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'The Killing' recap: What a coincidence

May 23, 2011 |  8:00 am

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All stories rely on coincidence. For a story to begin, you have to accept that a certain number of characters will just happen to meet each other or that a certain series of events will happen, even though it might not otherwise. A few extra moments here or there and two people don’t meet and we don’t have a story. There’s a certain amount of coincidence those hearing a story will accept just because we know it’s inherent to the act of telling a story.

But there’s also a point where the weight of coincidence becomes too much. Theoretically, I like the idea of Stan finally snapping and seemingly beating Bennet to death, even as everyone else around him abruptly realizes that the seemingly guilty teacher is actually completely innocent. But the way “The Killing” led us to this plot point felt incredibly cheap. Let’s count up the coincidences, shall we?

1.) Bennet’s friend, Mohamed, is the subject of a terrorist investigation. In and of itself, this might have been OK, despite the fact that the show’s not really equipped to handle a hard-core terrorism subplot. But the fact that this briefly distracted our heroes and subtly pushed them toward the wiretap that led to Bennet’s near-arrest feels more and more ridiculous when combined with the coincidences in this episode. And the terrorism angle was never really built on or developed. It’s simply there as another red herring.

2.) Bennet’s relationship with Rosie seemed inappropriate, but mostly because of letters he wrote her and the fact thathe married a former student. Even Bennet’s wife seems suspicious of him now, as she turns over Mohamed’s number to the police (thanks to the oh-so-lucky moment where she just happens to hear the one piece of the conversation the two have in English), but have we completely forgotten about the possibility that Bennet and Rosie were having an affair? We never got confirmation on this one way or the other, and it was the whole reason the investigation first swung in Bennet’s direction.

3.) Bennet and Mohamed are carrying out an illegal activity that is just similar enough to what they might have done to hide a murder that it seems they must be guilty. This is the part that really sticks in the craw. The reason Bennet and Mohamed are so secretive? It’s not because they’re awful people and killed a girl. It’s because they’re great people and want to save a girl from genital mutilation and marriage at the age of 12. Those passports they needed? They were to get the girl to Canada. Yay! Three cheers for Bennet and Mohamed! Their attempts to save this girl, though, made it seem as if they were both terrorists and murder suspects, which led to Bennet being taken by Stan and dragged into the wilderness. Obviously, Bennet was going to be innocent (we’re still not to the finale), but the show’s sudden swerve into so abruptly exonerating him is laughable, especially when combined with ...

4.) That pink shirt from the freezer bedroom? Didn’t belong to Rosie, but since she had one that was similar, it seemed like it did. Here’s another really terrible decision. As Stan is driving Bennet to what seems to be his execution, Mitch discovers the shirt she told Linden was missing last week in with some laundry. Really? This is something that’s supposed to pass for realistic plot development? We could break this particular plot point down into a whole series of ridiculous contrivances on its own (Rosie and the 12-year-old Somali girl just happened to have the same shirt? And the shirt just happened to go missing? The mind boggles), but let’s not belabor this point.

Taken separately, any one of these coincidences could have been bearable. The story probably even could have worked with two of them. But with all four, the story line becomes so contrived, so obviously weighted to get the cops looking one way before jerking the rug out from under them, that the weight of all of that contrivance becomes too much for the show to bear.

There’s stuff in “Undertow” that kind of sort of works, like that final scene of Stan savagely beating Bennet as his wife tries to get ahold of him. There’s stuff around the edges that’s just weird enough to be interesting, too, like Belko dancing around in excitement as Stan beats Bennet, then taking out his excitement on a conveniently adjacent rock. (I can see where some would find this ridiculous, but it was just weird enough to work for me.)

And there are always nice little touches here and there that make the show still worth watching, like Linden getting a piece of information from an unlikely source, then forcing herself to not bolt to continue her examination and take a moment to thank the source for that information. Heck, I even really liked the abrupt cut to black when Richmond was tossing up the shot that would determine if his campaign lived or died and the subtle way the show let us know he’d succeeded in making the shot.

But the balance of good to bad and good to stupid has been shifting too far in favor of the less palatable choices in recent weeks. I still like the actors, and I still like the idea of the show, but there’s no real sense that anyone on this series has any idea how to develop characters or stretch out a plot over the course of a season. Bennet was a red herring, sure, but in the course of examining that red herring, we could have learned so much about the characters, about the need for a “bad guy” to help the grieving process, about how the police tend to latch on to a suspect and ignore everything but that suspect.

Instead, we get ridiculous, pseudo-profound moments like Bennet walking into his classroom and having the word “KILLER” scrawled in giant red letters on the board, something he somehow doesn’t even notice. I’d like to say that this is the sort of thing the show can come back from, since it will be interesting to see what happens after Stan’s beating of Bennet and with the investigation back at square one, but I’m starting to fear “The Killing” has burned me too many times to ever win me back.

Photo: Holder (Joel Kinnaman) works to track down a suspect. Credit: AMC

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--Todd VanDerWerff

follow me on Twitter at @tvoti

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