The third and final series of Danish television series The Killing ended on British broadcast TV this week and the second series of the US programme Homeland has just one more episode to run. I recently had a conversation with someone who, like me, had initially been a fan of both these shows set around female protagonists. Now we agreed that in successive series the plot lines and characters had been pushed to extremes in ways so as to lose touch with what made them compelling in the first place.
This is a problem with genre fiction apparent equally in long running novel series. For example, when they first started I quite enjoyed Patricia Cornwall’s Scarpetta books but I stopped reading them a while ago. The need to up the ante from book to book means that the forces ranged against Scarpetta, whether in the shape of ever more warped and ingenious criminals or hostile colleagues and politicians, became almost overwhelming. More importantly, one way or another all her personal relationship gradually broke down in what seems like an irretrievable fashion. As a result the fictional world she occupies has become increasingly bleak and depressing. She is constantly under attack on one hand by forces of implacable evil and on the other by petty prejudice and banal corruption, and now doesn’t even the have the solace of sharing a delicious meal of homemade pasta with a nice glass of wine, without the risk of a bitter row.
Similarly, I started of in sympathy with Carrie Mathison in Homeland as played by Claire Danes. Danes portrayed this figure as a highly intelligent, sensitive and professionally effective individual. In general, sympathy was strongly encouraged by the fact that unlike her colleagues ‘we’ the viewers were made aware fairly early on about this character’s bipolar disorder and her reasons for concealing it. Equally, unlike those colleagues, we also knew that she was probably correct in her suspicions about Brody.
By the second series however, the tablets she takes to control her bipolar disorder no longer appear effective and while this character’s intuitive judgments still nearly always prove to be correct, her rash actions endanger herself and others. Further, Danes now portrays her as one long train wreck of emotions, constantly on the verge of tears and shouting. This might be said to simply reflect an increasingly hysterical narrative in which characterisation is thrown aside in favour of a plot that becomes so absurd it impossible to ignore the fact that this drama might be a tiny bit reactionary, designed to encourage paranoia that could ultimately support the sort of anti-terrorist legislation that violates legal human rights.
This aside, in the course of Carrie’s apparently genuine bonding with Brody there is a suggestion that they both suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and by Series 2 of The Killing the same appears to apply to Sarah Lund played by Sofie Grabol. In Series 1, unlike Carrie who is always something of a loner, Lund is apparently able to work as part of a team and if in the course of this narrative she has problems balancing her personal and professional lives, she did at least start with a relatively functional private life.
This character was especially popular with women viewers because of a certain ‘ordinariness’, not just in terms of dress and appearance but her relationships and attempts to juggle the different demands on her time. Yet by Series 2 she has become isolated and dysfunctional, although in contrast to Danes as Carrie, Grabol portrays this as a closing down of emotional response and an apparent lack of affect, at least on the surface.
In both cases these characters ‘success’ in resolving enigmas is ultimately the result of being literally ‘consumed’ by their jobs to the point of overwhelming obsession. In The Killing 3, Lund attempts to escape this pattern and for a while the series holds out hope that she might re-capture some sort of ‘ordinary life’. In the end this is denied when she decides to ensure the only sort of ‘justice’ that seems likely to the ultimate villain of the piece, killing him and thereby sacrificing any chance that she might have a positive personal or professional future.
Dramatically this act is constructed as necessary because while in Series 1 the political sphere of the fictional Denmark may have been shot through with corruption, there were some figures prepared to stand up in the interest of justice, social as well as on the level of the crime. By the third and final Series, set against a backdrop of economic recession, we are no longer allowed such reassurance; big business and Government are allies in a situation in which the promise of power and money, is more seductive than ethics, public interest or the law.
In contrast to Homeland however, this is not just an exercise in paranoia, there is a genuine sense of serious systemic critique in the way this show sets its crime plot against detailed (and for a British viewer sometimes confusing) scenes of political manoeuvring, and also a desire to make connections between corruption in the body politic and violent and desperate acts in the social.
There is a long tradition of central protagonists in crime/spy genres who are ‘flawed’ individuals and who are alternately recognised and exploited by institutional forces for their ‘special’ abilities and vilified as ‘loose canons’ who cannot be trusted. Both Carrie and Lund can be perceived in this mode.
My preference is not just for Grabol’s Lund but for The Killing as a whole with its beautifully scored soundscape, its intelligent, uncompromisingly gloomy cinematography and its restrained and powerful acting. However, I hated the ending of series 3 because it seems so punitive towards its fictional protagonist. I am also aware that detective (and spy) fiction is always ‘about’ identity and I can’t help wonder if these heroines on the verge of complete emotional meltdown, who are obsessive to the point of abandoning all sense of professionalism, might be read as saying something about this issue in general, or more specifically about contemporary femininity? In these terms perhaps, I hated the ending of Series 3 because it suggests that for those working in the public sphere, the tensions between the personal, the professional and the ethico-political may be still so irresolvable as to push even the most ‘ordinary’ woman over the emotional edge.