When The Killing first appeared on BBC4 in the spring of 2011, no-one could have predicted its total cultural penetration. Not only did its viewing figures trump those of other cult shows like Mad Men in the UK, but they did so in spite of it being in Danish with subtitles, which showed sunlight for, at most, three minutes in any episode. It also received two enduring stamps of global approval – an American remake, and a cameo in Ab Fab.
Unusually for me, given that I will watch pretty much anything that has a pretty American actor standing near a corpse and looking thoughtful, I haven’t seen the US version. It’s not because I think it will be bad, it’s because I genuinely can’t see the point of The Killing without Sofie Gråbøl playing the lead.
Without Sarah Lund, The Killing is just another sad-eyed, bleak-skied crime drama. With her, it’s the most compelling thing on TV. In the opening episode of the third series, her attention is elsewhere when the body is discovered. Seeing Sarah Lund at a crime scene giving it less than her full attention is like seeing a lion wandering past a tethered goat because it hasn’t remembered it’s hungry.
Sarah Lund may seem like an archetypal TV detective, but she is far more complex than she first appears. That’s how we could watch her through the twenty episodes of Season 1, following every lead and every red herring with the same dogged commitment, and know that although we wouldn’t want to work with her, or be friends with her, we could trust her absolutely.
Lund isn’t married to the job, because that would imply that they are separate. She is her job, and she must follow her case even as it costs her everything: her boyfriend, her new life in Sweden. She is no more a mother or daughter (although she has both a son and a mother) than someone who drives a car once a month is a motorist. She lost almost everything to piece together the final, twisty hours of Nanna Birk Larsen’s short life. It doesn’t even seem like a sacrifice to her, as she won’t notice what she’s losing until after the murderer is found.
She can spot the tiniest detail, read the most impenetrable crime scene, pick the truth from the lies in an interview room. Yet she can also nearly kill her father-in-law because she simply doesn’t hear that he is allergic to nuts when she’s been told to bring a cake. Frankly, you’re lucky she remembered the cake.
Lund was, in the first series, defined by her woolly Faroese jumper. Gråbøl, as so often, had the most incisive comment, suggesting that the sweater reveals Lund’s inner self, the hippy she once was. The snuggliness of the jumper is a perfect contrast, of course, to the bleak landscapes and storylines in which Lund finds herself. Gråbøl has compared Lund to Dirty Harry, but in knitwear terms, she also owes something to Clint Eastwood’s poncho-wearing Joe in A Fistful of Dollars. Certainly, seeing her wearing a dress for her mother’s wedding in Season 2 is as incongruous as if she were dressed as a giant rabbit.
Lund’s job at the start of season 2 is the perfect metaphor for her life – isolated, bleak, meditative. She is brusque beyond the point of rudeness when she’s called back to the city to solve another case. Lund knows what it costs her to be as good as she is, but while it might make her hesitate, it doesn’t stop her.
The second series couldn’t quite live up to the first, which is fair enough. The portrayal of grief in season 1 is, for me, as good as any depiction in any medium. Often, a murder victim is merely a MacGuffin. Agatha Christie’s victims are rarely more than the clues which surround their bodies: they exist only to be dead. Ruth Rendell was so aware of the mental-puzzle nature of many murder mysteries that she even created a crossword puzzling murderer (One Across, Two Down).
But The Killing is not like that at all: Nanna Birk Larsen was a person before she was a murder victim. And the impact of grief on her family, particularly her parents, Theis and Pernille, is astonishingly well shown. The Killing is – sure – a police procedural with a political drama on the side. But it is also an analysis of grief. It rotates bereavement towards the light to examine it from every angle, and calmly assesses how damage radiates out from a central point to mar everything it touches. Without the certain knowledge that Lund will bring them closure, even though she can’t bring them peace, it would be unbearable to watch.
And as for Season 3, it’s taken the trademark split focus of The Killing – politics, the police, and the grieving family – and given it another timely twist: adding in corporate responsibility, and the entwined relationship between money and political power.
Iconic? Of course. Lund is the real deal. We love her, but we don’t want her to be happy, with a family and a garden. We want her to be as she truly is: pensive, suspicious, committed to the truth, and as careless of herself as she is of office politics.
Duffers? Nope. Just this warning. Once, my boyfriend and I decided to see if we could find a picture of Lund’s boss, Lennart Brix (Morten Suuballe) smiling. There is none. There are maybe two recorded pictures of Suuballe grimacing slightly differently from his usual face. Is that how he smiles in real life? Is he just super-serious whenever a camera is present? There are days when I can think of little else.