I’m of two minds about “Missing,” the latest episode of “The Killing.” One part of me wants to say it’s the best episode of the show yet, an episode in which the constant stupid plotting and lack of character development get out of the way for an hour that’s just two people, trapped in small spaces together, talking out their differences. Another part of me says that “Missing” is the ultimate example of just how bad this show has become. Sure, it was good, but to throw an episode like this into the middle of a MURDER MYSTERY with but THREE EPISODES TO GO? That’s a monumentally stupid idea, no matter how good the episode, and it stopped dead whatever minor momentum the show had. I’d heartily recommend this episode, but only to people who don’t watch the show. They’ll be the ones who can appreciate what it does well without growing ever more frustrated by the show’s inability to tell a straightforward story or develop any characters organically.
“Missing” stands in a proud tradition among recent cable dramas. It’s the episode in which the producers get rid of much of the supporting cast (so they don’t have to pay those actors), then focus on two or three of the main characters, letting their conflicts and stories dominate the proceedings. Recent examples include “Mad Men’s” “The Suitcase,” in which Don and Peggy spend the night in the office and become better friends and colleagues; “Breaking Bad’s” “Fly,” which involved Walter White and Jesse trying to kill a fly that had somehow gotten into their meth lab; and even something such as “Boardwalk Empire’s” “Home,” which zeroed in on the story of how Nucky got to be how he was, even if it wasn’t quite as limited as those other episodes.
Is “Missing” in the same league as those episodes of television? It’s not even close, but just by sort of playing in the same sandbox, it gains a kind of quality by association. For weeks now, the biggest problem with “The Killing” has been that the characters aren’t developed so much as they are a collection of tics established in the first few episodes and then frozen. Series creator Veena Sud and her writers have essentially no idea how to spread this information out, so they’ve dumped it all into this episode. As a strategy, that might have worked — had it happened five or six weeks ago. In Episode 11, it screams too little, too late.
That said, there are some nice moments and revelations here. Holder continues to be the best thing about this series (and Joel Kinnaman continues to prove himself a magnetic actor), and the scenes in which he called his sister and left messages for her were poignant and nicely gave him an almost hidden character arc, contrasted with Linden’s more obvious story line. But Linden also got some nice stuff to do, and Mireille Enos continued to prove that she’s more than capable at playing the story when she gets the material. The scene between the two in the fast-food restaurant, a scene that delved into questions of their divergent moralities and Holder’s attempts to stay sober, was probably the best-written, best-acted scene in the show’s young history, and it suggested a sort of alternative-universe version of the show, one in which the series took its time with the mystery, laying it out very deliberately and balancing it out with these sorts of meaty character scenes. That’s the kind of slow-moving series AMC has had success with in the past, and it automatically would have been more interesting than what we have now.
But back-loading all of this into one episode near the end of the season? That felt like a desperate measure, even as you could sort of see that this was meant to be a culmination of a lot of things that were supposed to be building this season. For starters, the disappearance of Jack is roughly compared with the disappearance of Rosie way back in the pilot, and we’re meant to look at all of this as a kind of commentary on how easy it is to lose perspective when your kid disappears. Fine. It’s also easy to see that this was meant to bring the Linden and Holder relationship to a head, then gradually ease off, until they finally established the kind of partnership other cops have on other shows. Again, fine. But because the rest of the season didn’t establish any of this in any sort of consistent fashion, this episode feels even more disjointed than it might have if the series had built more successfully. You can’t just drop all of your character development into one episode. It doesn’t work that way.
What’s more, it creates the sense that the writers don’t especially have any clue about how to wrap all of this up. In the third-to-last episode of the season, the plot momentum should be increasing, not completely halting. This is more of a midpoint episode, not a grand emotional climax, and even if you can sort of see that this was supposed to be that kind of a climax, it’s hard to ignore just how little what came before supports what’s here.
Still, there are so many nice moments in “Missing” that it’s hard to dislike the episode too much. There’s the usual requisite of stupid plotting (the oh-so-convenient appearance of ANOTHER dead 13-year-old boy — on a series that, if nothing else, values the loss of a child’s life — felt particularly cheap), but there are also very small, very nicely built moments. The revelation that Linden had been in foster care as a kid? Nicely handled and a good way to close off some questions about her, as well as a nice way to continue the show’s ideas of parents’’ sins being visited on their kids. The scene in which Holder discusses his religious beliefs? A very nice piece of writing, well delivered by Kinnaman.
This just felt like spending time with two people feeling each other out as much as we’re feeling them out. It’s not enough to retroactively make the previous episodes more interesting, but at least it’s a sop to those of us who have been hoping the show might develop these people beyond their very basic archetypes. The problem is, now that “The Killing” has proved it can DO this kind of episode, seeing it get back to its stupid stock-in-trade is going to be even more disappointing.