One left us wanting more. The other left many of its followers feeling that they'd had enough. You could hardly have asked for a more marked contrast in the approach to a season finale than this weekend's first-season climaxes of HBO's magnificent Game of Thrones and AMC's flawed though often fascinating The Killing.
[Note: I'm catching up after an extended family-reunion getaway weekend that didn't lend itself to keeping up with TV, Twitter and all the rest. Summer can be like that.]
Having read the initial trilogy of Song of Ice and Fire books a while back (the source material for Game of Thrones), I had a pretty good mental picture of how Thrones might end. But the image of a nude Daenerys, sitting amid the ashes of Khal Drogo's funeral pyre as her three hatchling dragons emerge around their queen, didn't disappoint. It was thrilling, galvanizing, the ultimate "what next" moment.
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The final hour of Thrones, with so many of its characters reeling in the wake and implications of Ned Stark's shocking execution, had the classic feel of a volume's satisfying end. It set up a number of disparate quests for its sprawling cast of compelling characters, journeys to absorb and entertain us in lavish style next year. (If this series doesn't spur a legion to pick up George R.R. Martin's books for a great summer read, I'll be surprised. I'm about to embark on my own literary adventure, finally tackling book 4 while awaiting the soon-to-be-published fifth volume in July.)
What to look forward to: Robb "King of the North" Stark's crusade to avenge his father with the support of his bannermen. Having "Kingslayer" Jaime Lannister in captivity doesn't hurt his leverage. "You should get some sleep," Jaime tells Robb's mother and Ned's distraught but resolute widow, Catelyn. "It's going to be a long war," he warns her. Hardly news to Catelyn, who counsels Robb, "We have to get the girls back, and then we will kill them all." Cut to the girls. Arya, hair shorn to disguise herself as a boy, is heading north with a ragtag band of ruffians and outcasts, including one of the late King Robert's bastards. I always want more of Arya's story (both in the TV series and the books). Poor Sansa is still yoked to the horrible, monstrously cruel young King Joffrey, who when not de-tonguing irreverent troubadours is busy finding new ways to torment the would-be princess, including forcing her to gaze upon her father's severed head upon a spike and then, when she displeases him, ordering one of his minions to strike her. He really couldn't be more despicable.
Which is one of the reasons the Lannister patriarch, steely Tywin, dispatches Tyrion the "imp" to leave the battle and head south to King's Landing to fill in as "Hand of the King," to bring nasty little Joffrey and cold Queen Cersei into line. Like they'll even listen to the witty runt.
Meanwhile, up North at the Wall, Ned's grieving bastard son Jon Snow tries to desert the Night's Watch to fight for his estranged family's honor, but is waylaid by his loyal friends, reminding him of his oath. He finds new purpose when the Lord Commander orders him to join their expedition beyond the wall, to get to the bottom of the supernatural threat beyond and perhaps to find his missing Uncle Benjen. "Are you a brother of the Night's Watch or a bastard boy who wants to play at war?" Jon is challenged. And beyond the wall they go. Winter is coming. Brrrr.
I loved every moment of this eventful finale, not just because of all that happened but because of the promise of what's to come. This is triumphant storytelling on a grand scale, the most purely entertaining show to emerge from HBO's pipeline in quite some time. It's hard to imagine anyone who got hooked coming away unsatisfied and undernourished.
The same can't be said for The Killing, though it's not entirely fair to play the compare/contrast game with a series that is so much smaller and quieter and interior in its emotionally intense approach to its genre. Still, the season finale promises to rank among the most polarizing events of the TV year, and it's easy to see why.
People tend to want resolution of some sort in their TV shows and seasons, especially when dealing with elongated murder mysteries that test one's patience with this kind of measured, moody pacing, not to mention all of the frustrating blind alleys and red herrings along the way. I get that. But some of the hysterically negative critical over-reaction to The Killing's finale — which keeps the mystery of "Who Killed Rosie Larsen" as-yet-unsolved until next season, while casting suspicion on the motives of one of the lead detectives and adding a shocking assassination cliffhanger element with the prime suspect's life in jeopardy — has resulted in winning me over a bit more to the show's and creator's side. If anything can agitate so many people this much, they must be doing something right. Or, at the very least, different. (Though being different for different's sake isn't necessarily a good thing. Such risks must be executed properly, and The Killing is an awfully uneven case study.)
I found the finale problematic in a number of ways, but I do support — even if I don't fully agree with — the creator/executive producer Veena Sud's bold if reckless choice to tell the story on her own terms. (Read Denise Martin's excellent Q&A with Sud for an explanation of her methods.) She may have taken her pride and passion for producing an anti-procedural a little too far, though I applaud her ability in this age of incessant spoilers to subvert our expectations and keep us off balance. Still, would it have killed her to give us even a little payoff in this hour?
Those who kept watching for the sole purpose of finding out whodunit seem to feel especially ill-treated and insulted, and that's understandable, although we're promised a solution and denouement next season. (The true crime would have been if AMC had canceled the show before a reveal could occur.) Those who yearn for less predictability and more creative flexibility in their psychological TV mysteries tend (at least in my mailbag so far) to be more forgiving and encouraging, and seem more likely to come back next year to see how the murder is resolved while a new case gets underway. But can we please get past the plot device of Sarah Linden dragging her kid to the airport for the getaway to Sonoma that will never happen?
That was among the more aggravating nitpicky flaws of the finale, along with Linden busting into the home of her prime suspect (Darren Richmond, aka "Orpheus") yet again for a confrontational screaming match. Who does that? And much as I admired Brent Sexton's emotional playing of the scene with wounded Bennet's pregnant wife, as Stan tells her "I've got ... three children" (oh the pain), in what world doesn't she recognize the father of Rosie Larsen, the same guy who was arrested for nearly beating her husband to death? (Lapses like that make it harder to argue you're advancing the mystery form with your controversial endgame strategy.)
And then there's the Holder twist. He's always been a bit shady and hard to read, but just when he's won us over — and even more difficult, Linden, who begrudges he'll "make a passable detective" some day — we learn he faked the surveillance photo that got Richmond arrested. Who's he working for and why? Naturally, that's something else to discover next season. But this is an awfully clumsy gambit that never would have held up in court — didn't take Linden long to learn the unhappy truth — so what was the point other than trashing one of the few sympathetic characters in this grim scenario?
But the things that always work on The Killing worked here as well, most memorably Michelle Forbes' searing anguish and depression as Mitch Larsen, telling a dejected Stan, "Every piece of this place [home] hurts me." (She doesn't know about the dream house he apparently bought for her, wiping out their savings.) "I'm not good for the boys," she says, drained of hope. "They don't need me." Stan does, but for now it's too late. As the loony-tunes Belko tells Aunt Terry before he goes all John Hinckley Jr. on Richmond, "There's no family anymore. Everyone's gone."
And for all of her character's flaws, the haunting Mireille Enos is mesmerizing in her empathy for the fallen Rosie as she retraces the victim's path in the woods and Linden realizes if the girl had just turned the other way, "she would have made it."
The Killing at heart is about the lingering tragedy of a killing, a meditation on the sort of grief that TV's more formulaic crime fiction can rarely be bothered with. And so why are we surprised again that this show decided to break the rules of the traditional season finale? For better or worse, it got people talking. I can think of less desirable fates. And yes, I'll be back next season to find out whodunit and perhaps to see if the Larsens will ever get over it.