Pop Culture’s Checked Out Parents
6 mins read

Pop Culture’s Checked Out Parents

The new AMC drama The Killing is a merciless, riveting slog through despair and the unrelenting Seattle rain as two homicide detectives are obsessed with trying to solve the murder of a teenage girl and the girl’s parents are floundering in an ocean of grief, trying to comprehend what seems unfathomable.

As I’ve been watching this compellingly artful “who dunnit,” I’ve been intrigued by the fact that three of the main characters are so focused on the murder case that they can’t seem to see anything else, including their children. How often on contemporary TV do we see parents (who aren’t substance abusers) depicted as being checked-out other than on the 1960s Mad Men? It feels so thoroughly realistic and yet simultaneously sorrowful to watch unfold.

The lead character in this freshman drama is Sarah Linden, a single mom with a 13-year-old son. In the show’s first episode, Linden was wrapping up her final day as a Seattle homicide detective. She’d packed up her apartment and was planning to bring her son Jack with her to move to sunny Sonoma and marry her fiancé Rick . . . until 17-year-old Rosie Larsen went missing. By the end of Linden’s shift, Larsen’s body was found in the trunk of a car that had been submerged in a lake.

From that point on, Linden became so fixated on the case, that everything else fell by the wayside, including her move, her engagement and even the needs of her son. Desirous of continuing to investigate the Larsen murder, Linden temporarily relocated herself and her son to a friend’s houseboat and continued sending Jack to his old school while she tried to solve the case practically 24/7. Her fiancé was left to cool his heels in California as he planned their wedding alone and she gave him precious little information about her intentions.

But the biggest damage Linden’s preoccupation caused was to her son Jack who, over the course of a few days, e-mailed graphic murder scene photos that he found on his mother’s laptop to a bunch of friends and those photos wound up on TV where the Larsen family eventually saw them. Jack was also smoking cigarettes and drinking beer with other middle schoolers on his mother’s friend’s houseboat, and hurled insults at that friend when she kicked Jack’s friends out. (In The Killing’s first episode, Linden was called away from the crime scene after Jack was booted from school for smoking.) When Linden finally came home in the wee early hours of the morning after Jack’s impromptu beer party, her friend told her she needed to take care of Jack, saying, “Your 13-year-old son is obviously acting out all over the place and you’re nowhere to be found.”

Linden’s response? Linden woke the kid up in the middle of the night and dragged him to a cruddy motel. Previews for the next episode have Jack blowing off school — the school he was slated to leave when he was supposedly moving to California – and his mother, who is trying to locate a killer, didn’t know where her own son was. (It’s also been vaguely mentioned that Linden nearly lost custody of her son because of a similar obsession with another case. Jack’s dad is apparently not in the picture.)

Then there are the tragic Larsen parents, Mitch and Stan. They have two young sons who have been largely shoved to the side while their parents struggle to deal with the reality that their daughter has been abruptly and violently taken away from them. Mitch initially emotionally withdrew from everyone. When she wasn’t sitting in her daughter’s bedroom clinging to her dead child’s belongings, she was in a bathtub, trying to see if she could experience what it’s like to be underwater and unable to breathe. Most disturbing, however, was Mitch’s near fatal mistake: She left her boys in a running vehicle inside a closed garage then ran back into the house to fetch something and got distracted by news of the leaked murder scene photos. Her two sons were spared death when Mitch’s sister Terry, who’d been helping with the boys, happened to walk in, saw the running car and opened the garage door.

The boys’ father, Stan, has been more emotionally attuned to his sons’ needs as the children are also in mourning. Stan has had talks with the kids, made them chocolate chip pancakes, made school lunches and cuddled with them in bed to assuage their fears. Then he, goaded on by Mitch, beat a murder suspect nearly to death, a suspect who turned out to be innocent. Now Stan is sitting in jail, the guy he beat up is on life support and his sons are left with Mitch and their flaky Aunt Terry, the one who saved them in the garage.

It’s rare to watch characters who seem like decent, loving parents make mistakes like these and ignore or don’t see their children’s needs either because they must to attend to their own needs or because their vision is completely obliterated by something else. I don’t watch The Killing and come away thinking that these parents are bad people. The show has given me tremendous empathy for them as they are struggling, preoccupied, broken and really in need of some help to get them through.

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