“We’ve got some interesting times ahead. This is only the beginning.”
That was the promise made during the premiere of FX’s The Bridge, by a seemingly psychopathic, bomb-planting advocate for Juárez justice. It was a chilling, apt choice of words to end a first episode that early reviews promised would immediately hook in audiences. Certainly no one wants more women to die, on this show or in the very real, disturbing, border-crossing world that The Bridge sadly reflects. But from a quality television perspective, the fact that things are only getting started sounds encouraging, in as much as one can be encouraged by comments made by some guy who came dangerously close to blowing up Shaggy. (Matthew Lillard, we were so scared for you, man!)
We’re only 90 minutes into season one, and already, I feel itchy to know who recorded the aforementioned scrambled voice mail message that asked, “Why is one dead white woman so much more important than so many across the bridge?” even though it seems fair (and perhaps too easy) to assume it was Steven Linder, Crazy Sideburns Guy. I’m eager to further understand the father-daughter dynamic between the emotionally stunted, seemingly Asperger's syndrome–afflicted Detective Sonya North (Diane Kruger) and her good-hearted, good ‘ol boy boss, Lieutenant Hank Wade (Ted Levine, a man who once lured women into his own vehicles as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs). And for the love of spurs that jangle, don’t we all really, really want to know what the heck was behind that super-secret door poor Annabeth Gish opened in that suspicious yet somehow unnoticed little cabin on her Texas ranch? She thinks her now-deceased and apparently eager-to-divorce husband was having an affair. My hunch? He was involved in human trafficking.
But let’s focus on the key elements that will drive our journey into the politically charged climate surrounding the Bridge of the Americas, the passage that allegedly keeps the business of Texas and Mexico contained to their respective sides of the Rio Grande.
The most important moment in this episode involved the discovery of that dead body — wait, make it two … sort of — deposited on that border between “safe” El Paso and Über-dangerous Juárez. That served as the catalyst for everything that followed and will follow on The Bridge. At first it seemed like the victim was a Texas judge who had recently ruled against allowing day laborers permission to gather on street corners. But cops soon realized the corpse had been divvied up at the waistline; above was that American judge and below was what remained of Cristina Fuentes, one of hundreds of Mexican girls slaughtered on a regular basis in that untamed ciudad down south.
The implication of this mix-and-match murder, as noted in that “This is only the beginning” forewarning: that the U.S. and Mexico are more connected than they think, and should begin to treat each other as such. Yes, we may have a serial killer on our hands, which isn’t exactly a revolutionary idea during a time when TV has become a nonstop playground for psychologically disturbed life snuffers. But this serial killer seems to have a social agenda. He — assuming it’s a he — seeks to kill so that law enforcement will wake up to the fact that so many women in Mexico are dying. It’s a paradoxical, cold-blooded way to make a point. But it’s certainly captured our attention.
It’s also captured the attention of Sonya North, a hardened, diligent detective who — as many other writers have noted — shares the same work ethic and less than fully mentally healthy status as Homeland’s Carrie Mathison. That’s not surprising, since Meredith Stiehm, a former writer and producer for Showtime’s roller coaster ride through the war on terror, is an executive producer of The Bridge. But Sonya seems slightly different. While Carrie is bipolar, something that she manages with medication and, most of the time, effectively masks in the office, Sonya’s unconventional approach to interpersonal relations is always blatantly on display for all to see. Some of her colleagues announce unreservedly that she’s “crazy,” the ultimate insult to any female attempting to assert herself in the workplace. But what’s just as unsettling is that occasionally, she doesn’t seem “crazy” at all.
In this episode at least, I found it hard to get a handle on Sonya. There are times when she clearly doesn’t pick up on social or emotional cues. She refuses to let an ambulance pass through her crime scene, say, or botches her conversation with the widower of that sawed-in-half judge. (Note to Sonya: repeatedly offering someone a glass of water is not the same thing as saying “I’m sorry for your loss.”) But other times, she speaks with helpful empathy. “The body will feel no pain. Don’t look at the clock,” she tells Lillard’s sweat-flopping, panic-stricken reporter when it seems like he’s about to get blown to bits. In that moment, yes, she’s mostly focused on the intel she needs to get from him. But she’s also reassuring and responsive to what’s unfolding in front of her, which makes her surprisingly dialed-in for someone with Asperger’s.
Perhaps as the series progresses, we’ll get a better sense of what’s going on with her. To contradict my previous point about how Kruger’s Sonya differs from Claire Danes’s Carrie, I will say this: When Lieutenant Wade told Sonya about his plans to retire and she looked completely lost, all I could think was, Aw. He’s her Saul.
The uneasy back-and-forth between the U.S. and Mexico further plays itself out via the not-exactly-buddy-cops relationship between Sonya and Marco Ruiz, the Chihuahua state police officer played by Academy Award nominee Demián Bichir. Like all partners since the beginning of pop-cultural police work, they’re opposites. He’s from south of the border; she’s from just north of it. He’s super laid-back about his cases; she’s ultraintense. He’s recently made some adjustments in the lower regions of his body (he got a vasectomy) while she constantly has to work on what’s going on up top, in that brain of hers. If The Bridge were a lame comedy about two law enforcement officers who just can’t get along, it might have been called Ballbuster and (Almost) No Balls.
But this is not a comedy, it’s a drama, one in which Bichir handles his role with enough understatement to make us overlook any clichés embedded in his character. We get the sense already, for example, that part of the reason he takes a lackadaisical approach to his job is out of fear and self-preservation. Just to get permission to investigate the murder of Cristina Fuentes, he had to seek permission from a captain who was drinking beer and playing cards while sitting a few feet away from a live tiger. That’s almost the equivalent of having a member of the Wolf Pack as your supervisor. It’s also just one of the signs that probing too deeply into Juárez’s bloated, nasty underbelly can be dangerous, something Ruiz knows quite well.
Meanwhile, in our other major plot strands, we met that delightful Steven Linder (Thomas M. Wright of Top of the Lake) who seemingly kidnapped a woman, threw her in a trunk, drove her across the border, then murdered her in an RV just isolated enough to make it a perfect spot for Walter White to cook up some crystal meth. The fact that he seems so obviously serial-killer-y makes it seem really obvious that he isn’t. He’s a red herring with mad-wild facial hair.
Then there’s Gish’s Charlotte Millwright, who accompanied her much older husband on a trip across the border, then loses him to heart failure despite their ambulance’s ability to race through that border-straddling crime scene. Clearly this couple must be connected more directly to The Bridge’s central plot, which is why I’m banking on the correctness of my theory that Mr. Millwright was involved in exploiting the women of Juárez. And he’s not the only one with secrets that could draw him into the core narrative; Lillard’s Daniel Frye — a reporter for the El Paso Times who once wrote for the New York Post, dammit! — confessed that he’s got his share of enemies. And Daniel has a colleague, Adrianna (Emily Rios), whose insistence on crossing the border to research a piece on anchor babies will undoubtedly place her in some precarious situations.
We’ll have to wait and see where all that leads. And we’ll have to wait and see whether the still-mysterious savage killer of women can somehow force attention to be paid to so many lost Juárez girls.
Can a series of violent acts stop violence? And can a well-crafted TV show actually make people pay attention to the very real atrocities occuring in actual Mexico, not so far from American soil? The fact that The Bridge legitimizes both questions makes it clear that this is a TV show worth paying close attention to over the next thirteen weeks.
This is only the beginning.