[Spoiler Warning: This column assumes that you have seen every episode of The Killing. The discussion that follows is spoiler-filled. If you want to enter the new season with a blank slate, or if you’re gearing up to binge watch the entire show, stop reading and come back after you’ve seen all 44 episodes.]
For a moment, it appeared that Season 4 of The Killing would have as many endings as the final film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And I have no doubt that the second ending, or the “flash-forward ending”, will prove divisive among fans of the show. After three-and-a-half seasons of rain and despair, do Linden and Holder deserve to walk off into the sunset together? Does it work within the context of the show? Or is it a plot contrivance that manipulates the outcome of the series in its final moments? More on those questions after we take a look at some of the key moments of Season 4.
Sometimes It’s the Obvious Answer: Simple solutions can be beautiful. In the end, the most plausible explanation for the Stansbury murders was the actual explanation: Kyle murdered his family in cold blood, turned the gun on himself and botched his suicide attempt with a last-second flinch that left him injured rather than dead. The evidentiary waters were muddied by the presence of a second gun and by the dark secrets kept by the Stansbury family. The second gun belonged to Kyle’s military school cohorts who lost their nerve and fled the scene just as the rampage was getting underway.
The revelations about the abuse in the Stansbury home simply served to make Kyle seem like a victim, throwing the audience and Detective Linden off the scent as sympathy for the suspected murderer grew with each episode. Only Detective Holder, a man who made victims out of his own family with his history of substance abuse, saw Kyle for who he really was. Credit the performance of Tyler Ross as the tortured teen for expertly keeping the audience guessing for six episodes. His mood swings from grief to bouts of madness and back again hid Kyle’s true nature until the final moments of the season when the evidence came full circle to establish his guilt. The flashback to the night of the massacre was one of the more harrowing scenes in the history of the series.
A Tale of Two Failed Mothers: By the time Episode 6 rolled around, was there anyone out there who hadn’t guessed that Kyle Stansbury was actually Colonel O’Neal’s son? It was the least surprising revelation of the finale. The Colonel’s appointment as Kyle’s guardian, her constant orders that he was not to be harmed or hazed by the cadet leaders and the early reveal that she had “lost a child” combined for a total non-mystery when it came to Kyle’s true parentage. It did, however, serve to better explain his sexual abuse at the hands of Mrs. Stansbury. Though no less reprehensible, he technically wasn’t her son which likely served to excuse her behavior in her mind.
This paternity twist may have been obvious, but it did give the conclusion to the season greater emotional heft between Linden and O’Neal. Their adult lives are the tales of two failed mothers, women committed to The Job more than their children. The world defines them solely by what they are (soldier and cop) and not who they are (wives or mothers). Linden sees in Kyle what her son could’ve become if her ex-husband hadn’t been a loving father who took on the parenting responsibilities that she so frequently neglected. The detective’s illogical desire to protect Kyle from prosecution was her way of attempting to atone for her failings as a parent. Although the end of this plotline was another “confession by conversation” – Colonel O’Neal’s this time instead of Lieutenant Skinner’s last season – it worked because it was one mother trying to justify her conduct to another mother who bears the same emotional scars.
Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The conclusion of the Pied Piper case and the disappearance of Lieutenant Skinner were equally elegant in their resolutions. Detective Reddick circles Linden until she confesses to the shooting of her unarmed boss and former lover. A true believer like Linden couldn’t live with the guilt of what she had done, and her need to admit her misdeeds to Reddick was palpable. But, the powers-that-be wanted to avoid the public relations nightmare that would come with a “Serial Killer Cop” headline. So Joe Mills will forever be known as the Pied Piper, and Lieutenant Skinner sadly took his own life over personal issues. He was having an affair and getting divorced, after all, so no further public explanation of his death was needed.
With a phony autopsy report authorized by the mayor himself, Linden is denied the opportunity to martyr herself and pay public penance for her sins. She defended Holder to the end while her estranged partner looked on from behind the one-way glass of the interrogation room. Although consistent and believable, these plot beats would have been more effective if Billy Campbell had not appeared in the credits for all six episodes. Since I spent the entire mini-season awaiting the appearance of Seattle’s mayor, this development had a little less bite when it finally arrived in the third act of the final episode.
Now About that Flash-Forward: In the final moments of Episode 6, we see Holder walking his daughter to the bus stop. She appears to be about four-years-old. Her name is Kalia, a figure in the Hindu religion and likely a namesake for Pied Piper victim Kallie Leeds. Given that Holder’s daughter was in utero throughout the season, it has been nearly five years since Linden left Seattle. Holder mentions his weekend visitation to his daughter, so we know his marriage never happened or he’s now divorced.
The young detective has left the force and is working with high-risk teens. He and Linden have both walked out of the darkness and returned to the light of day as civilians. Holder exits his classroom, and there sits Linden waiting for him. She apologizes for her treatment of him at the end of the Piper case, and their friendship is rekindled along with perhaps some long-unacknowledged romantic interest.
Does it work? Was the darker first ending more appropriate? To answer those and any other criticisms about the end of the series, you have to look at the totality of the four seasons. As I wrote in my last column, Linden and Holder have always been two fractured people, haunted by their respective demons. Together they formed a cohesive unit that could get through a case, but their partnership also helped them cope with their lives. Even with the toll their jobs took on their souls and their psyches, Linden and Holder were always at their best when they were together. Their lives only unraveled when they decided to rely on themselves and shut the other one out.
The finale is perfectly plausible. It doesn’t fail on any credibility level. Whether it works or fails is more a product of your personal aesthetic than anything else. Does a happy ending work for a show that was so grim throughout its entire run? I think it does given the context.
Life as a cop was devouring Linden and Holder. They were two people who cared too much to survive in the cynical world in which they worked. They could only survive in law enforcement as a team. When their partnership ended, neither of them could succeed separately. So, the idea they would leave law enforcement and find happiness elsewhere isn’t so far-fetched. The first ending rings a little truer, but the flash-forward ending in no way mars the resolution of the series.
The Binge Experience: Over the years as I have watched The Killing in real time, my sole complaint was the pacing of the show and its tendency to dole out information at a snail’s pace. Compressed into a shorter season that can be watched in a single gulp if so desired, that flaw was eliminated, and Season 4 proved to be the strongest six-episode run of the series.
Viewers who are new to the show will likely have a completely different experience with the first three seasons. Disappointed by the lack-luster ending to Season 1? No problem. You don’t have to wait forty weeks for the next episode. Just fire up the Season 2 premiere. Angered by the abrupt conclusion to Season 3 and the show’s subsequent cancellation by AMC? No big deal. Just watch the first episode of Season 4 and thank Netflix for giving the series a quality send-off. Aggravation disappears with the push of a button. But, so do the joys of the slow burn that The Killing did so well. Finding out who killed Rosie Larson after fourteen actual months of waiting was very satisfying, indeed.
So, where do I go from here? One of my favorite crime shows of all-time has ended for the second, and final, time. I guess I’ll start watching Forbrydelsen, the Danish show upon which The Killing is based. Usually the foreign source material is superior to the American remake. In this instance, that may very well be impossible.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.