Critic’s Notebook: ‘Killing It’ Season 2 Is a Savage and Hilarious Dissection of Our Dog-Eat-Dog World (2023)

Warning: This notebook contains spoilers for the second season of Peacock’s Killing It.

The driving idea behind Peacock’s Killing It might be most tidily encapsulated in an argument between its two leads in the season two finale. Having screwed an associate out of his share of their saw palmetto berry farm, Craig (Craig Robinson) defends the tactic as “very basic dog-eat-dog stuff.” His best friend and co-owner, however, rejects the cliché. “But like, dogs shouldn’t eat dogs, right?” Jillian (Claudia O’Doherty) demands. “No. When a dog eats another dog, people freak out.”

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By Killing It’s estimation, they’re both right. Dan Goor and Luke Tredici are scathing in their criticism of the modern American rat race, which, to Craig’s point, does tend to reward those most willing to manipulate, cheat and harm others. But its heart ultimately lies with Jillian. This situation is worth freaking out about. And few current series are better, or funnier, at freaking out about it than this one.

If HBO’s recently ended Succession laid out how money warps the ultra-rich, Killing It does much the same for those fighting for scraps at the bottom of the food chain. Unlike the Roys, Craig, Jillian and their peers have no power to sway public policy or the media or the economy; their own fates rest on the whims of those who do. What they do have are the limited individual choices they’re forced to confront about what they want, and what they’re willing to endure or give up to get it.

Often, these dilemmas play out in hilarious ways. One delightfully absurdist storyline climaxes in a walkout of licensed Pitbull impersonators tired of being told how much to weigh (within one pound of the real Pitbull), who to date (“Miami 10s” only) and how often to masturbate (never). A darker one has a criminal matriarch cheering the “happy ending” of getting sent to jail and diagnosed with cancer. Having spent the season trying to secure affordable health insurance for her clan, she’s just thrilled this means the government is now obligated to pay for her treatment.

But their laughs are rooted in observations sharp as diamonds, and almost as painful to swallow. As with so many shows and movies released this summer, Killing It got a severely limited promotional campaign thanks to the ongoing WGA / SAG-AFTRA double strike. In a dark irony, however, that real-world context almost makes the show’s case for itself. Maybe (probably) the real Pitbull isn’t secretly employing an army of microchipped stand-ins. But at a time when studios are refusing to budge on, say, AI technology that could hijack actors’ control of their likenesses, the leap to an employer demanding total authority over workers’ privacy and personal lives feels like a shorter one than might be totally comforting.

As might be expected from an anti-capitalist critique, Killing It saves its most savage parody for one-percenters like Rodney (Tim Heidecker), a murderous motivational speaker turned snake oil salesman. He’s the sort of proud “psychopath” who celebrates the launch of a new product by announcing his intention to fight a shark — and then, instead of getting into the pool himself, slips a stunt double $300 to go get his legs bitten off. Which is to say he’s exactly the sort of dude who might, oh, I don’t know, challenge a billionaire rival to a cage fight and then plead back problems to get out of it.

But it’s wise, too, to the larger institutional forces keeping the working poor down. It notes how weak regulations and under-resourced regulators practically incentivize cheating — what’s to discourage anyone from breaking the law when “the largest fine the state of Florida can levy against a corporation” is all of $50? It observes that what the government is willing to spend money on is “weird, petty political blackmail,” as with an FBI officer (Timothy Simons) attempting to secure a Ted Cruz dick pic on behalf of the sitting president. (Killing It season two is set in 2017, positioning it right at the turning point from Obama-era hopefulness to Trump-era cynicism.)

Much of Killing It’s attention, and sympathy, is directed toward the everyday humiliations suffered by those at the bottom: the milkshake thrown at a fast-food employee by an Escalade-driving prankster who can’t be bothered to pay for his food, the uninvited hands grabbing at a pregnancy surrogate whose wealthy clients treat her body as their personal property. On a more optimistic series, those characters might quit in a righteous rage, declaring that their dignity cannot be bought. On Killing It, Craig tries to do just that on behalf of his ex (Stephanie Nogueras), the pregnancy surrogate, when she’s pressured to flee the country with her corrupt clients — only for her to backtrack and accept their offer, reasoning that $300,000 for a few months in a non-extradition country really could transform her and her teen daughter’s lives for the better.

Indeed, one of Killing It’s shrewdest observations is how financial instability, and not just poverty and wealth in themselves, can shift a person’s priorities and values. When Craig informs Jillian in episode two that they’ll have to let go of Shayla (Melanie Field), their most useless employee, Jillian plans to sell her beloved new Kia Forte in order to make payroll. “We would never choose a car over a human being,” she huffs, recounting how a layoff precipitated her own recent stint of homelessness. In the end, however, Jillian finds herself unable to live up to her own righteous ideal — not because she’s oblivious to the pain of poverty, but because she knows it too well. Having experienced the modest comforts of a reasonably priced sedan, Jillian cannot bear to go back to a hot, janky mobile billboard that reeks of dead iguana. She cranks the Kia’s AC as she drives off, allowing herself a tiny smile through the bloody nose Shayla’s given her.

As Craig’s con-man brother Isiah (Rell Battle) puts it to a rogue Pitbull stand-in threatening to give up the A-lister lifestyle for the hustle-and-grind of aspiring solo stardom: “You ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge and ain’t no going back now.” Putting everything on the line for one’s integrity, it turns out, is easier when there’s not much to lose in the first place. Killing It aims not to condemn Jillian’s choice, but to understand it as an imperfect one made by someone decent enough to see her own shortcomings. By contrast, Craig spends much of season two on an antihero-oriented arc — skirting the rules, bending his principles and justifying his increasingly ruthless actions, all while telling Jillian and Isaiah and anyone else who’ll listen that he’s still a good guy.

In the final episode, he and Jillian face the ultimate test of their moral fortitude: sell the berries they’ve harvested, knowing they’ve been tainted by giant African land snails that could transmit meningitis, or refuse the deal and walk away from millions of dollars. Jillian, tired of having her kindness mistaken for naivete or weakness, insists on the latter. Craig pushes back. “We all cause so much suffering just by existing in this world,” he says, pointing out that practically all businesses are built on unethical compromises. “The only thing you can do is try not to think about it.” When his words fail to persuade her, he makes a shady move of his own, cutting her out to make the sale behind her back.

It pays off, at least in the financial sense. Jillian closes the season once again gigging for Uber (a company that, in an especially bleak joke, she’d previously said provided its female drivers with free self-defense classes to combat high rates of sexual assault). Craig ends it a rich man with a lavish beachside mansion.

But there’s a cost to Craig’s decision, even if it’s not borne by those onscreen. In the season’s final moments, a smattering of news clips confirm a meningitis outbreak linked to tainted saw palmetto berry extract, just as Jillian had feared. It’s a fictional development in a fictional show, and yet the shape of the scandal feels unnervingly familiar. From the greed that fueled it to the legal maneuvering that allowed it to the apparent lack of remorse felt by those who profited off of it, it echoes the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the ongoing opioid epidemic, or the lies about climate change or election fraud or gun violence or … the list goes on. Somehow, the story always seems to be the same. And in the end, Killing It reminds us, it’s always us who pay the price.

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