Avoids large-scale explicit spoilers, but a lot is heavily implied so read at your own peril until you’ve seen the complete series.
And so that’s the end of The Killing – known to true fans by its proper Danish title Forbrydelsen. It burned brief in our hearts – it only arrived in the UK in January 2011 – but it certainly burned bright. But now after just less than two years in our lives the series is finished after a mere three seasons, never to return.
For all its strengths that make it – in my view at least – the best show that’s been on TV during that time, the series has never been perfect. The first season showed signs of rushed writing after its season was unexpectedly doubled in length and as a result is cluttered with a ridiculous number of red herrings and loose threads never satisfactorily tied off at the end. The second season seemed to be more issue-led and lost some of the intensely personal emotional power of the first. And this third season? Rather too much nagging familiarity, too many echoes of the first two.
That’s despite the show working very hard with the central character of Sarah Lund to make sure there is development and new ground for the superb Sofie Gråbøl to get her teeth into. Season three starts with our once-dysfunctional favourite Danish detective showing worrying signs of being mundanely normal: she’s got a home and houseplants; is clearly clockwatching as she seeks a job elsewhere, disinterested in a new case when it lands on her desk; and doing her best to rebuild personal relationships shattered by her previously obsessive compulsive approach to her work.
As a result, Lund is more vulnerable and mistake-prone than we’ve ever seen her. When she’s distracted by seeing her estranged son Mark at a train station, it has fatal consequences (although the likelihood is that the victim would have died anyway no matter what.) She stumbles into a one night stand with an old flame that has ongoing repercussions. And in the end, she allows herself to be deceived and ‘played’ by the perpetrator sending them on a wild goose chase to the spectacular Norwegian fiords. Her missteps make it all too believable that her superiors no longer trust her or respect her opinions, so that on the matters she’s right about – the importance of a two-year-old murder case in Jutland – it’s hard for her to get anyone to believe her and act.
All of these threads entwine to give us the climax in episode 10, and I admit to feeling very conflicted about it. Would Sarah Lund – the heroine we’ve followed through thick and thin for so long – act in the way that she finally does? It felt disappointing, a betrayal, a heavy-handed Hollywood cop show manner of finishing things off just for the sake of shocking effect. I disliked the finish and what it did to and said about the character.
And yet … Another part of me also has to admit that this is exactly what the character would do. And as much as I hate this sort of thing when it’s done by gung-ho US cop shows, here the effect was different and Lund’s actions ultimately painted as almost the only honourable act of anyone in the final episode. While everyone else – even Lund’s own previously trustworthy boss Brix – was acquiescing and going along with a grand cover up to protect the guilty parties in order to further their own ends, Lund was the one who said: “No. I made a promise, I will honour that promise, even though it will cost me everything that I have been working for.” And that is surely very much Sarah Lund’s character in a nutshell throughout the 40 hours of Forbrydelsen.
“Soren Sveistrup wanted her to pay the highest price,” Sofie Gråbøl herself told superfan Emma Kennedy in The Guardian newspaper about the series’ creator/chief writer’s intentions. “For Lund, death isn’t the highest price. Everything she wanted for happiness is within her reach and she has to give it all up in order to do the right thing.”
It’s a terribly conflicted ending – we both abhor and cheer Lund’s actions and that’s uncomfortable for us. But discomfort is what we expect from Nordic Noir, surely? A clean, clear-cut ending (either happy or tragic) simply wouldn’t have worked. And so it’s right that after the credits roll we’re left both outraged and disappointed, and yet also also still supporting Lund and largely satisfied about the authenticity of the outcome.
Elsewhere, the political scenes flirted at times with being new and original with the revelation of the involvement of the son of prime minister Kristian Kamper (Olaf Johannessen) in the surrounding events of the case. In the end, however, the politics ended up seeming forced and artificial, relying too often on the same structure and tropes of the first two series (and even its channel stablemate Borgen) to the point where the ending echoed the sudden assimilation to the dark side of season two’s political lead Thomas Buch (Nicolas Bro). I might be wrong, but I suspect that while Soren Sveistrup is interested in the grand issues covered by the series (here, the social consequences of the financial crash and ensuing austerity policies) he’s not really all that interested in politics on a day-to-day basis and therefore phones in this part of the story more than any other with rather generic machinations and conspiracies.
The third season did try to return to the focus on parental grief that marked out the original Forbrydelsen as such a work of genius, and certainly Anders W Berthelsen put in a masterful performance as shipping magnate Robert Zeuthen who had to change from being wealthy but emotionally cold to distraught and vengeful father willing to sacrifice everything over the course of the story. He wasn’t a match for the first season’s Theis Birk Larsen (Bjarne Henriksen) however, perhaps because Theis was such an ordinary ‘every bloke’ figure that all could identify with, whereas Zeuthen started off as a loathed ‘Master of the Universe’ and only later became sympathetic. The rapprochement with his divorced wife Maja (Helle Fagralid) also seemed forced and unrealistic, and Maja herself never allowed to be more than a one-note distraught mother making her a pale shadow of season one’s sublime Pernille (Ann Eleonora).
Shadows and echoes play a big part in my response to season three. The emotional tension and suspicions that Lund has toward her temporary Special Branch partner Mathias Borch (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) would have worked better if this didn’t feel like heaving too close to the story of Lund’s previous partner in season two, Ulrik Strange (Mikael Birkkjær). What did pleasingly defy convention and expectation is that Lund’s actual new police partner – the wet-behind-the-ears but cocky Asbjørn Juncker (Sigurd Holmen le Dous) – turned out not to be the annoying junior sidekick making all the mistakes after all, but the one person in the show who just focussed and got on with the job in a highly effective manner, and who deservedly ended up being hailed as the de facto hero back in Copenhagen.
So where does season three end up in the pantheon of Forbrydelsen‘s accomplishments? I’d have to say that nothing comes close to season 1, despite the maiden year’s untidy red herrings and loose ends – it’s simply a “heartbreaking work of staggering genius” to coin a phrase. I know season 2 wasn’t as universally admired, but I liked it a great deal and actually appreciated its efforts to do something new and original within the show’s format without going back over ground – which is what series three ended up doing a little too much of the time, at least until the final minutes when everything changed.
And yet for any misgivings or nitpicking, I’ll readily admit that season three had me as enthralled and riveted to the screen as anything I’ve seen in recent years. The visual style was superb, the acting universally top-notch, and the show simply had a way of pacing itself that kept me hooked throughout and then still delivered a cliffhanger that gripped by the throat and left me breathless to find out what happened next week. Every time.
A part of me hopes that Soren Sveistrup and Sofie Gråbøl will be forced to rethink their decision to end Sarah Lund’s story here for good. After all, if Arthur Conan Doyle can raise Sherlock Holmes from the dead because of public demand, surely there’s a way of overcoming a little administrative hiccup in order to put Detective Inspector Sarah Lund back on the case on the mean streets of Copenhagen sometime in the future? We’ll keep our fingers crossed that someone makes it happen.
The Killing 3 is available on DVD and Blu-ray. A boxset of all three seasons is also available.