Caveat reader: Contains huge spoilers for the last season of The Closer and the whole of Forbrydelsen/The Killing.
As I’ve written before, from the first moment I saw Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (aka: The Closer), I was fascinated. First of all, like all the best people, she shares my middle name. But MORE IMPORTANTLY, here was a woman in charge, more clever and capable than everyone around her, coming across sexism time and again but breezing past it in her high heels and flowered skirts, tossing her antagonists a cheery “Thank yew, thank yew so murch,” as they finally bent to her command. She was a powerhouse.
On the surface, The Killing’s Sarah Lund couldn’t be more different. Sullen, unmade-up, and wearing boots, jeans, and those famous sweaters, she doesn’t waste much time on her grooming or her Ps & Qs. The two women come from different places, literally and figuratively: One has a Georgian drawl whereas the other spits out Danish invective. While Lund’s love life is never central to the show, Johnson quickly couples up with an FBI agent, and asks for his help much more often than vice versa. She develops a hormonal condition that makes her comfort-eat junk food and burst into tears for no reason. Lund, on the other hand, can barely choke out a conversation with her closest family.
Both portrayals are flawed, of course. The Closer suggests that a woman in a male-dominated world needs to be stereotypically girly in order to get ahead (and she’ll still cry about it when she gets there, the big dope), while in The Killing, eschewing anything traditionally considered “feminine” is the best way to succeed. Sarah and Brenda Leigh represent pop culture’s two most well-worn lady cop archetypes: the no-nonsense (usually brunette) one who never lets you see her sweat, and the (usually blonde) one who doesn’t care if you call her a dumb blonde as long as she nabs her perp. The Lacey and the Cagney.
But they have more in common than you might think. They’re both senior detectives, and they’re both more obsessed with their work than anything else. (Lund left her mum’s wedding early in order to track down a killer; Johnson fitted a murder case around her own ceremony.) They both have to navigate working with a superior they once had a relationship with, neither is very maternal.
And, of course, they both kill a man.
It’s arguably easier to understand Lund’s actions. Having saved his life, she discovers a suspect she thought was wrongly accused really is a murderer and a paedophile. And, he informs her with a smirk when they’re alone in a stationary car, she has no way of ever stopping him. Wrung out, and having promised a dying man that she’d bring his daughter’s killer to justice, Sarah walks around to the passenger seat and puts a bullet in his head.
Johnson leaves the actual killing to other people, but she orchestrates it in a way she’d be happy to send someone else to jail for. After she finds out that the man she’s just given immunity to isn’t a witness after all, but killed a young boy and his grandfather in cold blood, she’s enraged. So she arranges for a rival gang member to use the phone at the station for as long as he likes, to coordinate an attack. Then she drops the killer at his home and he’s murdered before he can even make it to his front door. She knew she was sentencing him to death, and she’s taken to court for what she’s done.
Yet whereas we’re supposed to revile the kind of crooked cops Brenda Leigh Johnson was brought into the LAPD to replace, the show follows her civil trial as if she’s still a sympathetic character. In the end, the department settles without admitting culpability, so her reputation is saved, her division still loves her, and she takes up a cushy new consulting gig in the DA’s office.
Lund’s fate is darker and more ambiguous, which I guess is the difference between a story written for a US network looking for a happy ending to launch a spin-off, and one… not. She’s been through so much and come so close to piecing together some kind of life outside work, but after taking the law into her own hands, her only choices are to stay and face a jail term or to go on the run, forever alone. So she takes off, like some kind of Clint Eastwood character or The Littlest Hobo.
Her story isn’t tied up in a bow and she doesn’t get the standard trappings women are supposed to crave as they get older: marriage, a cosy home, and quiet evenings babysitting her grandkid. In one way, that’s refreshing. But having watched her go through hell for three seasons over several years, I wanted more. I didn’t want her to reject the justice system she’s devoted her life to and sacrificed all her major relationships for. There’s no doubt that she’s worn down by bureaucracy and disrespect, but I still found her actions and her ending disappointing.
Of course, male detectives on TV can also be flawed in non-endearing ways. But it too often seems like female detectives either don’t get to keep their professional integrity or have to sacrifice something in order to do so (Olivia Benson never gets the spouse and kids she’d love to have; Jane Tennison drinks herself into a stupor; Jane Rizzoli is held captive by a serial killer more than once…) At the end of her story, Lund doesn’t to get be superior to all those people she’s put away for killing someone for a “good reason”, and she doesn’t get to enjoy her retirement, either.
Maybe mentally healthy, balanced people just don’t rise to the rank of detective (if so, we should maybe get on that) but there are so few women in authority in real life that it matters how they’re presented in pop culture. I’m all for idiosyncratic characters with (preferably non-gender-specific) flaws. But I’d also like to see more shows that suggest there’s no reason for women not to serve and protect.