This essay on Season 3 of The Killing originally appeared over at Kritik, the blog of the Unit for Criticism and Intepretive Theory at the University of Illinois. It’s about sovereignty, Native land rights, Vancouver, dead bodies, and so much more!
“‘This Land is Our Land’: Season Three of The Killing”
Monday, April 28, 2014
Deanna K. Kreisel (U of British Columbia)
There is a clear and dramatic break between the first two seasons of “The Killing” taken together—the “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?” mystery—and season three, the “Pied Piper” case. This break represents more than just a shift in Linden and Holder’s object of investigation: it’s a reboot of the show’s themes, cast of characters, politics, and ethics.
We might think of these opposed themes as the result of shifting processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization: most obviously in the clash between Native claims to sovereignty and the power of federal law to force entry into the reservation’s casino, more subtly in the exploitative relationship between teenage sex workers and their wealthy clients trolling the streets in expensive cars, and more subtly still in the punitive social structures that turn the “monster” Seward into who he is. Yet as Gilles Deleuze’s use of these terms in Anti-Oedipus andA Thousand Plateaus makes clear (well, okay, kind of clear), these processes are co-existent: in modernity, deterritorialization merely paves the way for reappropriation through capital, as the resolution of the Rosie Larsen case makes clear (spoiler alert: it’s all about greed). The third season of “The Killing” depicts the social atomization and alienation that are the direct result of a preoccupation with particular kinds of sovereignty; the suggestion seems to be that the problem of disposable children is a by-product of a capitalist social organization that privileges the autonomous self, and wage labor, over family structures and other kinds of kinship bonds. As Pastor Mike rails at Linden after he kidnaps her in episode 3.7, “Why did I think I could talk to you about it; you’re a cop. You punch a clock, you collect a paycheck, and you go home and you tell everyone what a difference you’ve made. You’re nothing but a well trained dog.”
The wage laborer cannot begin to understand the plight of the children that the volunteer has come to know through caritas. Of course, we must greet with deep skepticism the words of a man who directly echoes the real killer’s motivation as spoken in the finale: both men refer to the victims as “human garbage” (as Holder sneers after Pastor Mike offers this rationale for his ministry, “That’s what the killer’s thinkin’ too”). Pastor Mike’s comment is meant as a characterization of what “society” thinks of these children, yet the tricksy repetition of the two scenes—both take place in a car, with Linden, during a kidnapping scenario at gunpoint, and feature long confessional explanations of the utterer’s motivations—fairly bangs us over the head with the idea that it’s a fine line between sinner and saint. Seward, of course, is an even more obvious example of this principle, that systematic maltreatment produces both murderers and victims, monsters and human garbage; indeed, the show can barely decide to which category Seward belongs, and flip-flops on this question until nearly the last possible second. Oddly, however, Pastor Mike comes across as the nastiest character of the three, even though his motivations end up being noble from beginning to end. This makes sense when we consider that the show is nothing if not skeptical about the liberating possibilities of intimacy espoused by the minister; neither the traditional nuclear family nor looser affective bonds such as those between the street kids end up doing anyone any good.
The nearly perfect repetition of narrative structure between the two cases further underscores the interrelatedness of the sovereignty and powerlessness themes. Both feature an early, too-obvious red herring (the Muslim teacher, the Christian preacher), who after being accused, cleared, and damaged for his trouble disappears from the rest of the narrative; a seemingly more fitting “real” culprit arrested toward the end of the arc followed by a shocking last-minute twist in which he is also revealed to be innocent; and a final revelation that the real murderer is someone disturbingly close to the case. Both also feature many more repetitions at the episode level: kidnappings, tense situations in which cell-phone contactis cut off, bottle episodes in which the main case goes on hold so that Linden can get to know someone better. One almost gets the sense that the writers are straining after connections between the two cases and working them out on the structural level, trusting in a viewerly appetite for (or tolerance of) repetition acquired through training in the episodic procedural—as much as those micro-formulas might cut across the larger “Wire”-like arcs that are the show’s purported interest. Narrative repetition, along with the boredom that accompanies it, also functions as an emblem of the rhythm of addiction/recovery, which is a principal site of the show’s interest in sovereignty.
What the show is not so clear on, however, is the deeper, repressed connection between the two realms of sovereignty (or lack thereof), Native land rights and the bodies of urban sex workers. To the average American viewer, this connection might not be immediately (or at all) apparent, but to those watching from Canada it’s much more legible. To someone watching from Vancouver, where the show is actually filmed, it’s glaring. While it might seem a bit whimsical to apply the concept of deterritorialization to the televisual remapping of one city onto another city’s landscape, certainly the experience of watching a show filmed in one’s backyard but set elsewhere is somewhat vertiginous. On one level it’s kind of fun playing spot-the-landmark and sniggering at little infelicities, like a sleek new Vancouver TransLink bus tooling by in a “Seattle” slum directly behind a meaningfully beat-up intradiegetic city bus. (It was particularly amusing to see Save-On-Meats, the iconic and newly-hipsterized butcher shop-cum-diner, transformed into a sinister hangout for suspected jihadists in season one.) But more serious issues are raised by this very postmodern kind of deterritorialization, which echoes and repeats previous actual scenes of deterritorialization that occurred on real-life territorial referents. At one point, Nicole Jackson, Chief of the Indian tribe that runs the casino visited by Rosie Larsen the night she died, gets into a standoff with Detective Linden: “I’m sure you’re aware Wapi Eagle Casino sits on Indian land. As such, we’re not under city, state, or county jurisdiction. Now, unless you have a federal warrant, get the hell off my property.”
Setting aside the expositional clunkiness of this bit of dialogue (We’d better make sure the viewers understand the law here), it’s discomfiting to say the least to watch the relentless villainization of a Native leader fighting for the integrity and autonomy of her tribe, filmed on unceded Aboriginal land, given the recent real history of the struggle for Indigenous rights in Canada. While the original air date of this scene pre-dated the Idle No More movement by just over a year, the systematic injustices that led to the founding of that movement are, of course, years, decades, and centuries old.
It’s particularly discomfiting to consider the demonization of Chief Jackson knowing that just a few months after the season originally aired, the conservative press in Canada was trying to do the same exact thing to Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation. Chief Spence went on hunger strike in December 2012 to protest the threatened passing of a federal bill, without Aboriginal input, that would curtail the Indian Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, and the Environmental Assessment Act. In a case of life imitating art, some of the accusations Linden levies at Chief Jackson (lining her own pockets at the expense of her people) are the very same ones later directed at Spence. That accusation, which occurs in the episode entitled “Keylela,” (2.7) is a token and utterly lukewarm attempt to suggest that the problem is just one or two “bad Indians,” that while Jackson is corrupt and greedy we’re quite sure that her people are not only mere victims but also, probably, thoroughly noble (these are, of course, the only two options). Given that all we see of her people, however, is a shadowy series of leering, cretinous thugs and lackeys, it’s hard to give credence to the show’s one pathetic stab at political correctness.
“Keylela” is one of a group of episodes with (frankly offensive) “Indian”-themed titles such as “Off the Reservation” (2.8) and “Sayonara, Hiawatha” (2.9) which underscore that the show’s interest in Indian affairs is more than incidental. Indeed, the relentless repetition of the “stand-off” between the Seattle PD and Chief Jackson’s goons over the former’s request for access to the casino is the manifest content of a deep trauma, the infantile demand of His Majesty the Constabulary Ego—How dare you cite treaty rights when a White dead body is at stake?—in the face of a patiently repeated injunction. How many times do the cops have to try to bully their way in before they realize it’s just not going to happen without a federal warrant? I got bored watching it the first time, and I was too bored to bother to go back and count how many. (As the casino security officer wearily asks at one point, “Are we going to do this again?”) Of course, the fact that in the end Chief Jackson’s invocation of a wholly justified legal principle turns out to be in the interest of covering up her own illegal hijinks only reinforces the show’s evacuation of the moral force of that principle. There is no room for the possibility that someone in Chief Jackson’s position might have perfectly legitimate reasons to invoke Native land sovereignty other than her own corruption; a Good Indian should have nothing to hide from the Law. Ugly.
But perhaps most disturbingly of all, the show fairly forces us into identifying with the cowboys over the Indians on this one. The cops’ first confrontation with Chief Jackson occurs after many episodes of investigation into the Larsen murder, during which we’ve been groomed to sympathize both with the investigators and with the victim’s family. We are already hooked, and are already feeling the driving pulse of desire for solution and resolution, when we, along with Linden, are smacked in the face with the cold rejection of Chief Jackson, which only becomes more painful through repetition. By the time we reach the embarrassing scene where a posse of Seattle cops and FBI agents, finally with their precious federal warrant in hand, confront Chief Jackson’s enforcers—and a smirking Holder actually slaps the casino’s security officer in the face with the warrant—it requires an effort of will to resist the show’s demand that we fairly shout “Yeah!” at the screen.
As intensely disturbing as all this is, in season three the televisual deterritorialization gets downright creepy. Much of this season, which is set in an area of urban blight, rampant drug abuse, prostitution, and crime that the show calls “The Jungle,” is actually filmed in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—an area (according to one perspective) of urban blight, rampant drug abuse, prostitution, and crime. To even acknowledge that perspective, however, is to step into a viper’s nest of political controversy: the history of the DTES is long and complex, a history of poverty but also of great political resistance, community-building, and innovative social projects. (North America’s only supervised drug-injection site, Insite, is located in the heart of the region at Main and Hastings—right near where multiple scenes of Lyric, Bullet, Twitch and pals hanging out were filmed.)
Now that the area is under direct threat from the forces of gentrification, the rhetoric on both sides has amped up to ear-splitting levels: social activists practically canonizing DTES community leaders and real-estate developers lamenting the scourge of “urban blight” that mars the experience of tourists in nearby upscale Gastown. But by far the eeriest part of watching this show about the serial murder of “Jungle” residents filmed in Vancouver’s DTES is that the latter really was the site of operations for the most prolific (and notorious) serial murderer in Canadian history: Robert Pickton, whose trial ended in conviction just over five years ago. Pickton also preyed on so-called “human garbage”: sex workers, homeless women, drug addicts, the poor and dispossessed—many of whom, crucially, were Aboriginal. Just as with the depiction of Chief Jackson in seasons one and two, it’s a strange experience to watch a veritable re-telling of a deeply traumatic event in recent B.C. history, filmed on the same physical site as that event, yet deracinated from its real social, historical, and political context. And just as with Chief Jackson and the “Wapi Eagle Casino,” that deracination takes the form of an erasure of Aboriginal history — and contemporary reality. While the first two seasons took on an eerie significance in the wake of the Idle No More movement, at least the writers had the (marginal) excuse of ignorance of the history they were invoking; the third season mines real-life recent history in the form of the Pickton case while white-washing it (pun intended) and draining it of its particularity. The victims are now Everychildren: young, innocent, deracialized and available for all manner of projection.In both cases the traumatic repetition of repressed historical content reminds us that it all comes back to the land. In a very fundamental way the thematic difference between the two cases — sovereignty versus powerlessness — is expressed through attitudes to different kinds of land. The literal border skirmishes during the Rosie Larsen case—in which the Western “frontier” has been pushed nearly as far as possible, to an island in the Puget Sound—are transformed in season three into struggles over interstitial and unmapped spaces like sidewalks, skate parks, SROs, abandoned buildings, and tree houses. This concern with land, the claims upon it, and its relationship to sovereignty, is expressed as an obsession with the grave (a symbolic compression of the idea of land) and different types of burial.
One of the show’s more perverse fetishes is its fascination with the resting place of bodies. When the Pied Piper horrifyingly reveals to Linden that he has killed many more girls than previously suspected and dumped their bodies in the lake “and other places—no one will ever find them,” and then Linden sobs, “It’s the loneliest thing in the world, waiting to be found,” we get the feeling that the entire season has been leading up to this moment. Yeah, okay, we get it: Linden, a product of the foster-care system, was also considered “human garbage,” and she identifies with the missing and murdered girls because she realizes she easily could have ended up as one of them. But the moment is also a strange echo of a scene in the previous episode, when Becker torments Seward by telling him about the anonymous mass graveyard outside the prison gates where he’ll end up after his execution: “I wonder what that must be like, spending eternity as a nobody.”
Both moments reveal a strangely animistic, almost childlike interest in what it must “feel like” to be interred in a particular place forever. People return to graves over and over again throughout this show, from Darren Richmond’s repeated visitation of his wife’s tomb to little Adrian Seward camping out near his mother’s gravestone in a pivotal moment of the season finale.
Of course the crux of the Rosie Larsen case ended up being all about graves: the Indian burial sites whose bones Chief Jackson and Jamie Wright conspired to dig up and replant in order to serve both of their corrupt ends. You may have been tempted, as I was, to throw up your hands at this plot twist and yell “Indian burial ground—seriously?!” (If only it were intentionally ironic—but “The Killing” is not exactly a show that trades in irony. At one point in season two a character intones, in all seriousness, “This goes all the way to the top. This goes all the way to City Hall,” and in the season three finale the Pied Piper actually utters the line, “You were getting too close too fast. I never wanted this to happen.”)
The difference between the sacred Indian burial ground and the makeshift, profane graves of executed prisoners and murdered children is presented as another iteration of the show’s abiding concern with sovereignty: it’s incredible to contemplate, but the show demands that we be shocked at the desecration of Indian sacred spaces even after the way it has treated other Native claims to sovereignty throughout its narrative arc. In this sense the outrageousness of grave desecration functions as a reaction formation, shielding us from the ways in which the show trades in desecration at every turn.
In the third season the horror of the profane grave returns both in the moment of Linden’s cri de coeur and in the intertextual echo of the Pickton case I have already described. Most of Pickton’s victims ended up as food for the pigs on his farm, a detail that caused particular frisson among the followers of the case. It is hard not to be outraged at the painstaking, laborious, and expensive process of bone sifting and DNA extraction that was undertaken in Pickton’s pig yard once the murders came to light, given the complete lack of interest in, or public resources for, the victims when they were still alive. (And indeed, even after they were dead—given the number of years it took the police to interest themselves in the missing women despite Native people’s insistent calls for investigation.) “The Killing”’s fetishization of the gravesite perfectly parallels the obsessive interest in this real-life Pied Piper’s “cemetery,” and both serve the same function: to disavow the callousness with which the respective victims were treated while alive—or to get even more specific, to disavow, through a sanctimonious concern with the bodies of dead Native people, their ongoing genocide. Unmourned in their particularity, the victims of Piper and Pickton become, as a concept, the occasion for an extravagant cultural dumbshow of belated piety. Psychoanalytic critics Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok term the psychic formation attendant upon failed mourning the “crypt,” and “The Killing” seems bent on a re-literalization of that figure. This makes perfect sense in the terms of their argument; for Abraham and Torok, the process of failed mourning renders its sufferer incapable of figuration: the crypt “can only maintain in a state of repetition the mortal conflict it is impotent to resolve” (The Wolf Man’s Magic Word, page vxi). Given that the third season of “The Killing” closes on the site of yet another extravagantly unburied body, we can only wait to see what horrors will remain unmourned in season four.
With thanks to Danika Medak-Saltzman for her helpful suggestions.