The Promise of the Premise

I’ve been reading reaction posts and review of the season finale of AMC’s The Killing all morning and I’ve noticed one thing- none of the people complaining about the season finale seem to be X-Files fans.

There is all this shock, disappointment and complaining about the end of the episode “Orpheus Descending”, about how nothing was answered and only more questions were asked.

(There are vague spoilers below for The Killing.  Here be dragons, enter at your own risk.)

Like the end of a season of The X-Files.  My surprise here wasn’t that they screwed with us, that they revealed a traitor and that the killer may not actually be the killer (at least the evidence that linked him to the crime was faked) and so on- my surprise was that they spent a lot of time and money asking “Who killed Rosie Larsen?”, promising to tell us, and then they DIDN’T.

Look, I get that the show wanted to do something different.  They didn’t want to be CSI or NCIS or Law & Order or Homicide: Life on the Street (although why they WOULDN’T want to be H:LotS, I have no idea- that show was my JAM)- they wanted to avoid the one hour procedural and really make the case dense and twisted and not easy for the audience to figure out.

Ignoring for the moment that there are some people who watch mystery/murder/procedurals because they LIKE guessing the end, the writers and producers of The Killing could have done a lot with the premise that they set out with.  A young girl, Rosie Larsen, is murdered, drowned in the trunk of a car used by the campaign of a mayoral candidate inSeattle.  Sounds pretty good, right?  Lots of suspects, lots of twists and turns, lots of ways to really work this case right.  And tons of ways to screw it up, if the aftermath reviews of the show are anything to go by.

The promise that we are given, based on both the genre of the story that is being told and by the network’s own advertising blitz, is that we will, in fact, find out who killed Rosie Larsen.  It’s a mystery.  We put in the time, watching the detectives find clues and then we get an answer.  Even The X-Files, which was a show notorious for not giving viewers an official, “we could take this to court, it’s so solid” ending, they at least let the viewers in on the gag from time to time.  Mulder and Scully didn’t see it, but YOU did and now YOU know the truth.

When you make a promise to your viewers or your readers, you are expected to fulfill that promise.  If you do not, you risk losing those viewers or readers for future episodes or projects.  Failing to deliver on the premise can feel like a manipulation, like a lie, and people do not like to be manipulated or lied to.

Now, there are shows that break the rules.  Shows that take a convention for a genre and they twist it.  But the thing about breaking or twisting the rules is that you have to start with what the rules dictate first and go on from there.  One of the reasons that Christopher Nolan’s Memento worked so well was that he really, truly understood story structure and how to craft a linear tale.  He had a tight story down on paper and then he was able to manipulate the order in which he revealed the story to the viewer, making his movie a one-of-a-kind watching experience.  The DVD of Memento allows you to watch the film as it was released or in linear order.  Both versions of the film make sense.  That is how you know that the writing works, that the skeleton of the story is sound.

There are shows that have great twists.  The secret to a great twist is that while it might at FIRST seem like a lie or a manipulation, it isn’t actually either of those things.  Look at a story like The Sixth Sense.  The reason that the twist ending works is that once you know the secret, it makes perfect sense.  You can go back and re-watch the film and all the clues are there, you just didn’t know what you were looking at.  You didn’t have the dictionary, so you couldn’t translate the text.  Once you do, it’s all there, very clearly laid out, and you don’t feel manipulated, you feel let in on the secret.

And that’s what you want.  You want the reader to feel that they have been let into a different world, where the rules have been changed and suddenly nothing is as it seems.  You want them to get excited to know more.  You want them to go back over the text you have provided previously (past episodes, previous chapters, etc.) looking for the clues that would have given it away if they had known what they were seeing and you want them to FIND those moments.  If you don’t give your reader or your viewer that opportunity, you will lose them.  You do not want to earn a reputation as a liar, as someone who is willing to screw the viewer over for a cheap, flashy moment.

When I was in college, I took a comparative literature class on detective stories.  The rules for a good detective story are very simple.  Give the reader everything they need to solve the case but don’t let them know that’s what they’ve been given.  Never end the story in such a way that the reader can’t go back and figure out how you did it.  The detective can never find things out off page and then reveal it later, when laying out the whos and the whats of the story.  That’s cheating and readers don’t like it.  You have to be upfront and honest, even if you hide that behind a few smoke and mirrors that can be easily seen through later in the book.

The Killing is failing in a number of ways.  They’re keeping information away from us so that we can’t solve the crime on our own.  They aren’t giving us much in the way of character commentary, especially on the part of our investigators.  We don’t get very many externally expressed theories or ideas based on the clues.  The stuff we get generally precedes the reveal of a red herring or some action that is later revealed to be a mistake.

We aren’t getting to know the characters well enough.  I don’t give a shit about any of them, except maybe Rosie Larsen’s parents.  And that’s mostly because Brent Sexton was Bobby on NBC’s late, great Life.  So, if you aren’t giving me enough of the mystery and you aren’t giving me enough character work, what’s left?  The setting?  Rainy, dreary Seattle?  Give me a break.  If I want to watch a lot of that weather, I’ll just pop in my Supernatural DVD set or stream some X-Files or Vampire Diaries on Netflix.

What they had going for them was the mystery.  It was intriguing, it was deep and dark and dangerous, and a young girl’s death was waiting to be accounted for.  What I had hoped they would do, once I heard that there was going to be a second season, was what Life did.  They solved one mystery but in the solving, they revealed a larger, deeper mystery that drove the story into season 2. 

It was satisfying because, as a viewer, you hate to get strung along and by giving us an answer to the question they’ve been pounding away at for 22 episodes, it feels good to watch.  But by presenting a new mystery, you give the viewer a reason to come back for the next installment.  And because the viewer knows they were given an answer before, it will be easier to keep them around for mystery #2, as the viewer trusts that they will eventually find out just what’s going on.

AMC could have revealed who really killed Rosie Larsen.  They could have let the viewer in on the secret even if the detectives did not know the answer.  They could have had the detectives solve the crime but uncover an even more sinister plot, one that will require yet another season to dig through.  They could have but they didn’t and, sadly, that makes me less likely to return to the series when it comes back to cable next year.

Remember their mistakes, dear reader, and consider them when crafting your own stories and series.  Remember that people who pay money for your product don’t want to feel cheated or lied to.  They want to feel satisfied at the end, no matter what the twist is.  You don’t have to give us a happy ending, you just have to give us an ending that makes sense based on what has come before.  It can be difficult to do so, yes, but it is worth the effort when you get loyal fans/readers coming back, time and again, to read your work.

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