The Killing 2/Forbrydelsen II – E1+2

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As far as I’m concerned, the original series of The Killing shown earlier this year was quite simply the best thing on TV in 2011. So when the time for the new series approached, I was obviously excited – but also somewhat nervous. What would they do with a sequel? It’s the equivalent of music’s “difficult second album” problem that’s sunk many a band: do you do the same thing all over again and risk being labelled a pale imitation; or do you try something new and different, and risk losing the unique ‘lightning in a bottle’ that succeeded the first time around? Such is the big question facing the makers of The Killing 2, and it’s clear from the outset that they’re daring to be different. This will be no mere retread, and that’s good news – mostly.

In any case, too much has changed for them to be able to “do more of the same” even if they’d tried. Where the original series was visually like a dull, drab everyday documentary of a routine police investigation, the second series has the confidence and indeed the swagger of knowing that it has won international acclaim. This is signalled early on by the stakes being played for: where series 1 was arguably just the small story of a local schoolgirl’s murder and some petty squabbling in a local election of marginal importance, here we’re presented with a high-profile killing with international terrorism implications that immediately drags in the Prime Minister, the Justice Minister, the Army and Special Branch (which on this showing is Denmark’s equivalent to the FBI in terms of getting under the feet of the local police). High stakes indeed – we’re almost in 24 territory from the get-go.

A matching upshift in production values is also clear: instead of the cold, grey cityscapes of old, we have Copenhagen glistening in sunshine under blue skies; the police and political offices are now large modern open plan spaces; the initial crime takes place at a famous national memorial park; the main character’s pale and wan iconic sweater is now replaced by a rich red one to suit the more vibrant palette being used. Even once the action switches to The Killing’s natural habitat – rain-soaked night time – the quality of the filming is different and superior, with darker blacks and sparkling highlights more akin to the sort of thing we expect from a David Fincher Hollywood production. Certain scenes set in a sewer late in episode 2 seem to evoke movies such as The Shawshank Redemption or even The Third Man; and there’s one shot looking up at a group of guards through a manhole as they peer down at us, waving their torches around for no realistic practical reason other than that the questing, probing beams of light look really cool in the frame composition. The Killing is now sleek and stylish cinema noir of the highest order.

The new sense of superior quality and professionalism extends to the writing as well. There was something charmingly ad hoc and improvised about the writing of series 1, as if the writers were finding out about this world at almost the same time as the characters and we the audience were. Such an approach might have had its drawbacks – the number of red herrings got out of hand as they scrambled to extend to 20 episodes, and too many loose ends were left dangling at the end – but it also meant that there were scenes and characters featured in the series for no reason other than this was their universe and they lived in it. They were there because they were people, not because the plot required them to be. This gave us the Birk Larsens, and series 2 has nothing to compare with Theis and Pernille – and I miss them greatly – whereas the politicians have almost direct counterparts with just cosmetic changes (the razor sharp Troels from series 1 is replaced by the rotund and shambling Thomas Buch, less of a heartthrob than someone people will want to mother as it seems clear he’s being set up as a patsy to take the fall later on down the line.)

There’s no equivalent of Theis and Pernille in series 2 (so far at least) because there no family at all shown for the two victims: what we have are suspects and players in some mystery, but as a result the emotional heart of series 1 is missing so far. There’s a strong sense that everyone we’re introduced to in episodes 1 and 2 (BBC4 is once again showing the series in weekly double doses) is there for a very specific reason. The writers have a solid sense of what’s happening and where this is going; everyone who is in it has a part to play in how this will unfold, just like in conventional UK and US crime dramas. As a result, I have a worrying feeling that I already know exactly what the core mystery is, although I hope I’m wrong.

It’s surely churlish and rather absurd to complain that a series is simply too good, too stylish, too well shot and just too much better written than its precursor. So let’s instead turn to the one thing we can all agree on – the character of Sarah Lund, as played by Sofie Gråbøl. In the first series, the character of Lund (initially at least) was simply the first among equals in an impressive ensemble cast: but now, as the only (main) character to return in series 2, our relationship with her and the series as a whole has changed. This time she’s our single point of identification and our overwhelming initial interest, meaning that the show is about Lund as much and indeed more than it is about the titular killing/crime.

We’re far more interested in watching her personal journey: from working in disgrace and utter isolation as a border security guard (we see her first from a long, high crane shot that makes her look very, very small next to a huge truck) back to Copenhagen where she is initially shockingly uncertain, unsure and timid; but then once back in her one true natural habitat – the murder scene – her confidence grows by the second and you can see the blood fair flow back into the character’s bones by the second, such is Gråbøl’s superb performance.

But it does mean that the moments when the second series comes truly alive are those that best recall and evoke the first series – the three-note theme as Lund stares off into middle distance making a realisation, or where she cuts her new colleague dead because he’s getting in the way of her work. We’re entirely engrossed in Lund’s renaissance and by Gråbøl’s compelling acting; by contrast, the surrounding events of the crime shown here are simply not as interesting or absorbing as the tragic tale of the Birk Larsens was right from the very first scene, despite the implied raised stakes here.

If all this sounds negative, then it shouldn’t do: if there wasn’t the original series of Forbrydelsen to look back on, then this series would still be comfortably in the top five shows of 2011 in its own right. And in many ways it really is a better, a more classy and accomplished series than its predecessor. It is certainly more than worthy of carrying the series forward. My comments here are not intended as criticisms or judgements, they’re merely observations: in particular, much depends on how the rest of the ten-part series plays out and where it takes us. It’s very early days yet, and now that series 2 has made its return and put the new characters and basic scenarios in place, it may all have a chance to breath and rediscover some of that charming ad hoc improvisation to blind side us with another dose of brilliance that we didn’t see coming, just as series 1 did on so many occasions.

The Killing 2 is being shown on BBC4 on Saturdays at 9pm, with repeats on Wednesdays at around 10.30pm. It will be released on DVD on December 12.

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