It’s often easier to say how TV series shouldn’t end than how they should. A show as complicated as The Killing, revived for a six-episode final season on Netflix, is undeniably tough to wrap up, particularly given that Season 3 ended with the protagonist, Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), murdering Pied Piper serial killer James Skinner (Elias Koteas) in cold blood. But while the question of how showrunner Veena Sud should have ended The Killing isn’t easily answered, there’s no doubt about where she went wrong — giving Linden and her partner Holder (Joel Kinnaman) a romantic happily ever after.
The Killing has never been a “happy endings” kind of show: The series, which premiered on AMC in 2010, is relentlessly bleak, so rainy and depressing that it makes The Leftovers look optimistic. While series like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Criminal Minds deal with crimes as heinous as the ones on The Killing, the latter series stretched out its initial murder mystery over the course of two seasons, allowing the viewer to spend more time focused on the aftermath of a brutal slaying. It’s easy to brush off the “crime of the week” on most procedurals; that’s less of an option when the same grief-stricken family is on display in every episode, and the primary detectives continue to stumble on disturbing new evidence.
Like Season 3 of The Killing, Season 4 focuses primarily on a new standalone mystery. It also deals with the fallout from the season before, as another detective, Carl Reddick (Gregg Henry), investigates Skinner’s murder and begins to suspect Linden and Holder. The six episodes move at a breakneck pace, and as the main mystery — the murder of the entire family of military academy cadet Kyle Stansbury (Tyler Ross)— comes to a close, Linden’s fate seems all but sealed. Even as Holder refuses to give up his partner, despite the fact that he’s also at risk for his involvement in the cover-up, Reddick manages to put the pieces together and develop a fairly solid case against his fellow detective. And then: Linden confesses.
What happens next is an insidiously stupid twist. Just as Linden orders Reddick to arrest her, Mayor Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell, reprising his role from the first two seasons) returns riding a deus ex machina: The city can’t afford to let people know that James Skinner, a detective, was also a serial killer of young girls. So they cover up his death by flubbing the coroner’s report and ruling it a suicide, rendering Linden’s confession meaningless. Linden leaves the police force and the city of Seattle behind — until she returns for a flash forward reuniting her with now-divorced dad Holder. After delivering an uncharacteristically hokey speech about how happy her time with Holder made her, Linden chooses to stay in Seattle and, by the looks of it, embark on a romantic relationship with her former partner.
From a plot perspective, it just doesn’t make sense. Prior to this final scene, Linden and Holder shared a single almost-kiss in the Season 3 episode “Reckoning.” At the time, both seemed to instantly agree it was a very bad idea. For much of Season 4, Holder was committed to his lawyer girlfriend Caroline (Jewel Staite), and while their relationship didn’t necessarily reflect an unbreakable bond, it’s still awfully convenient that Holder is single when Linden returns, as explained by an offhand line to his daughter. The emotional connection between these two characters has always been clear: Linden and Holder represent one of TV’s best and most complex duos. But the decision to let them ride off into the sunset together is nonsensical, not an obvious end point for the plot but rather a cheap way to end a somber, hopeless series with a smile.
And therein lies the bigger problem: While the ending is strange from a plot perspective, it’s more flagrant for being tonally inconsistent with the series as a whole. The Killing is as close to nihilism as TV gets: It’s not there to offer hope for mankind or even for its characters. As sad as it would be to see Linden or Holder locked up, it would at least be in line with the futility of their attempts to do the right thing. Even if the series had ended with Linden leaving Seattle after Richmond’s cover-up of her crime, that would have reflected (and paid off) the government corruption that dominated much of the first two seasons. But to then return with an ending that gives both Linden and Holder a chance at happiness together is downright disingenuous. It’s insulting to viewers who made it all the way through this confounding, unsettling, and heartbreaking series. A happy ending isn’t the release the audience needed: It’s a slap in the face.
With conversations about TV being too depressing — a frequent complaint leveled at The Leftovers that surely also applies to The Killing — it feels strange to complain about a show attempting some positivity. But a happy ending must be earned. The Killing showed us a world in which bad things happen to good people, and nothing ever wraps up as neatly as you’d hope. For the same series to offer a sentimental epilogue is the ultimate cop-out: If you’re going to make the audience hurt, at least be consistent about it. The final scene of the series finale is the wrong time to start treating viewers with kid gloves. Suddenly a show about guilt and loss becomes a sunny romance. Real life doesn’t work that way, so why should The Killing?