"The Bridge" Review: Terror On the Border

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"The Bridge" Review: Terror On the Border

By Sarah Carlson | TV Reviews | July 12, 2013 | Comments ()


I find I’m a lot more forgiving of FX’s new drama “The Bridge” now that I know it is an adaptation of the Scandinavian drama “Bron.” So much of enjoying the show hinders on how easy a viewer can move past the layers of hard-to-believe plot points. Judging by a brief overview of “Bron’s” pilot, however, much of the story stayed the same, only now, the action has been Americanized. The “bridge” in question is no longer the Øresund Bridge, which connects Copenhagen, Denmark, to Malmö, Sweden, but the Bridge of the Americas connecting El Paso, Texas, to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Slack can be given to creators Meredith Stiehm (“ER,” “Cold Case”) and Elwood Reid (“Cold Case,” “Hawaii 5-0”) — they’re staying faithful to the original set-up. But not everything transfers over smoothly.

It all begins with a body — two bodies, actually, left on the Bridge of the Americans overlapping the U.S.-Mexico border. The top half of an American woman is in El Paso; the bottom half of a Hispanic woman is in Mexico. El Paso homicide detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) has jurisdiction, but so does Chihuahua state police detective Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir, “Weeds”). The bodies’ discovery is more than a set of murders; it is a statement, and one a so-far anonymous killer is behind. A message the presumed killer delivers via a fake-out bomb plant in an El Paso newspaper reporter’s (Matthew Lillard) car is that not enough attention is paid to not only the disparity of deaths on either side of the border, but the lack of public awareness about the crisis.

El Paso has quite a low violent crime rate; Juárez is one of the most deadly cities in the world. All of Mexico, in fact, has seen incredible, atrocious violence thanks largely to the drug war. Between Jan. 1, 2007, and June 5, 2009, the country saw 10,031 drug war-related deaths, 2,550 of them in Chihuahua. Additionally, a large number of female homicides has coincided with the above deaths, a trend alluded to in “The Bridge’s” pilot by a Texas sheriff. Upon finding the bottom half of the American woman’s body on the side of the road and learning her top half was matched with a missing Hispanic woman’s bottom half, he sarcastically states that all those pink crosses sure did a lot of good. Homicides in Juarez dropped significantly in 2012, at least, and perhaps the war against cartels truly is waning. It still isn’t as safe as El Paso, so there still is attention due to the problem. But is “The Bridge” the right kind of attention?

If the kind of violence we are talking about here already includes “flayed faces, headless corpses and acid baths,” does the topic need additional theatrics to be studied? Do we need a new serial killer creating “Hannibal”-like (albeit not as crazy) scenes to send a message? “The Bridge” isn’t a documentary, sure, and neither is “Bron.” A cursory look at the Scandinavian series’ Wikipedia page states that the killer overseas pulls the bridge stunt to call attention to a variety of social problems. (Any viewers of “Bron” who would like to shed light on the issues at hand are welcome to; I haven’t researched the series as to avoid potential spoilers.) Moving that idea stateside, it makes sense the creators would pick the U.S.-Mexico border over U.S.-Canada, although the latter could be more interesting simply because it would be unexpected. But the violence in Juárez isn’t an issue easily swept under the rug, at least not for those who pay attention to the news. Perhaps the hardest notion to believe is that Cross wouldn’t be familiar with the violence raging just across the border. Ruiz has to explain to her the phenomenon of the missing women. Maybe — maybe — there’s someone somewhere in El Paso who is unaware of Juarez’s track record, but it certainly would not be a detective.

As Cross, Kruger appears to be giving Claire Danes of “Homeland” a run for her Emmy money. Indeed, we have another beautiful, blonde, work-focused detective (Danes plays a CIA agent) who has trouble relating to others/expressing herself thanks to the way her brain works. Instead of Bipolar disorder, however, Cross has Asperger’s, which makes for a difficult time working cases, especially when she has to notify the American woman’s husband of his wife’s brutal death. She doesn’t know how to empathize — at the scene of the crime, she refuses to let an ambulance carrying a man having a heart attack cross the bridge because it might damage the crime scene — and apparently, she is only surviving as a detective thanks to her protector of a boss, Lieutenant Hank Wade (Ted Levine). He supports her, and gently reminds her to remember to change her shirt in the ladies room, not in the middle of the police station, as well as to be nice to the deceased’s husband. That he lets her deliver such news, knowing she can seem cold and uncaring, shows a lack of judgment on his part. He also appears to be the only one who knows about her disorder; everyone else just thinks she is crazy and “different.” Wade lets Cross know he is planning to retire, though, and if he goes, so goes her security.

Ruiz is the opposite of Cross, calm and friendly and, again, aware of just how messy life in Juarez can be. He quickly figures something is different about Cross, and in the pilot at least he exhibits patience as the two have to begin to work together to solve the murders. We get a quick sense of the detectives’ personal lives; Ruiz has a wife and son, the latter whom he chides for casually smoking pot because he doesn’t consider where those drugs come from or to whom he is possibly now indebted. He is surrounded by corruption and death — a case concerning nine heads found in the City Hall parking lot needs to be addressed, so it is natural for him to fear the worst. He has seen it. Cross is likely alone, having lost a sister for reasons not explained. Both actors do a fine job filling out their characters quickly, Kruger being as off-putting as Bichir is likeable. The purpose of other characters is less clear, such as Annabeth Gish’s Charlotte, a rich and newly widowed Texan whose husband (the same one from the ambulance, who lived long enough to tell his wife he no longer loved her) was hiding some secret on their ranch. The character Steven Linder (Thomas M. Wright, “Top of the Lake”) is mostly seen and not heard. We assume he was the one responsible for dumping the bodies on the bridge — a trick pulled by someone able to shut down the power for a short period and drive away in time — and later, he kidnaps a woman in Mexico and brings her back across the border in the trunk of his car for reasons that can’t be good.

Linder’s motives hopefully will soon become clear, and the U.S.-Mexico border is a subject ripe for drama. An “us versus them” theme is established early on, as the different detectives, only a couple of feet apart, look at each other from across the border, the American and Mexican flags flying in the background on their respective sides. The American woman found on the bridge was a judge, one described as anti-immigration and even anti-Mexican. That she is the one cut in half and displayed on the bridge is no accident, and “The Bridge” built enough tension to present an engaging whodunit that is a welcome addition to the summer’s lineup. But the irony of the series, which doubtfully will be as strong as FX’s true gem “Justified,” is that its set-up will only serve to distract viewers from the reality of life on the border.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Kala

    Well, I totally missed the Asperger thing. I just thought she was an unsympathetic, work-focused woman.

    I was excited for the pilot, especially since I have great affection for Ted Levine, but I couldn't stay awake. I know pilots need a certain amount of leeway, but I wasn't involved in the story line. It felt like any other procedural. And for some absurd reason, Kruger's repeated use of the wired headset annoyed the hell out of me. If you have to hold it anyway, just use a goddamn cell phone. Blegh.

    If it improves, I'll give it a shot, but from what I saw, I don't have the motivation to sit my butt down at the same time every week.

  • annieanne

    My particular bone to pick: I would think turning off all the electricity to the bridge and the border station would/should be a damn difficult thing to do. And yet none of our brilliant detectives thought that maybe trying to figure out who would have access might be a good place to start the investigation.
    My prediction: The writers soften the Aspergers as the series goes on. As several people have already pointed out, it's hard to believe you could be a successful detective with the disorder. People skills are a pretty important part of a detective's toolkit.

  • foca9

    The original is actually called ‘Bron’ in Swedish and ‘Broen’ in Danish (and Norwegian, although that's more or less irrelevant (I'm Norwegian :) )).

    I really loved the original, but I'll probably watch this one as well. That's because, while Denmark and Sweden (/Scandinavia) are so close culturally, ethnically, linguistically, the American and Mexican cultures are more different and will possibly give the story an extra layer.

    As for the original's highlighted social problems, I remember (bear with me, I watched it in the spring of 2012) prostitution, drug problems and Scandinavian companies using child labour or in other ways exploiting workers in poorer countries. Possibly a few more.

    And Diane Kruger has a hard act to follow. Sofia Helin KILLED IT as Saga Norén in the original. The role of the Danish detective Martin Rohde is great played by Kim Bodnia as well. Highly recommend the original. Great Scandinavian television (as a Norwegian it's great to be partly mentioned in these articles, because most of the good television comes from Denmark. But we have Steven Van Zandt and ‘Lilyhammer’!)

    (PS, it's seems there are some new Norwegian tv series in the making, especially one written by Jo Nesbø, about a future where Norway is occupied by Russia. Could be exciting, and hopefully good)

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I just watched the first 10 minutes and switched it off. I already saw the whole thing, and Ms Heidkrüger seems to think that acting consists of stuttering and excessive movement of eyebrows and head.

  • Anderbot

    I couldn't buy into the character of Cross. I know people with Asperger's are capable of many things and are sometimes savants, but really, a detective?

    It seems to me that a job like that would require someone who could read people's emotions and relate to them and their potential motives. Isn't someone with the limitations of Asperger's the last person who could do that?

    Oh, and if you did have someone under your command with Asperger's with limited communication skills, why the hell do you send them out to the just-widowed judges husband by herself? Maybe that old cop should retire.

  • KV

    One thing I do not get is this: How come these characters who work for law-enforcement/security services get away with psychological problems (Asperger's, bipolar syndrome, etc.)? Are they not supposed to be thoroughly screened before being admitted into the service?

  • BlackRabbit

    I realize it would make the purists cry, but why didn't they make it PTSD? That way you could show her slowly recovering, and address a current issue, instead of potentially grating viewers and leading to objections like yours?

  • koko temur

    oh my, so much "this". PTSD within law enforcement is a serious issue. Why not address it in this way instead of trying to convince us mentally chullenged people have superpowers? Im sure some of them indeed do, but this is such an elegant and original way of making detectives interesting while talking about important social issue.

    Im going to steal this suggestion, and work it in in every conversation about stale procedure out there, if you dont mind.

  • BlackRabbit

    I don't, provided you do a Wonder Woman twirl before telling them.

    No, I'm kidding, feel free to use it.

  • Slash

    I liked it. I esp. like Demián Bichir (who I was not familiar with before). I think "odd" detectives are becoming (or have already become) cliche, but whatever, I'll stick with it, and have no problem with Kruger as a cop. It's just the first show.

    I also think it is quite beautifully filmed. That makes a difference. It gives the story extra weight when the director goes to the trouble of making stuff that's compelling and cool to look at.

  • Stephen Nein

    Asperger's is the new schizophrenia, the new OCD, for TV writers.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    In the original, it's fortunately not spelled out that Sofia Helin's Saga has Aspergers.

  • lowercase_ryan

    They didn't spell it out in the pilot. I mean it was kind of obvious, but they didn't call it by name.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Sorry, I just assumed that it was because it was explicitly mentioned here. It's not that apparent in the original.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I'm going to keep watching just to find out what's behind that door.

    And I enjoyed the show, of course.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I am cautiously optimistic about the show. Ruiz feels like he's going to be a character I love dearly.

    Some of it didn't sit well with me, mostly surrounding the message the killer left on Lillard's phone. Claiming that El Paso is turning it's back on Juarez and it's crime struck me as ridiculous. They are in another country ffs. In fact it would seem that if you look at controlling crime on the border as a joint effort then El Paso is more than holding up it's end of the deal.

  • Fredo

    I tend to be lenient on pilot episodes if I like the overall idea because I know a lot of set-up needs to be done.

    That said, I know a lot of people had problems with Kruger's Cross and didn't pick up on the Asperger's. Obviously, the violence against women is an issue for many as is the depictions of corruption on both sides of the border.

    Still, I'm going to give this show a shot because F/X seems to enjoy creating shows that take general conventions and turning them on their ears.

    Aside: just the other day, story came out about a murder where the weapon used was one of the Fast & Furious arms sold by the DOJ to Mexican drug cartels. The violence across the border may be down, but it's still ever-present.

  • foca9

    I've read that a load of people hated the original Saga Norén/Sara Helin as well, because they couldn't understand why she acted as she did, and assumed it was just bad acting…

  • Pajiba_Pragmatist

    And to flog a dead horse a bit, the concept that the guns sold in Operation F&F resulted in deaths is interesting. If the guns themselves are responsible for the deaths, not the bad people wielding them, then the trope "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" is wrong. If the guns aren't responsible, then the death of Brian Terry and others is the fault of bad people doing bad things, not the ATF.

    You really can't have it both ways - either guns do play some direct role in deaths, or they don't and F&F didn't cause any deaths.

  • Pajiba_Pragmatist

    Time to be a little pedantic. The DOJ did NOT sell guns to the cartels via F&F. What they did is allow weapons to be sold by border area gun shops to known criminals/cartels in an effort to follow said weapons back to bigger "fish". It's called "gunwalking", and it was not new.

  • knightofbob

    Gunwalking involved putting surveillance on suspected straw purchasers, then tracking said purchases through surveillance to the trafficker, who would be arrested before he reached the border,or just the other side, since Mexican authorities were fully involved from before the operation began (at least, that was the plan). Oh, and buying from a single dealer who was in on the plan.

    F&F involved not telling the Mexican authorities and in many cases, ATF agents acted as the straw purchaser themselves. None of the dealers were in on it, and there was never a plan to stop the merchandise from crossing the border. In addition, it was an interdepartmental operation with ICE, which means there was a presidential authorization involved.

    There were about 450 total individual weapons involved in pre-F&F gunwalking. There are almost 1000 more than that still missing from F&F alone.

  • Pajiba_Pragmatist

    You've added several dog whistle codewords in here, but ultimately you are agreeing with what I said: The DOJ did NOT sell guns to the cartels.

    To disconstruct the rest:

    1. In prior gunwalking cases, the Mexicans were sometimes involved, but most of the time they weren't because arrests were made as soon as the straw buyer transferred the guns illegally.
    2. No, the ATF was not in many cases acting as straw purchasers. There is at least one specific example though, ATF Agent Dawson, who did it without approval or prosecutorial knowledge when he played out a 'huntch' on Isaiah Fernandez.
    3. The dealers WERE in on it, in fact one of the dealers wrote emails expressing concern with what they were seeing. ATF told them 'they had it under control'.
    4. There were theoretical plans for ensuring that guns didn't cross, but realistically F&F was a total disaster of bad planning, and even worse execution.
    5. Total dog whistle term here. The existence of Presidential Authorization is meaningless. This isn't the movies; there was no secret plan to set up a poorly thought out and disastrously executed gunwalking plan spearheaded by the president. The Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) was the vehicle for all this, and therefore part of how the White House is technically involved.

    While F&F was a disaster, and people in Holder's office, the ATF and ICE all needed to lose their jobs, the existence of 1,000 extra guns on the streets is probably not consequential. In 2012, Americans purchased nearly 17 MILLION guns.

    But I'll go back to my original point - If guns don't kill people, then how can we say that the failures of Fast and Furious led to anyone's death?

  • How on earth could anyone not pick up on the Asperger's angle? They could not have possibly laid that on any thicker to the point where I was about to give up on the show at the 15 minute mark. I ended up falling asleep anyway and will give it another try this weekend, but I'm having a very difficult time buying into her character being any kind of highly functioning professional. It's like putting Adrian Monk in a show defined by it's gritty realism.

  • URnotright

    I am so relieved I am not the only person who watched "Monk" dropped in the real world. Cross was so out of place in the pilot I couldn't accept that she was a serving officer. I was waiting for a reveal that she used to be and now is allowed to remain on the department due to some Americans with Disability Act clause. The interpersonal communication required in law enforcement makes her presence puzzling. I did really appreciate how Ruiz was portrayed so far. F/X has some work to do to hook people on this show.

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