I have been fascinated with Detective Sarah Linden’s femininity (or lack thereof) since the The Killing premiered on AMC last year. It is blatantly obvious to this former English major that the writing staff strictly adheres to their character bibles, and I love it! (see ’ma? My degree was worth it! Sorta…)
Most serial drama lady cops have a particular duality to them: they’re the tough gal at work, but they have another defining quality underscoring their “femaleness”—usually their sexuality, motherhood, or the estrogen-driven emotional irrationality that comes with ladydom, of course. For example, Dexter’s Lieutenant María LaGuerta is a demanding boss in the field, but she flirts and uses her sexuality to sustain her power (and subsequently ends up undermining it). Or there is Detective Olivia Benson from Law and Order: SVU. I won’t harp on the amount of makeup she wears nor how attractive Mariska Hargitay is (although I guess that’s what happens when this is your mother), but it should be noted that even she gets pinned down as a “mother figure” in the twelfth season when she is appointed with a guardianship. More importantly, Benson has a reputation for getting too emotionally involved in cases—because that’s what ladies in law enforcement do, right?Enter Sarah Linden. The pilot of The Killing sets the subversive tone from the first shot. We see Linden, barefaced and freckled, on her morning run. Steady. Focused. In the zone.
This image of a focused Linden is intercut with shots of another running female: a hysterical Rosie Larsen—young and beautiful, makeup running down her face—thrashing through dark woods trying to escape her soon-to-be killer.
As Linden continues her run, she sees something suspicious ahead of her … near the water … is it a body? Is this the cue for dramatic irony? I’m on the edge of my seat! I know Rosie was attacked last night … now it’s obviously the next morning … my heart is racing … could it be?
No. It’s a dead sea animal and, frankly, Linden doesn’t even flinch.
Next thing we know, she’s being called to a murder scene. If you haven’t yet been convinced of her steadiness, watch Linden as she methodically enters the scene, slowly making her way through a horror-movie-like warehouse (blood splatters and all) to discover a hanging dead body. Only it’s not a body. It’s a female blow-up doll, and the lights go on as all of Linden’s male colleagues begin singing “For she’s a jolly good fellow” on her supposed last day on the job.
So Linden is kind of a dude—at least in terms of TV gender norms. She completely botches her impending marriage and has a son she’s incapable of connecting with (there’s no latent maternal instinct here; she’s a dunce with him). Neither her role as “wife” nor “mother” fit her into the typical “feminine” model of most TV lady cops.
But wait, just when I thought they’d managed to completely steer clear of the typical gender stereotypes, here it comes.
Linden might be crazy.
But not crazy in the über-estrogen-fueled-emotionally-erratic kind of way most women are portrayed.
Throughout the series, Linden’s friends and co-workers constantly warn her to “be careful” and “not forget what happened last time,” apparently referring to the “last time” she got too involved in a case. In this season’s episode “72 Hours,” we (finally!) get more than a glimpse of what these vague warnings are alluding to when Linden is forcefully institutionalized under false pretenses. She is institutionalized not because she is actually in danger of harming herself or others but because she is getting too close to solving the murder, and a few higher-ups pull strings to get her out of their way.
Even though this is a plot contrivance, the institutionalization gives the show the opportunity to include numerous intense and emotionally revealing scenes of Linden with a female psychologist. The gender of the psychologist is significant because I’m convinced the writers have made a conscious decision that in Linden vs. male conflicts, Linden always wins. In Linden vs. female conflicts, anything goes. I’d say this particular game ends in a stalemate. The psychologist keeps trying to needle into Linden’s psyche, insisting that there must be something about these cases keeping her obsessed, pushing her to admit that it must have something to do with being abandoned by her mother when she was five (I guess we understand the lack of a maternal instinct now!). When Linden begins to get teary and it appears as though she might just crack, I’m not sure if the character is actually falling victim to the psychologist’s traumatic prompts or if she is just fed up with the whole charade and wants to get the hell out of there.
Like I said, she shouldn’t have been in the mental hospital in the first place. And I’d wager that any logical human being, male or female, would get emotional after an unwarranted invasion into their psyche.
***Spoiler alert*** For those of you who have not yet seen the finale (and care), the answer to the series’ biggest question—“Who killed Rosie Larsen?”—is revealed below.
Linden’s staunch “unfemaleness” is highlighted most forcefully in the season two finale as we stumble into a collision of motherhood, sexuality, and the crazy female. At long last, we learn “who killed Rosie Larsen” with a painful confession from Rosie’s own aunt Terry. Terry, who has been an escort since time immemorial, sobs and apologizes to her sister Mitch (Rosie’s mother and the show’s key maternal figure), finally exclaiming “I didn’t know it was Rosie” as we flash back to what really happened that night.
Terry’s “boyfriend” was leaving his wife for her that night when he was summoned to the crisis scene where Rosie had already been locked in a car trunk after overhearing a covert meeting. Terry sat alone in the car as the men argued over what to do about the girl in the trunk who “heard everything.” Her boyfriend then exclaimed that he wouldn’t leave! He’d stay with his wife! (as if this had anything to do with the crisis?). In a panic, Terry gets out of the car holding the girl, releases the emergency break, and lets the car ride into the water. In a particularly excruciating moment in televised dramatic irony, we hear Rosie screaming for help from the trunk as her own aunt looks on.
Terry moans and even pathetically runs to her sister’s arms for a hug (which she gets!), and we (and Linden) are forced to look at this escort apologizing to her grieving sister. Her confession is the show’s most tragic moment (and believe me, there are TONS to choose from), but even throughout this heavily charged emotional experience, Linden simply looks on—stone-faced, perhaps in shock, but in a decidedly rational, “masculine” fashion.
She doesn’t shed a tear. She doesn’t lash out. And though they don’t show it, I imagine she goes home, gets into her sweats, goes for a steady run, and probably hocks a loogie or two as she clears her head for the next case. This is not your mother’s lady cop.