The Killing: a case for a modern tragedy

 (Note: The Killing is an original series on AMC that had been canceled after Season 2 and was revived again for a welcome Season 3.)

Tragedy is tricky. Those of us who know the theatre think of Aristotle holding forth about what tragedy is and isn’t. When we are in just plain citizen mode, the context is usually news broadcasts rather than Broadway. In the news, tragedy is a kind of media shorthand that conveys instantly that something bad has just happened. A tragedy, in that sense, could be used to describe a man who had a heart attack at the wheel of a car and hit some people. It is a serious mishap and very sad to those who lost someone they loved, but a far cry from the classic understanding of what tragedy is to the stage. It is nothing like Oedipus the King bringing down all of Thebes because he refused to see the truth that despite his best intentions, his choice would bring the city-state and himself down.

A tragedy in the classic sense (Aristotle again) would be brought about by some flaw, something in the main character that causes him to make an unwise decision, usually because he doesn’t look deep enough to understand the implications of what could happen. This character not only makes a big mistake, the consequences of that mistake affects many people, especially people in his kingdom. The kingdom itself could topple. Serious consequences, in other words.  The man with this major character flaw has to be of good, high, character, or the mistake is merely an accident or just a very sad event. Only the very noble among us can commit a tragic act.

So even if the man in the car had a character flaw that made him think that he knew better than his doctor and would drive against the doctor’s advice, it’s still not a tragedy because it didn’t affect a whole people, say the people of a country, who depended on him. It was, to anyone watching, happening to a bunch of strangers who were of no consequence to the man. Life goes on and there is only a ripple in our cosmos because someone reported it for the evening news.

You may have noticed the masculine pronoun used here so far, and that’s because, according to Aristotle, who lived way before the women’s movement, only a man could have this kind of terrible character flaw.  Women could be ignored, said Aristotle dismissively, not because they had no character flaws, but because there was no way women could have risen to any position of power in those Greek city-states so no matter what they did or decided, it would be of no consequence to the city-state.

The story of the killing of an ordinary and likable teenaged girl would have been screamed from CNN as a major tragedy and we would nod and feel bad for the poor people involved.  But the Rosie Larson story, as told in The Killing, became much more than the relentless hunt for the killer by two very different detectives (the wonderful Mireille Enos and the excellent and quirky Joel Kinnaman) who shared a restless need to get justice not only for Rosie and her family, but for the city of Seattle. Their obsession came from different places but merged to make a rather frightening juggernaut that slowly closed in on who killed Rosie Larsen.  It was not an ordinary murder and the scope of who and what were affected by it went way beyond Rosie’s family. As the series progressed, the murder opened up to include the fate not just of the killer, the family, and the detectives, but the fate of the city-state.

Tragedy in the dramatic sense, has implications for a whole society and the tragic figure at the heart of this kind of drama must have a character flaw that unwittingly brings about the destruction not just of the central figure, but of the people in his charge. Aristotle was thinking the Greek city-state that was not exactly a country, but had autonomy from the other Greek city-states. So Oedipus, noble figure, male, hero with a tragic flaw, brings down himself, his family, and Thebes, the city-state he ruled.

In The Killing, the city-state is Seattle. The series was framed by Seattle. There was only Seattle and the water and land around it. Each episode would open with the city skyline behind the waterways that seem to leave the city vulnerable. As the series progressed, Seattle began to be more than just a setting. It began to be a main character. The ever-present rain added to it and the relentlessness of it that mirrored the relentlessness of the detectives mean that something serious was going on. All that brooding. All that isolation.

In the city-state of Seattle, there was a good and noble man who was becoming powerful and would do well for the people living there if only he could get elected mayor. He would change the city for the better. He would rid the city of its corruption. Darren Richmond would fit the description of the tragic figure: a noble man who would rule for the good of his people (remember Oedipus?) and he also had that pesky tragic flaw: he couldn’t see the corruption in his own organization and in his own soul. He refused to see that he had the same kind of driving ambition that lived in his enemies and made him the same kind of man at heart if only he would take a good look at himself.

Spoiler alert

When I watched the end of Season 2, the episode that exposed what really happened to Rosie Larson, I felt as if I had just watched the end of a tragedy that went way beyond just an entertaining show where the detectives find the perpetrator and bring them to justice all wrapped up nice and neat by the end of the hour.

Richmond didn’t kill Rosie Larsen, but by ignoring his own corrupting ambition, he set it up and made it possible. There was someone else who acted. We were asked over and over to pay attention to Rosie’s aunt Terry, but we didn’t. Even though she didn’t know it would happen the way it happened, Terry and her character flaw, envy, was responsible for bringing down a city-state.

Terry did not bring down Seattle all by herself, but she sure as heck set things in motion. Terry could qualify as a tragic figure because even though she wasn’t Aristotle’s “noble” male figure (I’m sure by now Aristotle would grasp that women are heads of state and in positions of power and are just as capable as men to have character flaws) she acted from a flaw in her character and indirectly brought down not only a good family, but a good man who wanted to lead Seattle out of corruption and all that rain and into the light. She was jealous of her sister’s life and the happiness Mitch had with her family. And although Terry didn’t know it was her niece in the trunk of a car that she pushed into the river, she had some intention of either getting what her sister had or of wiping out her sister’s happiness by making sure that car rolled inevitably into the water to drown whoever was in the trunk. That Terry didn’t know who was in the trunk is very close to the kind of tragic mistake Aristotle talked about. She was too blinded by her own need that it never occurred to her that she would bring about so much misery. By the very end, all I saw was that Seattle would not change for the better because Darren changed for the worse. All because of Terry’s single act.

Still, by the end, I wanted to cry out to Terry, to stop her from doing what she did. I wanted to cry for Rosie and her family and the whole city. None of this had to happen!

And that was what clinched the feeling of tragedy thing for me: watching that car with Rosie still alive in the trunk, slowly rolling into the water that would kill her. Then to realize why it was happening and even more horribly, to realize that IT DIDN”T HAVE TO HAPPEN. I felt the tragedy that put this whole thing in motion, a woman who was trapped by what she thought should have been hers and was letting whoever it was in the trunk die. Why? Because she couldn’t have what she wanted and someone was going to pay. Watching that car roll into the water and realizing that Terry had no idea who was in the trunk and that she didn’t have to set that car in motion was as close as I had come to experience a modern tragedy. It did not have to happen. But it did happen and it brought down a Seattle mayor, the Native Americans around the city, but even brought down the savior of that city-state, Darren Richmond, who was not the perfect knight-savior we all thought he was. Seattle wouldn’t be saved after all.

Now I want more Linden and Holder. More of this kind of television. Bring on Season 3. Maybe The Killing will redefine tragedy.

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