‘Better to burn out than fade away’, proclaimed Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, quoting Neil Young’s lyrics to ‘Hey, Hey, My, My’. It’s a sentiment which holds a lot of appeal in an age, as critic Simon Reynolds has it, of ‘retromania’, where the cultural landscape is dominated by ageing bands on endless reunion tours, ‘classic’ works that are seemingly continually reissued, and long-running TV and film franchises that are constantly reworked and recycled for the last drops of profitability. Artists who are brave enough to know their own creative shelf-life, we are assured, are thin on the ground.
We’ve been treated to our own on-screen blowout this week, with the final episodes of the Danish TV series Forbryldsen (The Killing). The show has certainly had an incandescent quality for UK viewers, shooting from being another worthy foreign curio on arts channel BBC4 to heralding a Scandinavian revolution in our crime-thriller appetites since it was first screened last year. Now, after three series and 40 episodes, it is apparently gone for good in a blaze of glory, leaving behind only a craving for Sarah Lund’s unique brand of knitwear and a host of imitators such as The Bridge.
In truth, as with Cobain, the question of whether the departure really happened at a creative peak is contestable and inevitably unknowable. The Killing III undoubtedly provided compelling drama up until the last shocking seconds where (spoiler alert from here on in) indefatigable incorruptible cop Lund blew the brains out of a suspect. Yet it’s been difficult to escape the sense that The Killing - far from revolutionising drama, as is sometimes slightly excitedly claimed - has been offering diminishing returns since its first astonishing series (which premiered in Denmark over five years ago).
That debut series grabbed attention for going beyond the normal conventions of its genre, offering a sprawling view of how a single crime wove together disparate elements of society, from the infighting and murky shadows of state institutions through the personal stories of those involved, most notably its unusual focus on the effects of the murder on the family involved. The dramatic polish of these elements – led by the minimalist restraint of Sofie Gråbøl’s Lund - often overshadowed the slightly more outlandish plotting that maintained the dramatic pace over 20 episodes: the question of who actually committed the killing itself always felt like a sideline from the portrait of Danish society we were being given.
Yet, as the series progressed, it became increasingly clear that writer Søren Sveistrup was painting in broad-brush watercolours rather than anything more vivid. The second series tackled the war in Afghanistan, yet its dramatic justification seemed as flimsy and vague as the confused reasons for the war itself. The third series picked up the dramatic pace, but largely repeated all the elements of the first series (murdered teenage girl, a cover-up, a grieving family, and political infighting), with the added impact of an antagonist with almost superhuman levels of intelligence and resourcefulness.