Joel Kinnaman, left, and Mireille Enos in a scene from Season 2 of "The… (Frank Ockenfels, AMC )
When "The Killing" concluded its first season on AMC in June 2011, cries of dismay not heard since David Chase finished off "The Sopranos" with 10 seconds of carefully crafted dead air rang throughout the land. Seemingly ready to declare, after much hemming and hawing, that Seattle City Council President and mayoral candidate Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) was the killer of teenager Rosie Larsen, it changed its mind in the final minutes, leaving many viewers, critics and citizens alike, feeling they had been victims themselves of an insult and an injury.
Now it is back, with a second season starting Sunday to further test your patience, confirm your fears or fulfill your hopes, as its bedraggled heroine, homicide detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), begins to deal with the fact that evidence she thought real had been fabricated and that street-talking new partner Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), whom she was just starting to like, was somehow mixed up in it.
Although the mood has changed somewhat — which is to say, it has grown even more dark and dour, with a new note of paranoia — the two-hour opener does not represent in any significant sense a change of plan, style or approach. Though some specific questions will be cleared up, or at least made less muddy, it will not leave you any closer to the bottom of the mystery, as there is still the rest of the season to fill out.
Even within the space of that episode what looks to be true will change and change again. Indeed, it's hard to remember without reviewing them all the wrong turns the case took in Season 1: sex crime, serial killing, act of terrorism, sordid something-or-other, breath mint, candy mint.
I like "The Killing" and its naturalistic, if perhaps too persistently damp and gloomy, take on film noir. (Even the sympathetic viewer eventually can come to feel himself afflicted with a case of seasonal affective disorder.) I even approve of its cliffhanger.
I definitely prefer it to the conclusion creator Veena Sud, reimagining a popular Danish series, seemed about to offer up — though I can see how it might have felt like a last straw after a season of red herrings and reversals. (But something was going to have to keep Sarah from flying off to Sonoma and a boring new life with her clearly dispensable fiance; that is not a show anyone would have returned to watch.)
It isn't perfect, certainly. The political story line, which features an evil mayor lacking only a waxed mustache to twirl, a decadent young gazillionaire and, that old favorite, a construction project, feels a little too familiar. Even Richmond's quasi-lovelorn aide (Eric Ladin) is very much a recognizable, not to say parodied, type. I can see its practical uses, but on its own, it's far from compelling.
The detectives, for their part, are forever questioning suspects out of the presence of a lawyer and generally conduct their investigation without much respect to whether they're creating a lot of inadmissible evidence. This is standard operating procedure on TV cop shows, of course, but the flaws of "The Killing" are more pronounced for their being set against its ambitions and successes.
Beneath its complicated, many-charactered superstructure, the series seems to me the story of three women: Sarah; Mitch Larsen (Michelle Forbes), the mother of the murdered girl; and Gwen Eaton (Kristin Lehman), candidate Richmond's advisor and undercover lover. None are particularly young — that's a good thing, for the story and for Hollywood — and all of them are on edge. This is music for knitted brows, penetrating stares and questions answered with silence. (Sud happily keeps her characters from becoming too articulate or self-knowing.)
Not to scant the men, notably Brent Sexton as Mitch's husband Stan, whose grieving tends to turn brutal, and Kinnaman's most original Holder — imagine Shaggy with career ambitions and a former meth habit. But, like male dancers in classical ballet, they often strike me as instruments to show off the women, if just by troubling them. That's not to say they don't get their solos.
Billboards advertising the series' first season asked "Who killed Rosie Larsen?" But the bigger mysteries here belong to the living — nearly every major character has had some dark secret to reveal, and it's the progress through these that draw us forward. (One of last season's best episodes saw Sarah and Holder off the case for a day, as they searched for her missing son and guardedly got to know each other better.) What will become of Sarah matters more, finally, than what happened to Rosie.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)