Mitch. Grief is not an easy sell to the American public in the best of circumstances. To portray it authentically is to risk alienating viewers. In addition to being an internal experience that's hard to dramatize, grief can make the bereaved seem prickly and standoffish, difficult to sympathize with. After a warm critical reception, The Killing has indeed stumbled lately, with The New Yorker's Nancy Franklin and Salon's Matt Zoller Seitz pointing out the show's many flaws—the way our relationship to main characters like the mayoral candidate and the detectives fails to deepen and the sketchy politics of the recent terrorist bait-and-switch subplot. To judge by the increasingly impatient responses from fellow viewers I've talked with, the Larsens' plight has started to grate as well. Ironically, though, it is probably the show's most original feature. If frustration with the detective story is due to The Killing's all-too-risible plot twists, frustration with the Larsens is tied up with the show's more-nuanced-than-usual portrait of grief.

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The show's dilemma is embodied best in Mitch, the mother of Rosie, whose grief is portrayed (persuasively) as a numbed ennui. In its first episodes, The Killing powerfully evoked the anomie that settles over the bereaved—the miasmic sense one has of walking through water. Mitch, about to take her kids to school, runs into the house to get something, leaving the car on, exhaust filling up the garage. She forgets her boys, leaving them dangerously exposed until her sister comes home and finds them. The show's writers elide any confrontation between the sisters, allowing us to participate by proxy in Mitch's daze. At other moments we see Mitch in bed as her two young sons make breakfast for themselves, heading out to buy milk on their own; or smoking cigarettes and staring out windows, in a bathrobe, hair messy, scenes that verge on cliché but get at early grief's claustrophobic exhaustion—the way it rises and subsides; the confused realization that though the world has been utterly changed, chores remain to be done, for the world insists on continuing, to one's indignation and despair.

Of course The Killing indulges now and then in the usual trite images of sorrow—the family standing stony-faced by the grave, for example—but at other times it has found an original language for conveying how shattered the mourner's sense of self is. Many of the show's best moments have been not verbal but visual: Stan with his two young sons on a hill preparing to fly a kite against a backdrop of denuded, dead trees—it's stark and strangely indelible, a powerful analogue for how grief can feel. For me, the single sharpest moment in the show was when Mitch, exhausted, trying to help herself, draws a hot bath. I sucked my breath in as I realized that being in water was going to remind Mitch of how Rosie died—drowned in the trunk of a car. Indeed it does: She gets in, sinks under the water for an uncomfortably long time, and then emerges gasping for breath. In that one forceful moment we see her understanding that the thing she thought might comfort her is what killed her daughter. It's devastating. So too is a scene when Stan, who has had to be strong for his wife, runs into a rest stop bathroom to weep and slide to the floor in exploding anguish; he is cracking inside while lacking the emotional language—or the cultural permission—to express it as his wife does.

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