The Killing III: Escaping and Entering the Shadow of a Phenomenon

Paul Risker discusses the third season of the hit Danish crime drama The Killing…

During the latter part of last year, the end seemed to arrive a little sooner than what I was accustomed to. Two foreign crime dramas which had become an integral part of BBC Four’s Saturday evening foreign crime line-up concluded in quick succession. Inspector Montalbano, or the ‘Italian Morse’ finished its run in November, followed in the run up to Christmas by The Killing III. In just over a month, British audiences were forced to say their farewells to two memorable detectives of the crime genre.

Sarah Lund’s departure means that all eyes should now turn to Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg, the central protagonist of Danish political drama Borgen; the second season of which began airing on BBC Four this previous Saturday. Nyborg is perhaps Lund’s successor, a strong female Dane to follow in the footsteps of the introverted detective, this time in the world of politics that like Lund’s world was one usually male dominated. For the future at least, detective is transposed for politician, ironic in light of Lund’s habit to expose the skeletons and secrets of Denmark’s politicians; one of her many irksome habits to the shows assortment of characters.

Within the context of contemporary television drama, Sarah Lund served as the female protagonist who proudly flew the flag for feminism, asserting that female protagonists could be complex and intriguing characters, anchoring intelligent, at times dark and immersive drama. It would be wrong to suggest that Lund has been a lone example, when in fact she has been supported by Borgen’s Nyborg, The Bridge’s intriguing and socially inept detective Saga Norén, and French television’s inspector Laure Berthaud and lawyer Joséphine Karlsson from Spiral

A short list perhaps, but it does serve to suggest that our Scandinavian neighbours more so than most, are bucking the trend by anchoring their dramas with an array of intriguingly individual female protagonists.

So, Nyborg will be required to simultaneously serve the feminist cause whilst also helping us move on as January gets firmly underway – both as a drama, and as a woman, following Montalbano and Lund’s departure.

In what is a case of coincidence, Borgen serves to remind us of Sarah Lund’s three thrilling cases; instead of helping us retire them to a settled and distant memory. Borgen stars at least four prominent characters that span The Killing’s three seasons: Theis Birk Larsen, the father of season ones murdered girl Nanna Birk Larsen; Lund’s two partners from the first two seasons, actors Søren Malling and Mikael Birkkjær, here playing media editor and Nyborg’s husband; and the incumbent Prime Minister of The Killing III, Kristian Kamper.

The first season of The Killing was a phenomenon, whose narrative of the impact of Nanna Birk Larsen’s murder on an entire community made for compelling television. The expectations for the second season were therefore high, and whereas The Killing had arrived under the radar a surprise hit, it would now have to contend with the challenge of either placating or exceeding expectation for its second run.

I’m reminded of the sports analogy that the greater challenge is sometimes overcoming a memorable victory and not a difficult loss. Whilst full of the twists and turns inherent to a Sarah Lund investigation, and in moments compelling television, season two with its focus on the war abroad and military life struggled to strike the same note as the first series had done through the intimate themes of the impact of a death of a young girl on both the immediate family and the community as a whole; despite a bold and original effort.

In contrast to the fortunes of The Killing II, enough time had passed for what was to be the third and final season to escape the shadow. It seems however that it was never the intention of creator-writer Søren Sveistrup to step away from the first series, but rather step partially into it. Not that it was necessarily his intention to remake season one, so much as it was to reimagine it, to commit an act of self-borrowing, of returning the series to its roots, away from the military and war abroad honed in on in season two, back to the home front.

Parallels between the inaugural and final seasons are there to be drawn. First we have the election, the outcome of which is directly impacted by the investigation. Inevitably the outcome is placed on a knife-edge as the direction of guilt towards incumbent and opposition swings back and forth. Further, the identity of the killers share striking similarities. Both are close family friends, and the relationship to the respective fathers of the murdered Nanna and kidnapped Emilie, leaves one to conclude a lack of originality in the choice of cold blooded killer, the one a re-imagining of an earlier incarnation, builder Vagn Skærbæk transposed for high powered businessman and philanthropist Niels Reinhardt.

However, unlike in season one, it is the incumbent government whose fate lies with the success or failure of the investigation. Whereas season one looked at the impact of the murder of Nanna Birk Larsen on a whole community, season three raises the stakes to explore how a kidnapping impacts not just the outcome of an election, but consequently a country’s economic plan to curb the recession. In The Killing III, the consequences of a present day kidnapping which is motivated by a years old murder, spirals outward to engulf an entire country, decidedly expanding the narrative ambitions of the first season.

Self-borrowing is no great crime. American director Howard Hawks frequently admitted to it, and the re-imagining of plot elements of season one depicts a show discovering its peak at its very end.

The investigation into Birk’s murder spanned twenty episodes, an expansive number compared to ten episodes apiece for the following two seasons. Season one could be accused of struggling to cut to the chase, the writer’s obsession with exploring the impact of a murder on a community, in which they use the continued twists, turns, and red herrings to draw in a wide range of characters, was in hindsight indulgent; themes overriding narrative consideration.

In contrast the finale was an example of mature and succinct storytelling, the creation of a narrative of a wealth of drama across a ten day period, crammed into ten perfectly structured episodes, twisting, turning and throwing us the usual red herrings; lacking the grand indulgences of season one.

One of the strengths of The Killing’s storytelling was its employment of characters to enrich the drama and vice-versa. The melodrama of the personal lives never intruded on the detection side of the narrative, but rather served to enhance it, giving the characters and events an emotional weight, from Birk’s parents’ grief to the revelations of Kamper’s son and his failings as a father.

Lund’s fate it seems shocked many people. Perhaps it always seemed logical that they would kill her off, where she would ascend to the heavens to join the company of numerous iconic fictional characters.

In that singular moment Sveistrup’s heroine shows her moral conviction, when trapped within the constraints of a justice system that fails, she is willing to do the right thing, to ensure an end to a man’s potential for evil. Lund was always a character obsessed with the answer to the puzzle, not dissimilar perhaps to Gregory House. Between her puzzles she had a chance for peace, of building a stable home life, more extroverted than introverted, but her addiction to the puzzle, of ensuring the questions that led to justice or rather the truth were answered, was her ultimate downfall.

In a touch of shocking brilliance, a moment in which I doubted that Sveistrup would commit to such a bold fate for Lund, she circumvents the very system she has endorsed, exiling herself to the cold, left with only her searching mind from afar to possibly uncover the evidence of the guilt of Reinhardt; the man she shot in cold blood. In so doing she relinquishes what was within her grasp: family, a granddaughter, a fresh start with her son and daughter-in-law, and a future with her season three partner, Special Branch’s Borch, who it turned out she had once let get away; not unusual when it comes to our Sarah. The balancing of character and drama which made the show rich across its three seasons is evident in Lund’s awkward relationships with her family, colleagues, partners, all building to a perfect crescendo. Lund goes through hell to not get to paradise but a dark self-exile.

But the end? Something tells me we will be spending many more evenings in the company of Sarah before we reach the end of her story. Just a hunch, but somehow, someway, Borch’s plea to her to uncover the truth of Reinhardt’s crimes will play a big part in any future return. But then again, maybe I just can’t let go of Sarah yet. 

Paul Risker is a freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth, Scream The Horror Magazine and The London Film Review.