The Amazing And Unexpected Comeback Of “The Killing”
If you follow pop culture and root for interesting things to happen, The Killing’s comeback has been a fascinating shock. Two years ago, after a first-season finale twist that infuriated a significant portion of the AMC show’s fan base, The Killing — and its executive producer Veena Sud — underwent the social media equivalent of a stoning. The drama’s lack of resolution for its “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” mystery became a punch line; in real terms, vocal audience frustration showed the actual effects dissatisfaction can have on a show’s viewership. When The Killing returned for Season 2, goodwill for the show had disappeared, and its ratings dropped. The show was canceled a year ago amid a chorus of schadenfreude.
And then, in January, AMC un-canceled it in a complex deal with Fox Television Studios (which produces the show) and Netflix (which will get early streaming rights to this season), with Sud continuing at its helm. The Killing’s two leads — Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden and Joel Kinnaman as Stephen Holder — signed up again, Peter Sarsgaard came on for a season-long arc, and the show jettisoned the idea of following the plotlines of its source material, the Danish hit Forbrydelsen.
What the hell? The Killing was meant to stay dead: The internet said so. Even more bewildering: Its third season has been terrific (and the ratings have been on par with Season 2). Pursuing a serial killer of street kids — with a parallel mystery of Sarsgaard’s death-row character, Ray Seward, in the background — The Killing is better than it ever was. Enos and Kinnaman are as wonderful as always, holding each other up as the horrifying spectacles of dead children and vile pathology display themselves before them. A strong cast of both suspects and victims have surrounded the two detectives — a young actress named Bex Taylor-Klaus as a sensitive, smart homeless kid nearly stole the show. And the mystery has unfolded in subtle ways and hasn’t wasted the audience’s time (a criticism of the previous seasons). The two-hour finale is next Sunday.
But before that, we had this Sunday’s remarkable, devastating episode, “Six Minutes.” Spoilers begin here.
Ray, despite Linden’s best efforts, was hanged. Though there are other players in the episode who added to its greatness, it was really all about Enos and Sarsgaard: They yelled, they cried, they helped each other face what was going to happen. If you weren’t moved when Ray saw Linden and his son outside the prison window as he dead-man-walked his way to the gallows — a sight that calmed him and gave him the strength to continue — get help now. And then there were Ray’s last words: “Salisbury steak’s not steak; it’s ground beef. Now, let’s get this show on the road, Warden.”
So good. So, so, so good. Sud wrote “Six Minutes.” Last week, she and Sarsgaard talked about “Six Minutes,” this season of The Killing, and redemption.
Let’s start with breaking down this episode, which you wrote, Veena. How did you decide that the Ray storyline would come to an end this way?
Veena Sud: We debated a little bit what should be the end of Ray’s story, and very quickly realized: Let’s tell the truth. And let the audience have their heart broken in the way the families of these prisoners have their hearts broken. It’s a great credit to Peter that over time we get to really understand that this man — and everybody — has humanity. Everybody has a reason for what they do, good and bad. It doesn’t always end well.
Was there any scenario where the attorney general was going to swoop in to save Ray? As you said, it would be completely unrealistic.
VS: Again, a little bit of a debate. Should we let this character that we’ve grown to care about really die? Are we really going to do this? Are we going to let our hero fail? It’s scary to jump off that cliff. But we said let’s just do it.
Tell me about setting the whole episode in the prison.
VS: We wanted the world to feel claustrophobic. In the same way the street kids live in an expansive world that has no boundaries, this world has so many tight boundaries. When you walk into a prison — Peter and I talked about it — the smell, the noise. We took the noise away from this prison for artistic purposes. But it’s a world. It’s its own ecosystem. And we wanted to be forced to live in that ecosystem in the way prisoners do.
And Peter, when did you know this episode was coming your way that was going to be so much about you and the Ray character?
Peter Sarsgaard: I had lots of anxiety. It’s interesting playing Ray, because I so in my heart believe that I’m guilty — because I am guilty on some level — that it wasn’t like I was filled with self-righteous indignation. He’s not the right guy to be defending himself. He’s filled with a lot of self-loathing. In terms of acting it, I was really excited to act with Mireille. She was the first person to have told me that Episode 10 would be a lot of the two of us. She came running up to me and said, “Episode 10! It’s going to be so great!” I was really excited about that. One of the reasons that I signed up to do this was her. I’m such a huge fan of her acting. She has such a fantastic quality that you just don’t see in a lot of other actors. My wife had actually done a reading with her a couple of years ago of this play about Marie Curie that Mike Nichols directed at Lincoln Center. And that was the first time I ever saw her. I thought she was so cool and interesting in the reading.
There are moments that are highlights to me — all of the back-and-forth between Linden and Ray; Ray seeing Adrian; and Adrian seeing Ray. But I can imagine Ray’s final words will stick in people’s minds.
PS: I did not expect that. When I got to that part, I actually went into the other room where my wife was and said, “Look how cool the last thing I say is.” I was sort of expecting something more conventional. I was a little bit dreading it, because there’s this site online that has last speeches. Some people say horrible things; some people say very little; some people say something kind of incoherent. I thought, What are they going to do with me? I thought it reconnected me with Mireille in such a beautiful Ray way. It’s very easy with all this emotionality to become sort of dehumanized in a way. You get drowned out by the weight of emotion. I thought, Great, I’m going to still be there. Ray will be there; he’ll cut through all of this despair and you’ll see the guy.
And at that point, they’ve forged such a bond. She can actually laugh. Veena, what made you arrive at those last words?
VS: I think we went on the same website. Because I was at a loss.
PS: That website’s amazing!
VS: Incredible. They have pictures of inmates with their last words. Some incoherent, some cruel, some “I’m sorry,” some “I’ve found god,” some “I love you, mom and dad.” And I was at a loss. What would Ray say? What would he say? And I found one inmate complaining about McDonald’s. Like, that’s what his last words were: “They didn’t give me the burger I wanted, and I asked for cheese, and they didn’t give it to me, so fuck you all.” I was, like, I love it! That trivial thing says so much about the character of this man who died. But everything that Peter said: In that last moment, he can still connect to who he is. And connect to this woman that he’s known for a day in an intimate way. And it’s true, it’s not fucking steak.
So you started planting the last-meal stuff earlier?
Because it’s not on the nose — he doesn’t talk about it that much that the line isn’t a total surprise.
PS: It’s not on the nose. The thing that I love about the way Veena puts this together is I find references all the time to things that maybe happened two episodes ago — a train of thought. It’s such a beautiful attention to detail that I wonder if anyone consciously will know about it. But I do think subconsciously, unconsciously, people pick up on these things and it starts to feel like a real, lived-in world that has connections with itself. An inner continuity. Which I really appreciate.
I also loved the way Holder and Linden deal with the failed kiss.
VS: We knew this kiss would happen, and it would happen out of sadness. It wouldn’t happen for any other reason. That need to reach out to someone when you’re in pain — because he couldn’t do it with anyone else: with his girlfriend. Joel and Mireille, they were great about it. I trust them so much; they know their characters, and they just hit it spot-on.
The way he gets her to laugh about it in this episode is so funny and unexpected. “Six Minutes” was directed by Nicole Kassell, who has directed a bunch of Killing episodes, a lot of TV, and the 2004 movie, The Woodsman, which is a movie I love.
VS: She does the special episodes. Somehow that’s just come to be.
What did she bring to it?
PS: I felt very open with her. It was really nice for me, because this is what I respond to, to have a female energy for that episode. Because I was acting with a female so much of the time, and it was going to bring out things out in Ray that acting with a male director would have been more difficult. That’s just who I am, and I’ve always been more expressive with women. She had great patience with me. I wasn’t always able to contain my feelings in this. It wasn’t a matter of expressing them; I felt a lot. I told her this right before we started the episode — I said, “I’ve had so many feelings in this show already, that I’m really interested in not having many feelings in this episode. I really want to be in denial about what’s happening.” And, of course, that’s not what happened!
PS: But, like, I was really adamant about that. I was, like, I’m not going to weep in this episode. I’m going to contain it. And the audience is going to fucking feel it. I had a lot of ideas — maybe from acting school, even — about what would be dramatically perfect to express. She really encouraged me. She nodded when I was saying all that. I had a special — you don’t even know this, Veena — I met with her before this episode. I was, like, “I’m going to tell you all the things I’m not going to do in this episode.” She just kept nodding. I would do a scene, and it would be really emotional, and I would go, “OK, that’s the one that’s emotional.” And then I’d go and do another one, and it would be emotional, and I’d be, like, fuck. I would actually stop in the middle of some of scenes. You guys have a lot footage of me sitting there not acting. Or I’m acting, I’m just sitting there feeling sorry for myself. It was hard for me to disassociate as much as I wanted to, you know?
Ray does start the season with a completely different posture — you think he’s terrifying. And then he completely falls apart. You see people on death row in pop culture a fair amount. But you never see someone be a complete nervous wreck even though they have a scythe hanging over their heads. I guess in Dead Man Walking at the very end, Sean Penn does.
PS: It’s interesting you mention him, because my first role I ever did was in Dead Man Walking. I played the victim. I watched him every single day on that movie. I remember him being really concerned with really superficial things: like hair. He’s playing a vain man in a lot of ways, a guy who didn’t want to let go of his coolness. I had to eventually play Ray, because part of me always wanted to be like that. Hate me! I don’t care that I’m dying. But I’m a different person. I’m not as tough as Sean.
Ray’s obviously a career criminal from generations of career criminals. Is it a fatalism that led him to say he doesn’t want any appeals, and he wants to die in the most barbaric way possible?
PS: It’s a mixture of things for me. Part of it is that I feel like I’m guilty down at the very core. I’m deeply responsible and guilty: I walked away. It’s also my relationship to society and the world: It’s me versus all of them. I don’t have a confidantes. There’s no one to touch base with in the rest of the world, so I’m not really interested in being in it anymore. I was mostly in those moments going, “I’m going to die like this, you asshole. I’m going to die in a way that’s going to make you throw up. I want to make the world feel something about me. And the only way they’re going to feel something about me is if it’s a disaster. Because if I just die quietly, everyone gets to have a good time. I’m going to die horrifically.”
And Becker, the villainous prison guard, can’t deal with it.
VS: We were really interested in Becker being a man who has a code. In the same way that Ray has a code of violence that keeps him protected, Becker has this morality that says, when you do good things, you have a good life. And these people on the other side of the bars deserve to be there. There is a line between who they are and who I am. What he learns in the course of the season is he’s brought into his home a morality that has turned his son into these people that he’s always trying to disassociate from. Here’s a man who believes strongly that his life was on the side of right. And he has to open up his eyes one day and see this disaster on his front lawn of his son’s violence. And the realization that bringing his son to the gallows, doing all this stuff in front of his son in an attempt to be a man, a strong man, has actually done the opposite. Standing in the hallway with Ray, this animal, who deserves no grace, and seeing him get that grace, is what breaks him. In that moment when he’s looking at Ray on the scaffolding, he sees him, for the first time, as a human being. And it makes that act something he can’t do.
What was it like to physically stand on those gallows, Peter?
PS: It required no use of my imagination. The thing I was standing over would have killed me if we had chosen to make it work. It all was functioning. So we had to be careful. So when I’d stand over the hole that opened, we would put a piece of plywood over the entire thing just to make sure. It was very easy to forget that you were standing on a piece of plywood. I would go, “I’m on a dangerous set where no one’s concerned with my safety, and this is going to kill me.” That was all I had to do. A lot of this episode was like that. A lot of it felt so real. Like I said, I never had to push a feeling, I never had to reach for a thought. It all felt incredibly immediate to me. And most of the time, I was just recovering in between takes to do another one. What every actor tries to avoid is pushing it, right? It was just coming to me — so violently and massively. What I used to think good acting was when I first started acting was, “If I couldn’t remember a portion of what I did, obviously it must have been fantastic.” But in life, we can all remember what we just did. So why is being in some hysterical state great acting? Well, these given circumstances put me in a state where we did one take where I hyperventilated to the point where I blacked out for a second. It became very extreme like that.
In terms of casting Peter as Ray, the lifelong criminal, the erudite Peter Sarsgaard isn’t the immediate actor who springs to mind. How did you think of Peter?
VS: Huge fan of Peter’s work. The first time I saw Peter was in Boys Don’t Cry. What I loved so much about the character he played, and what I wanted from Ray, was this man who was the extreme of both things. In the final scene of Boys Don’t Cry — which I’ve actually studied and think is as close to perfection as anything I’ve ever seen — Peter is deeply violent, deeply rageful, and then boom, the next second, goes to such grief. It’s powerful. It tore me apart. I can’t watch that scene now and not be completely torn apart. It’s easy to imagine violence, that someone goes in and just stabs someone, or shoots a gun. And it happens, I’m sure. But it’s more powerful when the person is engaged. I was thinking about that with Ray Seward. That within this man, this remote exterior, there’s all of this stuff bouncing back and forth. And I really felt that grow and grow and grow over the season until it was not containable.
PS: I remember even in the scene when I hurt the priest, which was so much more violent than I thought it would be, just because, you know, you get blood thrown at you. I remember when we did the take, and I got this volume of blood thrown at me, and it made me feel alive and giddy. A totally weird feeling. You don’t really plan these things. But you see these scenes and you think, he isn’t the kind of guy we want walking around. He’s got a little taste for something that isn’t going to work if he’s hanging around at this table.
Check, please! Did you know from the beginning, Peter, that Ray hadn’t killed his wife?
Was that something you shared, Veena, during the casting process?
VS: We had that great Skype conversation initially about the character. And then when you came to Vancouver, we continued our discussions. Another thing we talked about a lot that Peter brought is that you can imagine a person having complexity, and then you meet the real person, who is incredibly intelligent, incredibly articulate. And how much more interesting for a lifelong con to be that person? Many lifelong cons are. They’ve just been dealt a really bad hand, or some trauma happened to them that they did not have the resources to deal with.
Veena, the structure of the season is very different from the previous two in that there are suspects floating out there, but we’re not going down long paths with them. With the Ray character, there’s a question the whole time of whether he did it, including in this episode: Linden becomes convinced, briefly, that he’s fooled her the whole time. How did you come to this form of telling the story?
VS: This season was modeled a little bit on the Green River investigation, the Green River Killer. That investigation, because of the number of victims and the number of people working on the case, had so many suspects. In a homicide like Rosie Larsen, you’ve got two cops working the case, and they’ll go from suspect to suspect. In a case where you’ve got 20 to 30 detectives working, it’s like a racehorse: One goes in front, then falls back. We thought that was really interesting about Green River. In terms of Ray, we wanted the story to touch on the murders eventually, but be independent enough that it could be its own world. And have Sarah invested in it. Here’s this investigation barreling forward, and she keeps saying, “Look over here! What about this?” There’s ambition and there’s politics and there are all these bodies that eventually matter because there are so many of them. And it’s in the press’s eye. But this man doesn’t matter. To anybody. Except to her.
How did you and AMC and whoever else was involved arrive at the idea of having the same characters as Forbrydelsen but ditching the plot of the Danish series?
VS: I’ve always wanted to do the street-kid world. Because I’ve always been in love with Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs. And Seattle has such a big street-kid population, and the story hasn’t been told. And I was always really interested in doing death row. So there were two worlds that I wanted to explore. The Danish series did the military. And they did prison, but it wasn’t death row. And they did this whole international conspiracy — that felt too big, that felt too Spy vs. Spy for my taste. Or at least what I’m capable of writing. I like quiet, small stories set in these smaller worlds that represent other things.
It must have felt very freeing.
VS: Totally. It was nice. It was really nice.
Obviously, you have a procedural past from your years on Cold Case. And you then ran two seasons of The Killing, which wasn’t your own creation. In terms of being able to start from scratch with this arc, what had you learned about writing a mystery?
VS: This was such a different animal from the first two seasons. The first two seasons was one murder. This is multiple murders, and just a different type of storytelling. What I’ve had the chance to do with my writers this season and all the artisans and artists who work on the show is tell stories that are about specifics. That, to me, is the pleasure of being a storyteller. We get to go on the internet, we get to look at the real world, we get to cherry-pick all these things that are from reality. And then bring it in, make it ours, talk about it, and then just put it out there in the world and hope it means something.
The Ray story is physically and in every way cut off from the main cast and main story. It all comes together in this episode. But it strikes me as brave structurally, because it could have felt to the audience like these two things never come together. Peter, what was that like for you, to be so separate?
PS: I mean, I wish I could I could have acted with Joel.
VS: He wanted to act with you too.
PS: I really like his acting. I really like him. I love his character that he plays in this — I find his character so charming. I wanted to act with them more! I was calling them. They just wouldn’t come! One of the things that was great about doing this show for me is I couldn’t have done a film at this time. My kid is in first grade and it was just really important to me that I be there with her during first grade. And the way that this was set up because my role was in jail and didn’t have many daylight or nighttime exterior scenes, we could put it together so I could do it, and then I could go back to New York. I got into a rhythm of going and doing the show. My priority at this point in my children’s lives because they’re so young. So what you’re talking about is probably why I could do it. I was frequently pretty tired.
Have you been watching the show along with all of us?
PS: I have. But I’m only up to Episode 7 because my wife started doing this other thing, and we’ve been watching them together.
As you say, you weren’t around for the other stuff that the cast was doing.
PS: We would do the cast read-throughs, and I would read the whole script. And I would listen to what they were doing. But it was always a distant, echo-y voice from some other world and then I’d perk up for what I was doing. Ha!
The most honest statement an actor has ever made! I have to ask, Veena, about Bex Taylor-Klaus, who played Bullet. What a find.
VS: Junie Lowry-Johnson and Libby Goldstein are our casting directors, and they’ve been doing the show since the beginning. Geniuses. I said, “This is the girl I’m looking for, and she’s going to be really hard to find. But we’ve got to find her — she’s out there somewhere.” We looked at so many girls. Finally, Junie and Libby said, “Look at this girl.” So I watched her on tape. She was really amazing. But I said, “I need to see her in person.” She even dressed up, she put this necklace on. I was, like, “This is Bullet, this is Bullet.” This is her first job. She’s from Atlanta, she’s been in L.A. six months. She’s still in high school, she’s finishing up.
And you killed Bullet! Very cruel. Was that a foregone conclusion?
VS: That was another debate. We talked it out. You kill your babies when you write. That’s sometimes the bar — you have to make sure you’re not becoming too precious with things. Bullet was a tough one. What she means on the show, but also the great affection I have for her. She’s such a unique girl that we don’t get to see. In the back of my mind, I was, like, “If we get a Season 4, she can come back! She can be the street kid on the side!” But that wouldn’t service the story. This is a story about street kids. And they die.
Speaking of child actors who are really good, Rowan Longworth played Ray’s son Adrian. What was it like, Peter, when you realized Ray wasn’t going to see him?
PS: Honestly, it was somewhat of a relief. I’ve had mixed feelings as Ray about seeing my child. I assumed that I would the entire time. I was like, “There’s going to be a scene with my kid one day. How the hell am I going to do that? And what’s that going to be like?” I just thought it was much more honest about what would really happen, the way we did that. I was relieved artistically as well. I think it seemed right to me. What would that scene be? What would it be? What would you say? There’s nothing to say.
I feel like this season has been excellent. You took a lot of flack after Season 1, Veena, and a lot of it was personal. What’s it been like to experience this positive reception among both critics and fans?
VS: It’s wonderful. I mean, it really is. To be able to come back and tell this story has been such a blessing. You know? This whole season has been such a wonderful experience.
People were mean. Is there a feeling of redemption for you?
VS: I just feel really blessed to be back. I just do. At the end of the day, we have great lives. We get to write and act and be with wonderful people. And all the rest falls away. I’m just really happy to be able to do it again. And hopefully again.
This article has been edited and condensed.