The Killing as Western Narrative

As it is based on a Danish television show, it might seem a little odd to claim the new AMC  series The Killing as a western narrative. However, as was the case with the American version of the Swedish film Let the Right One In, Scandinavian thrillers are strangely adaptable to western settings. As the wintry desert landscape of New Mexico of Let Me In echoed the chilling starkness of the   original (and the Los Alamos setting layered in a specific sociopolitical context that contributed to the horror elements of the film), the gray, cloudy, rainy Seattle and Pacific Northwest landscape of The Killing echoes the mood and tone of the original Danish series.

What the series draws from the genre of the western is the willingness to let the landscape become a central part of the narrative.  Following the approach taken by Forbrydelsen (the Danish title of the original), The Killing takes its time unfolding its plot and revealing its characters. Unlike C. S. I. or Bones or most any other recent procedural, which almost always begin with the discovery of a body, the victim’s body in The Killing is not revealed until near the end of the first episode. There are no fast-paced montages of investigative laboratory magic set to rock or hip-hop songs in The Killing. Instead of a focus on the victim’s body, we have the slow revelation of the characters of those affected by the death, from the immediate family of Rosie Larsen to the detectives involved in the case to the growing group of potential suspects.

What we also have is the slow revelation of the northwestern landscape.  An early shot shows police searching a grass field, seen from above, seen from the side, seen from within the field itself. We spend more time on long shots of this location than on any other television show I can remember.  Throughout the first two episodes, time not spent on the fast-paced montages and chases that have become staples of the procedural genre is spent instead on a slow visual investigation of the different elements of the environment, land, water, sea, and especially, rain, mud, and damp. The watery northwest is in some ways the exact opposite of the southwestern desert landscape of the classic western, but it functions in similar ways perhaps, or, at the very least, like the makers of westerns, the creators of The Killing realize that the western landscape is part of the story–as central to the storytelling as the human actors placed within that landscape.

Based on my viewing of just a couple of episodes thus far, I will posit one possible interpretation of this landscape.  Although the visual elements contribute to the mood of the story (and are reflective of the emotions of the characters), nature here isn’t primarily used as an allegory for human psychology or human emotion. Rather, the landscape seems to suggest a universe that is indifferent to human actions. The rain falls no matter what, whether the characters are sad, happy, terrified.  For that matter, the characters seem indifferent as well to the natural world around them. And while this seems a realistic rendering of life in Seattle, no one pays attention to the rain, no more than they pay attention to breathing. However, it also suggests more generally how uninterested the characters are in their surroundings. They are caught up in their own social dramas, and those activities dominant their attention. It’s only the camera that lingers on the landscape.

In one of the remarkable scenes from the early episodes, Stanley and Mitch Larsen have to tell their young sons that their sister is dead. Both Brent Sexton (a veteran of both Justified and Deadwood) and Michelle Forbes are brilliant in this scene as they are elsewhere in the series. They delay and delay telling the boys what has happened. And, because the police have arrived at their home to search for anything related to Rosie, they face a further delay in explaining what happened.  Since they can’t go home, they pick up the young son’s request to fly his kite and take the boys to a rocky beach. While Mitch and the older son sit on a large piece of driftwood, we see Stanley and the younger son flying the kite with the Sound as a backdrop.

This is a terribly painful scene to watch, especially Stanley’s attempts to join in with his son in play. The older son already knows something is wrong and sits in rigid silence with his mother on the driftwood log. In some ways, the setting itself seems to speak the truth that the Larsens can’t quite bring themselves to voice. And when Stanley haltingly tries to explain what has happened through a series of circumlocutions (“Remember grandma?” “Remember where I told you she went?”  “Well, Rosie is in heaven”), the insistent sound of seagulls in the background, the sound of the wind, the sight of the Sound and of the slowly decaying piece of driftwood, all underscore the lie of the “pretty little story” (to quote Deadwood for a moment) that Stanley spins. The story of grandmothers and heavens seems all the more false in contrast to the  concrete reality of the world we see around the characters. The older son immediately punctures that story: “That means she’s dead,” he cries out, his voice echoed by the cries of the seagulls—disturbed, not by the news of the deaths, but by the sudden noise (and movement as the boy tries to run away briefly down the beach).

I will try to post more about The Killing as the series continues and as I get caught up on the episodes.

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