Context matters. Characters and plot don’t consist in a vacuum. The setting of The Bridge is one of its most remarkable features. The vastness of the desert, the violence of Juarez, Mexico, and the racial tensions and political intrigue of the U.S-Mexican border all add to the allure of this new drama. But there is more context to consider.
Creators Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid are adapting a Danish series Bron (Danish for “bridge”), whose premise surrounds a dead body found on the Danish-Swedish border. Initially the idea was to have the American version take place at the border of Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario. This way, they could emulate the cold, arctic feel of the original. But between the aesthetic appeal and the richness of material that they could dig up from the volatile and controversial southern border, it was hard to resist the changing the scenery.
The second contextual mater you must consider is Stiehm’s career. She wrote for NYPD Blue early on, and most recently wrote some of Homeland’s most riveting episodes (among them “The Weekend,” my favorite from the first season). She was also the creator of the procedural Cold Case which aired on CBS, and there wrote alongside Veena Sud who later created the serial killer drama The Killing for AMC, which also had a distinctive setting, rainy Seattle. Now, many who were roped in to The Killing’s season-long mystery of “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” were angered when the first season concluded with no clue as to whodunit. Stiehm assures in her interview with Alan Sepinwall that the question of who laid the body on the border will be answered by season’s end, but concern among critics is palpable. How will The Bridge justify its own existence? With the accumulation of serial killer shows— including The Following, Hannibal—why should we watch another gore fest where a deranged man kills innocents with a political purpose in mind? I’ll explain in a bit why I believe the show in its pilot gives good reason to stick around, and why it’s most kindred spirit may be The Wire instead of Stiehm’s friend Veena Sud’s show.
Lastly, there is the network that ushered this series into being. FX’s John Landgraf looks to be the Pat Reilly of network execs, striving to establish a Big Three similar to the Miami Heat. His masterplan is to branch out into two more channels. FXX will showcase their comedies—such as The League, Louie, Archer, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—and FXM which will house the theatrical releases they obtain, as well as a string of miniseries. It’s exciting stuff. Landgraf in a podcast interview with Grantland’s Andy Greenwald mentioned reaching out to the silver screen’s most sought after auteurs, asking if there is a project that they’ve been struggling to get made through the major studios. If so, come to FX. The prospect of Landgraf handing the reins to filmmakers like the Coen Brothers and Alexander Payne (both of whom he’s rumored to be in negotiations with) is monumental for the rise of television programming.
Why does this matter for The Bridge? The brand. FX has already released The Americans in January, and come Emmy nomination time next week, I’d expect it to be recognized. Some were skeptical of that show treading the familiar territory of the spy drama in the wake of Homeland’s tremendous success. But like The Bridge, that series has its own eccentricities that make it a must-watch. It’s set during the Cold War-era of the 1980s for one, and on a character level it examines how its two central characters grapple with their arranged marriage and how it affects their perforamance as sleeper agents. If The Americans despite its apparent cliches was able to justify its existence and carve its own niche, this critic is inclined to trust the network’s instincts—not to mention the proven commodity that is Stiehm’s writing skills.
On with the show!
For the most part, this pilot does wonders for establishing why we should settle in on Wednesdays at 10pm. A car lurking in the shadows, presses a button and turns out the lights on the Bridge of the Americas, and in the darkness, drops a body on the exact border between the two nations. Among those who show up are Sonya Cross of the El Paso homicide division (Crimes Against Persons or CAP) and Marco Ruiz of the Chihuahua State Police. Sonya is eager to claim the body as being under her jurisdiction, citing that the head is on their side. Marco seems content to let her have it, joking that Juarez doesn’t need more bodies—”This morning, I had nine heads in the parking lot at city hall.” Meanwhile, an ambulance tries to cross the border that is carrying a man suffering from a heart attack. Sonya says rules are rules, and the ambulance can’t interfere with the crime scene. But as Sonya turns her back to examine the body, Marco lets them through. Incensed, Sonya asks for his badge number to report him, and he casually complies.
Let’s talk about Sonya. Sorry, this one slipped my mind when I was covering context. In the original, it’s clear that the female lead Diane Kruger’s character is based on, lies somewhere on the autism spectrum. And while Stiehm was reticent at first, she decided to duplicate that. I understand her hesitation. She’s a hard shell to crack, Sonya. As Diane is playing her, she seems to have Asperger’s syndrome. I say this as someone with a relative who has this condition. Her manifestations are eerily similar. Her strict adherence to rules and rationality, her lack of empathy and social skills, and also her prodigious knack for details all ring true to me. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t frustrating, to say the least. And there has to be something said for the show’s fearlessness. She is an obstacle and a nuisance for the charming Marco Ruiz, and this almost sets her up to be an antihero of sorts, in the vein of Carrie Mathison, who Steihm was masterful at writing for on Homeland. So while this wouldn’t be her first venture into writing a female character with a condition that affects her ability to relate to folks (for those unaware, Carrie on Homeland is bipolar), navigating such a corrosive character will not be an easy task. With Carrie, they revealed her illness late in the first season when she went off her meds and the debilitating nature of her symptoms was played with equal parts horror and sympathy by Claire Danes and those around her such as Mandy Patinkin’s Saul. But how do you sympathize with a character whose condition manifests itself as being “annoying.”
I’ll be very invested in their efforts to dramatize Asperger’s. Autism in general, is so nuanced. Each case has its unique difficulties. Again, going back to the Sepinwall interview, Stiehm mentions that they have a consultant, an adult with Asperger’s who is giving Diane Kruger notes. I fully approve and admire their dedication to authenticity. I wold also suggest consulting Jason Katims and the other writers on Parenthood, who write for the character of Max, who is an adolescent with Asperger’s. I think they’ve accomplished a great deal in debunking the myths around what it’s like to raise a child with Asperger’s, as well as showing the struggle they go through in order to be accepted.
In the absence of parents, Sonya has Hank (Ted Levine, who is always a pleasure to see on screen), her chief at El Paso Homicide. He makes an offhand remark when insisting she extend an olive branch to Marco by not reporting him, that he can’t cover for her forever. And when Sonya picks up on his implication that he might retire soon, it’s the first time she breaks her expression of stern determination and looks legitimately afraid. If they can show more of her feeling uneasy around others, instead of just contemptuous of their irrationality, they could have something special.
Going back to the case, they seem to be heavily suggesting that the killer is Steven Linder (played uncomfortably by Thomas M. Wright of Top of the Lake). We see him in Juarez, coaxing a woman named Eva Guerra into his trunk. He brings her to his trailer, where he barks at her to sleep, and locks her inside.
After leaving the crime scene, Sonya goes to the home of Judge Lorraine Gates, who they determine the body is, to inform her husband of her murder. Beforehand, Hank advises her to use eye contact (a problem for those with Asperger’s). Gates is known as a woman with a “anti-immigration, pro-wall, anti-Mexican” stance. When talking to her husband, Sonya has a tough time exercising empathy. She questions him about whether she had any affairs, or was into drugs. This rubs the grieving husband the wrong way and he asks her to leave. At least she is able to ascertain that he isn’t the killer, because he didn’t know how to password protect the phone she confiscated, meaning he isn’t tech savvy enough to have cut the lights at the bridge. At the morgue, Sonya is told something disturbing. They only have Gates’ top half. The bottom half belongs to a Mexican woman in her late teens, early twenties.
We see Marco at home, reprimanding his son for getting weed from someone with connections to the cartel. The last thing he wants is his son indebted to them. In bed with his wife, he receives a call from Sonya asking him to look into who the bottom half might be. He promises to look into it, and she wonders if she can call someone who will do it faster. He takes the hint, and heads for his office. We also learn that he recently got a vasectomy. He has three kids and is on his second wife. He’s goaded by his coworker who says that castrated tomcats lose their ferocity, and he is playfully insulted by the comparison. During the exchange, the coworker finds the woman they are looking for in the database, Cristina Fuentes.
One of the greatest accomplishments of this pilot is its establishing of atmosphere. The feel of Juarez is rendered beautifully, and also compellingly. This is illustrated in the scene where Marco arrives at the home of El Capitán. He finds a fellow officer parked outside the house. The officer admits he has accepted payment in order to afford his new baby on the way. Then, when Marco asks permission to pursue this case, between the tiger cages, the card game and El Capitán’s cool demeanor, it gave me great confidence in this show’s world building abilities.
The episode ends with our introduction to two reporter characters. One, played by Matthew Lillard, is Daniel Frye. Initially, we just get a quick sketch, and he comes off as a jaded, beleaguered journalist who has developed alcoholism over his career, and doesn’t have respect for small stories and cub reporters. Speaking of, in the El Paso Times office we see Adrianna Perez (Emily Rios, Andrea from Breaking Bad), who I hope is further fleshed out. I like her as an actress, and in recent television depictions of female reporters have been disappointing. They are either incompetent and overemotional, or they use their sexuality to secure stories. I could also see the potential for parallel storylines with the other mixed gender duo.
Daniel, enters his car, and is suddenly locked inside. He finds a wire on the windshield which is connected to what looks like a bomb in the backseat. Sonya and Marco have traced Daniel to the car used by the bridge suspect. When they arrive, a bomb squad is already there. They try calling him again, and he answers. We see Sonya’s affinity for rationality actually comforting Daniel after a while. At first, he is flustered by her line of questioning, but when she assures him that he will feel no pain upon the explosion, and says he’ll feel better if he doesn’t look at the timer, he settles down. The bomb squad is unable to disarm the device, but when the clock strikes zero, no boom. A phone connected to the apparatus does have a video message attached—”There are five murders a year in El Paso. In Juarez, thousands. Why? Why is one dead white woman more important than so many dead just across the bridge? How long can El Paso look away? We’ve got some interesting times ahead. This is only the beginning.” Indeed!
While I was generally engaged by this series premiere, there is one story thread that left me lukewarm. Charlotte Millwright (Annabeth Gish), the wife of the rancher who dies from a heart attack—the same guy who Sonya wouldn’t let cross the border into El Paso—seems utterly disconnected from the main storyline. I assume she has a purpose, because I know these writers have a plan. But not enough was done to keep me interested. Between the sappy song playing as she mourned her husband, and her telling her employee Cesar not to let anyone bother her, I found her scenes an irritating mix of cloying and distant. They wanted me to feel things without actually getting to know anything about her or her husband. In fact, the one thing they dangled in front of me—a potential affair, a secret phone and a key to a basement door in a ranch house on the edge of their property—is taken away before anything is revealed. There is value in “the cliffhanger,” but that just felt totally manufactured. The only point of intrigue for a character and it’s stripped away from us as she opens the door? Come onnnnn.
But that was the only glaring misstep. I’d say the pilot for The Americans was closer to flawless and had more memorable moments, but the new FX drama has a ton of potential. As I teased before, I see this becoming like The Wire. That show started off looking like a typical police procedural, then became an incisive examination of a decaying city and its many dimensions that are suffocated by bureaucratic inefficiency and capitalist greed. The Bridge could do what The Wire did for racial dialogue as well, but this time with the Latino community. There’s a lot of misrepresentation of Mexicans in pop culture and politics that portray them as violent and savage. This same perception followed the black community of Baltimore that was entrenched in the drug game. If mainstream America could gain some empathy for the Mexicans wrapped up in the cartel, and explore the connections between the cartels’ supremacy and our own government’s policies, then The Bridge will have accomplished a great deal. And for the most part, I see that promise in the pilot. Interesting times ahead…