Televison’s progressive twist

Each week, Symposium’s blog highlights comments about the week’s featured article. This week’s piece is “The Rebirth of Viewing Pleasure.”

Prof. Jill Dolan, guest blogger

In my course at Princeton last spring, the students and I agreed that of all the popular entertainment and arts genres, television currently seems to have the most progressive potential. In a recent post on Salon, Scott Timberg in fact sees cable television as a model for film, music, and even publishing, as the form allows producers to cultivate small but committed audiences for higher quality product. Although I continue to anticipate the occasional film release, the number of television shows I’m eager to watch proliferate faster than my DVR’s capacity to record them.

The third season of AMC’s The Killing, which is about to wrap up shortly, is a good example of how good narrative television out-performs Hollywood film in matters of gender and sexuality. Executive Producer Veena Sud has created an atmospheric detective series set in rainy Seattle that boasts a complex anti-heroine, played by the terrific Mireille Enos, whose commitment to her work battles with the existential suffering it provokes in her psyche.

The show’s first two seasons were derided for a narrative bait-and-switch, in which viewers expected the mystery of “Who Killed Rosie Larson?” to be solved by the end of Season One and were furious when Sud kept the story unraveling into Season Two. The third season offers a taut, harrowing plot about a vicious serial killer that will resolve over the next two episodes.

Enos plays Sarah Linden, another singular woman in a world of men, whose dedication to her victims requires her to disregard the limits of conventional police work. She and her partner, Stephen Holder, played with naked nuance by Joel Kinnaman, make an unusual pair in a genre full of conventional crime-solving partners. He’s a recovering drug addict, a tall white guy who wears hoodies and speaks the lingo of the streets. She’s tiny but fierce, a taciturn woman who covers her emotional scars by pouring herself into her work. She gives up custody of her teenaged son because she knows she’ll never prioritize him over her job. Linden and Holder battle their demons through their single-minded devotion to solving horrific crimes. This season, they search for a killer who preys on the homeless young women who turn tricks to survive in Seattle’s demimonde.

Enos’ outstanding work on The Killing and television’s capacity to create rich roles for artists like her became even more apparent when I saw World War Z, the early summer blockbuster about zombies and the end of the world, in which Enos plays Brad Pitt’s wife. While he’s enlisted to save humanity, Enos spends her on-screen time with the characters’ children, huddled in the hold of a U.S. Navy ship harbored safely off the country’s coast. Her scenes are limited to waiting for her husband to call from his zombie-busting adventures around the world, and greeting him gratefully when he returns a hero. I’m not sure she even has any lines, though her presence registers because she’s beautiful and her striking red hair is arranged with an artful femininity that nicely compliments Pitt’s rugged masculine heroism.

Give me The Killing any day. (World War Z is actually worth seeing, but gestures not at all toward progressive ideas about gender, sexuality, or race.) The Killing is filmed in cool blues and greys that make it appear almost black-and-white. In the noir-like Seattle atmosphere, Linden wears her red hair pulled back severely, its color subdued, her grey-blue eyes washed out from fatigue, and her face—made up to look like she’s not wearing a shred of make-up—a mask of roiling, barely repressed emotion. Her clothes are dark and unflattering; she wears over-sized bulky sweaters and jeans. That is, the costume design calls attention to her face and its micro-emotions, instead of to her body.

Linden sacrifices everything for justice and it’s beginning to corrode her soul. Watching Enos’s unadorned, razor-sharp performance and her complicated, complementary chemistry with Kinnaman underlines how the comparatively short, market-oriented narratives of Hollywood films rarely give women a chance to play large, complex, morally and emotionally complicated characters like Linden. Binge-watch The Killing’s Season Three—it’s a great example of television’s potential.

Share This