American television has found much inspiration from Nordic dramas in recent years. Direct adaptations like The Killing, The Bridge and Those Who Kill all share similar themes: female detectives who are dark, driven and come with haunted pasts, killers who are twisted from the core and always come from within (cops, security guards, family members) and each series carries an at times overwhelming sense of foreboding. I have taken to the genre, if for no other reason than the partnerships these modern noirs produce are richer than those found on traditional police procedurals. For that reason, I should be the target audience for Those Who Kill, but there was a gracelessness in the pilot’s storytelling that left me questioning whether or not it can capture the darkness inherent in shows about killers without drowning in the misery of it all.
Chloe Sevigny fits seamlessly into the role of Detective Catherine Jensen. Catherine is guarded, an officer who administers justice as she sees fit. She is closed off and pursuing a personal case connected to her brother, whom she believes was killed by her stepfather. There were also signs of abuse, as she noted in the pilot, “I’ve been locked in a box before.” She is from the same mold as The Killing‘s Sarah Linden and The Bridge‘s Sonya Cross, two of television’s more compelling female characters. However, no matter how valiant Sevigny’s efforts are, she alone can’t keep such a dour and overtly disturbing series afloat.
The killer in episode one feeds off degrading women. In a fit of pseudo-psycho babble, Professor Thomas Schaeffer (James D’Arcy) says the serial killer targets women trying to better their lives because he cannot better his own. The kiler, a security guard, employs sadistic techniques including locking his victims in a box, forcing them to cross their arms, feeding them cat food and other stomach churning actions that seem to suggest a deeper psychological need to control and degrade his victims. In the world of Those Who Kill, Thomas the serial killer whisperer is always right though, and the show offers no further reasoning for the mad man’s rituals.
Aside from the pilot lingering far too long on the actual violence perpetrated by the killer, Thomas is the series’ weakest link. D’Arcy and Sevigny play off of each other nicely as they bond over a twin obsession with killers, but as a character Thomas’ behavior is deplorable. When Catherine is screaming after being locked in the box by the killer, he prolongs and adds to her agony by further shutting her in. He does this under the guise of getting into the mindset of their mark, but his methods go beyond unorthodox into the realm of the sadistic. Later, Catherine pulls her gun on him and he threatens her before giving her advice that ultimately leads to her surviving a second attack.
For the series to paint Thomas as Catherine’s savior is alarming. He sees her in fear and disregards her feelings and the safety of the victim in order to better understand the twisted mind of a killer. The suggestion is that Thomas is teetering on the brink of madness himself. I”m not saying there isn’t a worthy story to be told there, but it’s a strange way to introduce a character to the audience, and to ask us to see him as heroic is a Herculean task.
Meanwhile, Those Who Kill suffers from technical issues too, most prominently the writing. In episode one, there is no grace to to the storytelling. It wallows in misery relentlessly and tells a self-contained serial killer case that suggests we could be in for a case of the week format as Thomas and Catherine inch their way toward the truth about her brother. If Those Who Kill has no further aspirations than to be a particularly shocking procedural, then it needs to up its game.
A good noir needs strong storytelling to go along with a capable cast. The series didn’t have a promising start, but if it moves away from lingering on shots of torture and sees the virtue in developing its characters, it could grow into something intriguing. If not, then Those Who Kill could be DOA even with the superb Sevigny as its star.
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