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Okay, Killing fans. I know I’ve spent a lot (a lot) of time complaining about the Ray Seward/death row scenes during the nine weeks we’ve spent together. And let’s be fair here: I’ve had a lot of ammo with which to make my case, haven’t I? The empty platitudes about prison life, the stereotypical inmates, the interplay of the guards that’s felt at times like a bad prison movie, the slow, almost non-existent Seward plot. And the worst of it: wasting a prime talent like Peter Sarsgaard, allowing him to be so cruelly wasted with lousy dialogue and a glacial plot. But I saw a quote from Sarsgaard before this week’s episode, “Six Minutes,” and man, I hoped it was true. Sarsgaard stated that this was one of his best performances in a long time.
And wow. He was right. Sarsgaard in this episode is an unequivocal tour de force. He gives a masterclass in acting, and, dare I say, he justifies, in 40-some minutes, the inclusion of Ray Seward this season. Well done, writers. It sure did take a long freaking time, but well done. I shouldn’t be surprised. Even during the less-than-stellar episodes, The Killing has always featured laudable acting performances: from the usual standouts Enos and Kinnaman, as well as notable guest stars like Michelle Forbes and Bex Taylor-Klaus (by the way, please take her out of the opening credits; I have a Bullet-sized hole in my heart, people). And after this week, we can unabashedly add Peter Sarsgaard to the list of Killing standouts. Did I say this already? Wow.
But before I can start gushing endlessly about the genius of Peter Sarsgaard, I have to give major props to this episode’s opening scene, a genuinely creepy nod to the sheer terror and confusion of an execution. All the usual suspects are here: Becker, Henderson, their cronies, and a figure whose head is sheathed in a black hood. He’s got leather straps around his limbs and a noose around his neck. His crimes are read aloud, and when he doesn’t have any last words, his body drops and then hangs like a rag doll. Okay, so it’s not Seward. The death squad is practicing to make sure things go smoothly in 11 hours, when Seward is executed. But for a second – just a second – I think it might be him. I’m almost disappointed. I don’t want Seward to die, not for a crime he didn’t commit, and after this week, I’m dying to see Sarsgaard again next week (I'm not going to get my wish.) However, it would’ve shown a lot of chutzpah to kill Seward off, and then spend three hours exploring how such a travesty occurred. But that’s too dark, even for this show, and we have to put up with an excruciating (and amazing) hour before Seward dies. (Yes, he dies. Of course he does.)
I don’t know if there are enough accolades in the English language to properly describe the acting talents of Peter Sarsgaard as displayed tonight. And to be sure, this episode hinges entirely on the acting. I’ll admit, I was a bit leery about the idea of a whole show stuck in the confines of a prison. I’ve admired the pacing of this third season, with the way three seemingly disparate storylines have been neatly woven together, with their endpoint death row and a condemned man who’s never really had a chance. But those storylines have been mutating as of late, with the most interesting of the homeless teens dead or MIA (RIP again, Bullet), and Lyric and Twitch living in a new apartment, which, let’s face it, doesn’t make for riveting television. And the mystery of the serial killer, who’s been stalking at-risk youth and cutting off their ring fingers, has seemingly been solved (not really, but stay with me). So we’re left with Seward, who’s a lot of things – angry, defiant, cruel, confused – but almost certainly not a killer. Even so, he knows throughout this episode, and we know, that he’s going to die anyway. Oh, there are a few moments during which he hopes otherwise, and we hope with him. Sarah Linden, whose testimony helped put him in a windowless box, the only escape a noose around his neck and a long, long drop, is there, trying mightily to get him a stay, with only his wife’s ring as evidence that Tricia Seward’s killer is Joe Mills. And Linden’s partner, Holder, still drunk, punishing himself for failing to save Bullet, this season’s moral center, is there, too, providing black humor and constructive criticism. And waiting to see his dad just hours before the execution is little Adrian, who confesses that his dad was there the night his mother died. We find out later that he was there to collect the son he’d abandoned so many times, only to find that Tricia was dead. Ray, terrified the crime would be pinned on him (correct in this assumption) fled and left poor Adrian there with his mother’s body.
Becker, who’s taunted and mocked Ray all season is there, along with less-jaded (or so we think) guard Henderson, who seems to be on the outs with Becker. He doesn’t even want to be at the execution, but Becker is determined to introduce him to this less-savory aspect of their line of work. Becker’s son is, presumably, in prison for killing his own mother’s lover, but Francis never mentions the boy, preferring to spend his time making Seward miserable, by reminding him – constantly – of his own mortality, of the hours slipping away. He tries at first to prevent Seward from seeing Linden, the only chance he has for a stay (it’s not a very good chance, but still), and then when that fails, he turns to an even less-deserving target: Adrian, who, despite his obvious terror, wants to see his father one time. But Becker delights in denying this request, and when Ray finally agrees to see the boy – when he finally gives in to Linden’s cajoling, her begging, her manipulation, and worries about how he looks, what he’ll say to the child he hasn’t seen in so long – Becker informs him that it’s too late, and prepares him for death.
But Becker has a sort of reawakening in this episode. I’m not ready to canonize him, but in the end, it’s Becker who faces the cruelty of what they’re doing, not Henderson. It’s Becker who arranges for Adrian to be outside the window as Ray makes his way towards the gallows, giving Ray one, fleeting glimpse of his son. It’s Becker who allows Seward a few seconds of joy, teary eyes and all. It’s Becker who holds his fire when Seward keens and wails, unable to walk, and Henderson who harshly rebukes him for his sorrow. So it should come as no surprise that when the time comes, Becker is unable to place the hood over Ray’s haunted, tear-stained face, and Henderson has to step in. I’m not sure what this means for some of my pet theories about the killer. (We’ve got two hours left; if Joe Mills is involved, he’s not the sole killer). I’m not denying Becker’s sadistic streak this season, his indifference toward his family, his seeming malice towards Henderson, or his dereliction of duty the night Alton died. But I’m no longer entirely convinced that Becker has been spending his off-time murdering prostitutes. During the execution scene, Becker’s humanity shines through, and I won’t forget it.
Peter Sarsgaard doesn’t play Ray Seward tonight. That’s too banal a description for what I'm witnessing. No, Sarsgaard inhabits the character. He lives as him, shifting from cold and surly, hopeful and witty, keening and begging. And Sarsgaard’s tour de force doesn’t end when the noose drops. He tells Linden early in the episode that he’s terrified that his neck will fail to snap, leaving him to suffocate. True to Seward’s luck, no call from the governor comes, and the execution doesn’t go as planned. Ray is sobbing openly when Henderson places the hood, and he continues to cry until he's dropped through the trap door. But Sarsgaard isn’t done. As he hangs there, his body swinging and his air supply lessening with each second, Seward continues to wail, his cries mingling with his gasps. This is when Linden starts to cry (me, too). Because there are a few moments in this episode during which Seward actually believes – making me believe, too – that the governor will issue a stay, such as when he joyfully tells the guards to forget his last meal of Salisbury steak and vanilla ice cream. But this isn’t Seward’s lot in life, and though he resigns himself to his fate, Seward’s realization that he is a man who’s done many bad things, but that he doesn’t deserve to die, not like this, makes the entire episode feel suffocating.
Mireille Enos is also phenomenal this episode. Enos has always played Linden straight and plain, as a cop who throws herself into her job because she can't envision finding anything else to fill her time. She can’t handle relationships, and she has energy for work only. Even her son gets the short end of the stick. But Linden looks unglued from the moment she shows up at the prison to see Ray. Her hair is a mess, her eyes have dark shadows under them, the bruises she suffered at the hands of Joe Mills haven’t healed, and she seems like a woman on the edge. We can’t feign surprise. Linden has always been dangerously committed to her cases, and the thought that an innocent man might be about to die due to her mistake is too much for her to bear. So she takes Seward’s abuse, because she thinks she deserves it. She admits her own parenting and police failures without hesitation. Her interactions with Seward veer from unabashed loathing to grudging respect and back again. She tries to give up on him, because that’s what Linden does – she leaves – but in the end, she’s there, crying with Seward as he dies. Nobody gets any absolution this episode; not Adrian, who learns nothing about his father, and is only able to offer the condemned man one sad wave as he heads to the gallows; not Holder, who excoriates Linden when he should be kicking himself; not Becker, who, despite his show of humanity, still has a wife who hates him and a son in jail; not Henderson, who isn’t as kind as we’d hoped; not Linden, who spends the episode figuratively beating her head against a concrete wall because she can’t save a man she helped put away; and not Seward, who’s innocent of the crime for which he's killed.
If this episode has any problems (and acting isn’t one of them), it’s that it feels final. We don’t know who the killer is, not officially, but it almost doesn’t matter. With Linden’s mission ending in failure, Holder’s career on the ropes, and Seward’s pleas of innocence ignored, I’m not sure what we have left to fill another two hours. Oh, I know we want to find out who the killer is, and for the record, my money is on Reddick or Skinner, but “Six Minutes” feels like a conclusion, not a beginning. And with Bullet and Seward both dead, and Kallie likely deceased as well, who is there left to root for? We’ve got a season finale to get through (and if tonight’s episode is any indication, I’m going to spend it feeling like my soul is trapped in the jaws of a rabid wolverine), but there’s no one left to save.
Notes & Quotes
-- Holder takes his beer to the prison cemetery and throws every can. I don’t understand this scene. Is this a recommitment to sobriety?
-- Seward: “You think saving me is some kind of noble act? I didn’t care when I left every night. I didn’t give a damn when he screamed at me not to walk out on him. That night, every night. That’s who you’re saving!” Ouch.
-- Holder: “This is like a pattern with you, you now that? You’re always leaving, running, never staying. ‘Cause if you did, then you’d want it. You’d need it. And you could get hurt. And left. Or not left. What the Hell happened to you, Linden? Why are you always taking off?” Best summation of Linden’s character in three seasons right there.
-- Holder references the near-kiss from last week. (“I’m not going to try and kiss you again, Linden. You had your chance.”) I was hoping we’d never have to bring it up again. At least the exchange is funny.
-- Linden: “Ray, Adrian’s right outside. He’s waiting for you. Don’t leave without letting him see you, know you. He will carry that with him every time he looks in the mirror: the broken parts of you, because you never let him see the best part.” No surprise this is what convinces Ray. It convinces me.
-- The scene in which Seward finds out he can’t see Adrian is stunning. When Ray reverts to threats and violence, all of which Adrian can hear, we understand that Seward was raised with cruelty, and he can’t escape it even at the end.
-- What is the purpose of re-weighing Ray prior to the execution? At first, I assume the guards are attempting to ensure a pain-free death, but then he suffocaes anyway (man, that scene is torture to watch, and I'm sure I'll see it again when Sarsgaard wins an Emmy). So do the guards just suck at weighing, or should we assume that one of them wants him to suffer?
-- Fabulous camera work this episode. The lead up to the execution, in which Seward’s vision is blurry and his steps uncertain, is amazing.
-- Seward: “Salisbury steak’s not steak. It’s ground beef. No. Let’s get this show on the road, Warden.” Somehow these feel like fitting last words, and how appropriate Seward starts to cry afterwards.