“I am a man, a father. This is not a game!”
An emotional Marco Ruiz shouted those words in this week’s exceptional episode of The Bridge as he rifled through newly packed dirt, fearing that his only son, Gus, was buried beneath it. Within the context of the story, he was simply responding to Sonya Cross, who insisted that no body would be found in that seemingly fresh grave because manipulative serial killer David Tate — the same egocentric sicko who kidnapped Gus — was “just playing” with Marco. But Marco’s choked-out exclamation also serves as a pretty apt summary of where The Bridge has finally placed us emotionally.
At certain points during its first season, we’ve approached The Bridge the same way we process any TV crime story that focuses on a series of murders. We’ve treated it like an elaborate, occasionally grisly puzzle. We’ve played guessing games about who the killer might be. We’ve tossed out theories about said killer’s motives. We’ve tried to guess what inventively creepy crime he might commit next. That’s all totally natural, and these recaps provide the perfect forum for all of us, myself included, to discuss such things.
But if this were real life — something that’s not so hard to imagine given the way The Bridge’s fiction alludes to the very nonfictional world of border politics — this wouldn’t seem like a grisly puzzle. What has happened to all of Tate’s victims and what is happening now, both to Gus and, presumably, Daniel Frye, would be horrifying, outrageous and heart-wrenching. It would not be a game.
In this hour of intense drama titled “Old Friends,” The Bridge finally made us feel that. Really feel that. It also allowed all of its actors — Demian Bichir, Diane Kruger, Matthew Lillard, even supporting players like Carlos Pratts — to deliver raw, season-best performances. When it comes time to submit Bridge episodes for best drama Emmy consideration, this is the one, without question, that FX should hand over to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
This is also the episode that finally called B.S., in capital letters, on Tate’s now-tiresome reliance on invoking dualities to make a point. “For Caleb, it was the sins of the mother,” Tate told Gus, referring to the son who died while his mother drove to Juárez to meet her lover, Marco. “For you,” Tate added, meaning Gus, “the father.” In other words, Tate would soon tie up Gus, slap duct tape across his mouth, and toss him into a contained space to drown, and by doing so he’d punish the man who stole his wife in fully symmetrical fashion.
Well, take your dialectics and shove them, David Tate. At first, when the Bridge Butcher dropped clues dripping with rhetoric about the injustices committed in Juárez, I thought maybe, as clearly depraved as his actions were, he might have some valid points to make. Now it’s clear that Tate is serving no purpose other than satisfying his own self-involved need for revenge.
“You’re not the first person to lose everything,” Marco yelled at Tate during their off-the-record meeting in Franklin Mountain State Park, an encounter that led to Marco ill-advisedly ditching his cell phone but, notably, hanging on to Sonya’s gun. “Over there,” he continued, gesturing toward Mexico, “it happens every day. People have their lives ripped away from them. It doesn’t make them killers!”
“Maybe I’m special,” Tate replied. That doesn’t sound like something a man who’s genuinely concerned about the lost girls of Juárez would say. It sounds like the sort of thing a self-involved, psychopathic murderer says as he inches closer to realizing the completion of his diabolical master plan. Five episodes ago, The Bridge raised the question: What’s the difference between a serial killer and a killer like Fausto Galvan? Based on Tate’s self-perceived “specialness,” the answer seems to be not a damn thing.
We also got more definitive clarity this week regarding the connection between Tate and Daniel Frye. As implied by that recent Santi Jr. flashback, Frye did indeed send Santi on a drug run, causing him to plow into the car carrying Jill and Caleb Tate and then drive away. As a once-again drunken Frye finally explained to Adriana, Daniel was supposed to testify in the case against Santi Jr., but was bought off by Santi Sr. Daniel kept his mouth shut about who really killed Jill and Caleb Tate, which is why David Tate targeted him. One thing about that story that still doesn’t compute: During the flashback, when we saw Santi Jr. speed away while Frye remained at the strip club, allegedly so he could go back inside to retrieve his passport, Frye didn’t go back inside to get his passport. He waited until Santi Jr. left, then very purposefully strode away. That suggests Frye still may be hiding a crucial piece of the story.
But I don’t want to blame Daniel Frye for that right now because, oh my God, I feel and feel so hard for Daniel Frye at this moment. When he finally showed up at that AA meeting, dropped an amazing Stripes reference, then completely broke down and vowed to get sober … well, it was one of the most honest, moving moments captured on The Bridge. Matthew Lillard just broke my heart. His performance was a reminder that sometimes, it takes a long while for an actor to get the opportunity to really prove himself. Based solely on his work in, say, the Scream and Scooby-Doo movies, one might have been inclined to describe Lillard as amusing but not necessarily good. Now, between his work in the movie The Descendants and the arc he’s completing on The Bridge, it seems right to say that Matthew Lillard is, indeed, a good actor.
Unfortunately, he’s a good actor playing a guy who, after his come to-twelve-steps moment, was stabbed in the neck with a syringe wielded by David Tate and may not live long enough to stay on any wagons. If only Adriana hadn’t let her El Paso Times colleague out of her sight. Speaking of which, can I just say that this is the second time in less than a week that actress Emily Rios has unknowingly let a bad guy get away? She did it in her role as Andrea in Sunday’s episode of Breaking Bad when she allowed Walter White, secret child poisoner, to stroll in and out of her house, and she did it again on The Bridge when she unwittingly enabled Tate to grab Daniel and flee.
Once again, though, I can’t fault Adriana. In fact, I really appreciated her tough-love attitude toward Daniel. “You might be my only real friend,” Daniel said during his inebriated newsroom confessional where — thank you, non-cliché Bridge writers! — he was sucking down vodka on the rocks with lime instead of the stereotypical hard liquor from a paper bag. In that moment, we instinctively expected Adriana to say something kind like, “You know that’s not true,” or “I’ll always be here for you.” Instead, she replied, “That’s pathetic.” It was harsh and hard, surprising but also totally believable.
The Bridge has always been commendable for its treatment of women, but this episode stood out for the spectrum of response it allowed its female characters to show. We got to see women being totally hard-as-nails, whether it was a stubborn Adriana, an angry Alma, or an apparently subzero-blooded Charlotte, who shot and killed Tim (Patrick Swayze’s brother!), despite his attempt to plead for his own life using the “We took an RV to our prom together” defense. We also got to see women acting maternal, as Kitty was toward Sonya when she insisted that the injured detective gulp down a glass of milk, or both tough and vulnerable at the same time, as Sonya was throughout this entire episode.
You guys: How is Sonya Cross still alive? She was shot three episodes ago and really never recuperated properly. Then she almost died in a car accident. She apparently can’t feel her arm and there is blood actively spurting from her torso. Yet there she is, looking like a particularly attractive extra who zombie-shuffled off the set of The Walking Dead and onto a show on a completely different network, running around with Marco in an attempt to retrieve Gus and compensate for the fact that she failed to transport the kid to a safe house. “It was my job, and you asked me to keep him safe and I didn’t,” she tearfully told Marco in a way that made us viewers simultaneously teary. “I’m sorry. I tried.”
This may be crazy, but I’m still hopeful that Gus will survive. After all, the rising water hasn’t totally overcome him yet. And, as mentally off, narcissistic, and disconnected as David Tate may be, there was a moment early in the episode when I saw a hint of humanity flash across his face. It happened when he pointed out that if Caleb had lived, the boy and Gus would now be around the same age, and might have even been friends. “Everything could have been different,” Tate said. And for a quick second, we could see how much he wished it still could be.