Peter Sarsgaard, The Killing
The Season 3 premiere of The Killing introduced viewers to Ray Seward, an inmate who is 30 days from being executed for brutally murdering his wife. But did he actually do it?
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Like almost every element of the show, Seward (an incredibly creepy Peter Sarsgaard) remains a mystery. The enigma surrounding the character is initially based on a series of contradictions. After bashing a prison chaplain's face in on the premiere, Seward proudly takes credit for his wife's murder and recounts in graphic detail the strength it took to kill her. But throughout the episode, Detective Linden (Mireille Enos) finds proof that suggests that Seward's wife was possibly murdered by a serial killer who's racked up more than a dozen other victims while Seward was in prison. Similarly, Seward talks about his son to manipulate a prison guard, but flatly denies having a child when being questioned by Linden.
Is it all just a series of mind games? Yes and no. "In that atmosphere, if you are not built like Vin Diesel, you've got to find a way to make somebody who looks like Vin Diesel fear you," Sarsgaard tells TVGuide.com. "There's the person we wish we were, the person we pretend to be... and then there's the person that you really are. [But] a lot of the stuff within the scenes [that is] incredibly violent is real. I do think if you put your hand in the cage, you might lose a finger."
Indeed, creator and executive producer Veena Sud found inspiration for Seward's character in the Werner Herzog documentary Into the Abyss about two teenagers who killed three people during an attempted car theft. "They had no sense of regret," she says. "I was fascinated by this idea of a bad guy who really is a bad guy. Ray Seward is not a Green Mile type of con. He's not a guy in prison with a heart of gold. He's the guy that you and I are scared of if we meet him in a dark alley. He's done terrible, horrible things. That type of dark character searching for redemption — or resisting redemption — was really, really interesting to me."
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For now, it doesn't seem that Seward is interested in redemption. As his execution date draws closer, he chooses to be hanged rather than receiving the more humane lethal injection. "He's writing the story of his own life and... [that] decision has to do with being able to make a choice," Sarsgaard says. "It's the way [he] wants it done, especially if it might hurt other people or make them pay attention. He thinks that the world can go f--- itself. [He thinks], 'It's me against the world and everyone in it, and it doesn't matter if they smile or if they grimace.'"
Despite clear evidence of his current misdeeds, Linden will fight furiously to learn whether or not Seward killed his wife. After all, she wasn't sure he was the right guy the first time around, when the investigation sent Linden into a downward spiral that ended at a psych ward. "She has no illusions about what kind of a man he is generally, but he either killed his wife or he didn't," Enos says. "And if he didn't, it is [Linden's] responsibility to prove it. And personally, if she is, in fact, correct, her descent into madness will not have been unfounded and she can start to heal that broken place in her."
But what if Linden proves his innocence? Does she really want to be responsible for potentially releasing him back into the world? "It's an ongoing conversation in our country about capital punishment," Sud says. "Yes, he's robbed people and he beat his wife and he abandoned his child, but does the state have the right to kill him if he didn't murder this person? This season is united by the notion of, 'Can we understand people that we label monsters?' This is a full-frontal conversation with the bad guy — with evil."
Sarsgaard is unable to simplify his character in such broad terms. "Words like 'psychopath' take away understanding [and] are not meaningful," he says. "I don't mess with good and bad. I definitely have done things as the character that are horrible... that I should be in jail for. I don't think of him as being innocent, but in a way, I think of him as an innocent because we all grew up as babies. For him and his life, a certain kind of prison started from the beginning. A series of things happened in his life and he ended up like this.
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"Evil is something that I think is almost separate from people," Sarsgaard continues. "I don't know anything about Hitler except that he was responsible for an enormous number of people dying, and so I just think of that as evil. I think of the thing that happened around him and not just him. .... There's good and bad in the universe, and they're at war with each other. Sometimes you participate in one side and sometimes you participate in the other side. People swing back and forth."
As such, look for Seward himself to do a great deal of swinging back and forth this season. "In the absence of an abundance of love in his life, the thing that is the most intact in him is his mind," Sarsgaard says. "I think it's his strongest weapon. ... The smartest person in the world knows you have to be adaptable. There's no master plan that ever works."
So, what is Seward's plan? Sarsgaard, who says he was a fan of the first two seasons before he was offered this role, promises it will keep viewers guessing in classing Killing style. "One of the things that I really like about Veena [is] the way she's ... pissed off people along the way," Sarsgaard says with a laugh. "Everyone who's watched this show knows that anything could happen, including not knowing. What I was really drawn to was knowing that the rug had already been pulled out from [under] everyone so many times and in so many different ways that hopefully people would stop trying to figure it out. She's trying to get people to pay attention to something more complicated and more interesting."
The Killing airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.