Character Mitch Larsen, “The Killing”
Sunday evenings in high school, I attended youth services at a local evangelical church. One Sunday, I tagged along on a post-worship excursion to the McDonald’s on Main Street. We ate fries and drank shakes. There was a boy there, Ron, a black-haired kid with a wide grin whom I liked but who I knew was out of my league. Whenever there was a lag in the conversation, Ron liked to bust out raps about Jesus’s coolness. That summer night, after the shakes and fries, my girlfriends and I lingered in the parking lot, giggling approvingly at Ron’s raps. I think it occurred to me to call home, but I didn’t have change—and I didn’t want the night to end, as I knew it would when I heard my mother’s voice. Around 9 p.m., I was finally dropped off at our mobile home park. My mother was in quite a state. It seems she had called the police, telling them that her daughter should have been home hours ago. I don’t know exactly what she asked the police to do, or if she managed to articulate a request at all. Maybe she just assumed that, hearing I was missing, they would begin combing the streets, on the lookout for a girl, seventeen years old, 5’8, with dark hair, a little overweight from all the shakes and fries.
That night, my mother threatened to deprive me of a sought-after privilege: a trip to an evangelical sleep-away camp in the mountains, which was to start the following week. It took a lot of cajoling, but I eventually managed to convince her to let me go to camp. It’s taken much longer to work through the anger I felt toward her back then. I was angry that my mother held me tightly. I was angry that, as soon as I grew breasts and hips, she acted as though I had become a danger to myself. It never occurred to me to look at her, shake my head, and say, I’m a good kid, for heaven’s sake.
More than twenty years later, I find myself watching a lot of crime shows that feature a girl-goes-missing, parent-freaks-out narrative. Admittedly, crime shows aren’t the most likely place to work through childhood resentment, but I’ve found them helpful. I’ve come to see that Sunday-night scene from high school as belonging to a certain genre of scenes. If Mom believed young female sexuality was dangerous, so do a lot of crime shows, even ostensibly feminist and forward-thinking ones. In the typical girl-goes-missing show, or what Alice Bolin calls the Dead Girl Show, a beautiful young girl disappears, or turns up dead, or very often disappears and then turns up dead. The young girl is also, incidentally almost always white, a whiteness which plays into (white) viewers’ delusions about racial innocence. Soon, a detective arrives on the scene, determined, often for very personal reasons, like a loss in his or her own past, to get to the bottom of the crime. In the course of the investigation, it emerges that this girl who seemed so good, so innocent, was actually dabbling in say, a prostitution ring or a bit of satanic sex. Or, and this seems to be equally dangerous, she had a habit of staying out late with her boyfriend. Watching crime shows, I find myself silently cheering on the missing girl, willing her to be off someplace having a good time, maybe having some really great sex, or at least enjoying a fatty milkshake. Sadly, she never is.
Like Bolin, I find myself drawn to the missing or dead girl, who through her absence has the power to haunt those she leaves behind: she possesses a mysterious charisma that girls in the here and now rarely achieve. Almost equally intriguing to me, however, is the missing girl’s mother. I first began to understand her singular function in the missing-girl narrative while watching the original Twin Peaks a few months ago, around the time the series was celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. I was, of course, not allowed to watch it the first time it aired, in the early 1990s: had I asked, Mom would have said it was far too risqué. Many critics, Bolin included, have argued that Peaks perpetuates the male gaze, but what struck me most was its satire, above all its satire of authority figures like sheriffs, FBI agents, and missing-girl parents. In the pilot, sheriff deputy Andy weeps beside the plastic-wrapped figure on the riverbank before anyone even knows who she is. “My god, Andy . . . is this going to happen every damn time?” Sherriff Harry S. Truman sighs, implying Andy’s crime-scene weeping is a regular occurrence. A few episodes later, a city-slicker FBI boss stalks around the autopsy room, wielding a drill and telling anyone who will listen he’s not about to release Laura Palmer’s body before he’s done a proper autopsy. His white lab coat is splattered with blood. In an exchange that could come straight out of a bad TV Western, the FBI boss calls Sherriff Truman a “hulking boob” and a “chowder-headed yokel”; Truman slugs the boss in return, sending him careening onto Laura’s corpse. A close-up of the boss sprawled on top of Laura’s prone body evokes the man-on-top sex scene, with a perverted twist. This, Peaks seems to be saying, is where the detective show’s fascination with murdered girls logically leads: to necrophilia.
Twin Peaks reserves its most cutting irony for Laura’s parents, Sarah and Leland. At home in her kitchen, smoking nervously, Sarah calls Leland to ask him if he’s seen Laura. They’re still on the phone when Sheriff Truman walks into Leland’s workplace to tell him of Laura’s death. Overhearing the news, Sarah howls with grief. After a moment the camera cuts away from her and back to Leland, focusing on the black telephone Leland has been holding. In a parody of art-house cinema’s preoccupation with inanimate objects—think the lingering of shot of the wall that stands between a grieving Brando and his mother-in-law in Last Tango in Paris—there’s a close-up of the phone’s dial pad. The camera pans slowly down the curly black cord, to contemplate the receiver lying on the floor. Sarah’s cries of ooooooooooh! can still be heard coming through the phone’s speaker. The moment is tense, uncomfortable, but also, to my mind, refreshing in its refusal to enshrine parental grief as the sacred stuff that whitewashes an otherwise salacious plot. In focusing on the telephone, a classic object of mediation, Peaks seems to be nudging us to remember that we’re not watching real sorrow. This is a representation of loss, and a parodic one at that.
With her ironic portrayal, Sarah is an exception when it comes to the crime-show mom. In nine shows out of ten, the mom is our moral alibi, the figure who, with her tears, her grief, reassures us we’re watching the show out of a sense of moral outrage rather than, say, to learn how a sexy good girl turned bad and got herself killed. In The Killing, a series that’s been called a feminist take on Twin Peaks, but which notably lacks Peaks’ sense of irony around gender, a seventeen-year-old girl named Rosie Larsen goes missing in a Seattle park. The pilot’s final scene echoes the fraught phone call between Sarah and Leland in Peaks. Like Sarah Palmer, Rosie’s mother, Mitch, is at home in her kitchen, talking on the phone to Rosie’s dad, Stan. Stan’s in his truck, driving to the park where Rosie disappeared. At the park, Stan realizes detectives have found Rosie’s body: the crime scene is cordoned off, and Detective Linden won’t allow him in. Stan begins screaming his daughter’s name. The scene cuts back to the Larsens’: Mitch, understanding, sinks to the floor. She beats her fist on her knee, her face twisted in agony and shock, and screams her husband’s name. The parallels with Peaks are obvious, but, tonally, the scene could not be more different. Where Peaks distances us from parental emotion through its tongue-in-cheek use of an inanimate object, the telephone, The Killing seems intent on tugging at viewers’ heartstrings. As ethereal music softly sounds, the scene cuts (tastefully?) away from Mitch, not to a telephone but to a photo of Rosie hanging on the wall in the next room; in the picture, Rosie smiles a sweet, innocent smile. You sense you are meant to weep along with Mitch.
The next few episodes weave depictions of parental mourning with detectives’ efforts to learn what Rosie was doing the night she died. These parallel tracks, comprising on the one hand scenes of domestic anguish whose message seems to be this was someone’s little girl, and on the other hand video footage of a sexy, wigged Rosie at a Halloween party, are classic crime show. Maybe it’s because I’d just watched Peaks’ adept ironization of these themes, or because I thought a show created by a woman (Veena Sud) and featuring a female protagonist (Mireille Enos’ Sarah Linden) ought to know better, but I found this weaving of parental loss with lurid teenage antics particularly annoying. Most needling of all, The Killing retreats from the good-girl-gone bad plotline almost as soon as it dangles it in front of us. In episode 3, Linden and Holder uncover a video filmed the night Rosie disappeared; it shows a boy in a devil mask having violent sex from behind with a girl who appears to be Rosie. “Bitch, you like this, Rosie, don’t you,” the boy says viciously. (In a previous episode, Linden and Holder stumble into the same basement where the video was taken, finding a bloody bed and walls marked with bloody handprints.) Anonymous, doggie-style teenage sex caught on videotape: it’s the male gaze on overdrive. However, it turns out that the girl in the basement was actually Rosie’s best friend. She’d donned Rosie’s Halloween wig. The blood? The friend gets bad nosebleeds. Rosie was a good girl after all. But in the logic of the male gaze, it doesn’t matter whether Rosie was a nymph or not. We just need to think for a while that she was one, just as the boy in the basement does, the boy who gets off on calling Rosie’s friend “Rosie.”
Mitch’s characterization lacks complexity: she’s a pretty generic grieving mom. More subtly rendered, and therefore possibly the more effective moral alibi, is Elizabeth Clayton in Bosch. Bosch is among my favorite detective shows, for reasons I’m not sure I’m proud of. With its taciturn, unreconstructed hero—Harry Bosch refuses even to wear a seatbelt, a fact which sends me back to my libertarian upbringing—and grittily gorgeous Los Angeles, Bosch feels to me as though it could have been made in almost any era, a timelessness which can be read as a weakness (a female friend of mine stopped watching after the first episode or two, exasperated with Bosch’s bravado), but which I find soothing. Bosch meets Elizabeth in season 5, during an undercover investigation of a drug ring. Elizabeth, a hard-core addict, confides to Bosch that her fourteen-year-old, Daisy, was murdered some years ago, and the killer never found. At the time of Daisy’s murder, Elizabeth was strung out; now, she’s clearly racked by guilt for having been an irresponsible parent. Bosch promises to try and track down Daisy’s killer. In season 6, Elizabeth is now sober; a lead on the case brings Bosch to Elizabeth’s house. Over dinner, Elizabeth describes a dream she had of Daisy the previous night. Her sadness is thick in the air, an anguish we sense Bosch is sympathetic to, even if he doesn’t say it directly. “Do you dream much?” Elizabeth asks Bosch, wiping away tears. Earlier in the episode, Bosch awoke from a dream set at the morgue in which he watched Daisy, throat slashed but alive, pull back a sheet to reveal the body of his own daughter, Maddie. “Not so much,” says Bosch with a characteristic jerk of the head. “Hardly ever. . . . Once in a while.” What’s interesting, and feels strangely genuine, about the scene is what’s not said. Bosch’s silence about his own dream testifies to a characteristic reluctance to disclose emotion, yet his silence also holds space for Elizabeth to experience her pain without someone else’s story getting in the way. A friendship is forming between two complex human beings, two caring but flawed parents. Which makes it all the more frustrating when Daisy’s stereotypically lurid backstory is revealed: a prostitution scam, a string of would-be johns, with Daisy the mastermind of it all. Suddenly, we’re being jerked between Elizabeth’s guilty tears and stories of Daisy undressing for strangers in motel rooms.
In Bosch, in The Killing, in almost every missing-girl crime show, the mother is essential in the construction and maintenance of the male gaze. She allows crime shows to pursue sensational plotlines without implicating viewers in an explicit way: not in spite but because of her tears, we can indulge in the spectacle of young girl sexuality, secure in the knowledge that we’re watching not out of salacious intent, but because we want to see the culprit, the sick person who did this someone’s daughter, brought to justice. Of course, not every mother is the tear-streaked, helpless sort: the mothers who perhaps loom largest in the cultural imagination are Sally Field’s Karen in An Eye for an Eye, who goes so far as to murder her daughter’s killer, an act the film frames as justifiable, or Frances McDonald’s Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, who rents billboards after her daughter is killed with messages that read: “RAPED WHILE DYING,” “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” and, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” The vigilante mom, too, serves as our moral alibi, although her rage tends to take center stage over the daughter’s sexuality. At the same time, the vigilante mom is an outlier. Most moms follow the mold of Mitch and Elizabeth: the worrying, nail-biting sort.
And yet. Even as the crime-show mom helps prop up the male gaze, there’s a way in which she’s, well, correct in her hysteria. As my mother had a habit of saying, “I trust you. It’s everyone else I don’t trust.” There are real dangers out there for girls. And that’s the terrifying, wildly unfair, thing. No young woman can venture out, explore her sexuality, without having to stay, if only vaguely, on her guard. These days I understand Mom was doing the best she could. She wanted to protect me. Message received. On that Sunday night in high school, I’d hadn’t yet kissed a boy, even though I was seventeen. I wouldn’t date for another three years, wouldn’t have sex for another six.
My mother passed away when I was in college, from emphysema and lupus. In recent years I’ve learned more about her backstory, about the things she went through when she was young. An unwed pregnancy, for example, which brought shame on her family. At least one sexual assault. Today, what I feel most when I think of Mom is sadness. I wish things could have been different for her. I wish she didn’t have to suffer shame. Perhaps every missing-girl mother has a similar story in her past. The mother knows it’s a scary world out there for girls because she once had to navigate it herself. Maybe this is why I’m drawn to the figure of the mom. Sure, I find myself rolling my eyes at her hysterics. But I know there’s more to her than meets the eye. You just have to look below the tear-stained surface.
Carli is PhD candidate in comparative literature at UC Berkeley and former arts editor at the Reno News and Review. Her essay on the female gaze in HBO’s Sharp Objects is forthcoming at MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture. She’s also working on a memoir on the transmission of bodily and cultural shame among women in her family.