There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
“What You Have Left,” the sixth episode of The Killing’s first season. Based on the Danish police procedural Forbrydelsen (“the crime”), The Killing aired for four seasons between 2011 and 2014 on AMC and Netflix. It follows the grim, difficult cases of Seattle homicide detective Sarah Linden, played by Mireille Enos. “What You Have Left” aired in the middle of season 1, at a pivotal moment in the season-long investigation into the death of popular high schooler Rosie Larsen. But for fans of dark-hued crime stories and prestige television, the episode is most notable because it’s the first television credit for acclaimed fiction writer and True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto.
Why watch now?
Because the third season of Pizzolatto’s crime anthology series True Detective debuts this Sunday night on HBO.
True Detective’s first season became a phenomenon almost as soon as it debuted in January 2014. It drew critical acclaim for its performances, visual style, and for the way Pizzolatto weaves a complicated mystery narrative. The first season is set in Louisiana in two different eras, dealing with how a horrific, cultish crime both bonds and destroys two cops. Season 2, which launched in 2015, was a bit of a bust. Its story of cops and criminals investigating the death of a corrupt city manager mostly drew negative comparisons with the first season. But this latest run brings back much of what initially made True Detective a success. It has a distinctive location (Northwest Arkansas), two strong actors in the lead (Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff), and a time-hopping, era-spanning story that begins with the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s.
True Detective is what made Pizzolatto about as famous as TV writer-producers become, and though he’s only in his early 40s, there’s a good chance this show will define his name in the industry for the rest of his life. But his writing career started out in a different direction. In the early 2000s, he wrote short stories that were anthologized in “best of the year” collections and nominated for major awards. His moody, literary 2010 crime novel Galveston was up for an Edgar Award. While still riding that book’s buzz — and working on a follow-up, which he later abandoned and then repurposed into what became True Detective — Pizzolatto signed on to work on The Killing.
The American version of The Killing was created by The Salton Sea director and Seven Seconds creator Veena Sud, and the episode “What You Have Left” was helmed by acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, Treme, House of Cards). So it’s clearly overreaching to say that every good idea in this episode was Pizzolatto’s. But it’s an uncommonly gripping hour, even removed from the context of the show’s sprawling “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” mystery.
As the dogged Detective Linden and her scruffy partner Stephen Holder (Altered Carbon’s Joel Kinnaman) pursue multiple leads — all pointing them to Rosie’s teacher Bennett Ahmed as the prime suspect — the Larsen family braces themselves for their daughter’s wake, while a local politician prepares for a mayoral debate where his associations with Ahmed may come up. Like Pizzolatto’s short stories and novel, “What You Have Left” keeps its plot moving, but it’s just as concerned with the far-reaching repercussions of an unsolved crime, and the frustrating uncertainty about who to blame and why.
Who it’s for
Highbrow pulp aficionados.
Pizzolatto has been a divisive figure ever since the first flush of True Detective’s success. In interviews, he can come off as somewhat egotistical, defensively dismissive of both critics and collaborators. He left the staff of The Killing early in the production of season 2, dissatisfied that he had to modulate his voice to fit Sud’s. Season 3 True Detective director Jeremy Saulnier dropped out after two episodes, reportedly due to creative disputes with Pizzolatto, who was also said to have butted heads with season 1’s director Cary Fukunaga. When Pizzolatto felt director Mélanie Laurent put too much of her own stamp on her (actually very good) 2018 Galveston movie, he changed his name in the credits to a pseudonym. He’s an intense man.
But he makes memorable television. Pizzolatto may get too caught up in macho philosophizing about the nature of good and evil, but he’s internalized a lot of what makes the best crime fiction work. He tells stories with vivid characters in well-defined settings, digging into mysteries that are messy, elusive, and tied to larger issues of political power that feel just a little more important than the average whodunnit.
Even working with material he didn’t originate, Pizzolatto has a keen ability to get to the point. The Killing meanders at times, but “What You Have Left” has real snap, with each scene revealing something either about the case or the characters. The political debate sequence, in particular, has meaningful urgency. As candidate Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) gets hammered for a well-meaning community program that boosted Bennett Ahmed’s career, it’s clear how much everyone in Seattle seems to need some kind of closure on the Rosie Larsen murder, with an obvious monster to hunt and destroy. The rest of the episode shows how difficult those kinds of villains can be to pin down.
Where to see it
Hulu and Amazon Prime both have the full run of The Killing available. (Netflix produced the fourth and final season, yet the service currently isn’t carrying any of the series.) Meanwhile, catching up with True Detective requires an HBO subscription. And while Galveston isn’t on any streaming service yet (except to buy), it is airing on Cinemax this month.