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Under the Bridge Reena Virk Vritika Gupta.jpg

'Under the Bridge' Did Something Radical

By Chris Revelle | TV | May 31, 2024 |

By Chris Revelle | TV | May 31, 2024 |

Under the Bridge Reena Virk Vritika Gupta.jpg

One of the most common subjects of both true crime and crime fiction we see on TV is a dead girl. Dead women are popular subjects, too, but dead girls are almost a knee-jerk artistic choice for stories of cops and/or journalists wrapping their personal demons up in the murders they’re covering. Often, these dead girls have little dimension or impact on the story outside of being a tragedy to be avenged and grieved. What we usually learn of them are just the facts that emphasize not the person but the loss of them. In stories like Under the Bridge, dead girls are usually props instead of people which makes one particular choice the show made feel quite radical: it made the dead girl a full person.

I’ll be discussing the recent finale of Under the Bridge (streaming on Hulu). Beware: spoilers inbound.

Let’s get the end out of the way first. For a great deal of the finale, it looks like Kelly is going to get away with the murder of Reena Virk. With Warren locked up for life, the only witness who can definitively confirm that Kelly followed Reena over the bridge and drowned her is muted. Warren participated in the killing by kicking Reena and then helping Kelly drag her into the water, a fact he cannot explain or properly account for. Rebecca and Suman visit Warren and Suman explains how crushed by guilt she feels in the wake of her daughter’s death. Then Suman does something very difficult: she forgives her daughter’s murderer. Warren, shocked by this gesture, can only offer that he doesn’t know why he did it. The exchange animates him to testify against Kelly in her trial, providing the clincher that leads to a guilty verdict for Kelly (who predictably went feral during her testimony). Lest you think justice might be fully done here, the judge sentences Kelly to five years in prison, referencing her good grades and good family as reasons for leniency. Warren, abandoned by his dad and unhoused, goes back to serve his life sentence for assisting in Kelly’s murder, and Kelly, suburban and affluent, gets a relative wrist-slap.

The finale’s last moments don’t belong to Kelly or Warren or any of the hardened teens of Victoria but to Reena and her parents, Suman and Manjit. The parents put on Reena’s Biggie CD and bop along to the music as they sort through her things. Reena, a ghost, a memory, watches wistfully. It’s a poignant and bittersweet moment to end Under the Bridge on and it made me appreciate how much the series centered Reena in its story.

Roughly half of each episode is devoted to a flashback to events in Reena’s life before the murder, and not only the days leading up to it but months before. We see Reena’s loneliness as she sits alone at school, her frustration with her Jehovah’s Witness family’s strict boundaries, the empowering joy that blooms within her when she listens to Biggie, and her sweet relationship with her uncle. We also see the heart-wrenching fights Reena has with her parents and how her desire to connect with others drives her into the company of Victoria’s “Bic girls,” young women without family support who the local police write off as “disposable.” At the Seven Oakes foster home, Reena looks past the trauma and strife that landed children there and sees them as kids with way more freedom than she feels she has. As Suman notes at some point, Reena has a big house full of food and parents who love her. But the Seven Oakes girls seem aspirational; they have no parents to tell them no, they curse freely, smoke cigarettes, smoke weed, start fights, drink booze. She wanted in on that kind of “freedom” and didn’t understand the horrible circumstances that landed kids like Dusty and Josephine at Seven Oakes.

We see Reena do a horrible thing: to move into the foster home, she makes a false police report against her father Manjit, accusing him of physical and sexual abuse. It’s a devastating incident and a charge that takes a long time to expunge from Manjit’s record. This massively complicates the viewers’ perception of Reena, especially in how it interacts with each individual’s idea of the “perfect victim.” Under the Bridge could have defined Reena by her lowest moment, but instead, it chose compassion. The series doesn’t excuse what Reena did, but they don’t let it dehumanize her. Reena was not a perfect victim and she shouldn’t have to be one. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I saw Reena as kid who took their very understandable angst into a place where it could grow and fester into something far more destructive.

Compassion isn’t something typically found in dead-girl stories, but Under the Bridge seemed to make it the guiding light the series followed. Reena is shown to be a human being instead of a prop and even Reena’s assailants get the same compassion. Dusty, Warren, and Josephine are all presented as children who society has failed. It doesn’t excuse their actions but puts them in a greater context that recognizes an intersection of elements at play: race, class, wealth, and so on. It’s surprisingly humane, especially in light of how dark the show’s tone is. I’m very thankful the series chose this route. True crime stories are by their nature at constant risk of glorifying their events or even fetishizing their killers, but this series chose a much more humane path.

Taken altogether, Under the Bridge tells a compelling (and true) dead girl story grounded in compassion and context such that we understand we’re watching people and not simply characters. In a story like this (and murder media in general), it’s frightfully easy to flatten a tragedy into entertainment. Under the Bridge didn’t let viewers forget about the human at the heart of the story and it was a radical approach that I hope we see more of in the future.