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FX’s ‘The Bridge’ Takes On Immigration Reform, Violence In Juarez, And El Paso Politics

By Alyssa Rosenberg  

"FX’s ‘The Bridge’ Takes On Immigration Reform, Violence In Juarez, And El Paso Politics"

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Credit: FX

This post discusses some plot details from the first three episodes of The Bridge.

“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?” an ominous voice tells a pair of detectives, Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir) in the first episode of FX’s new crime drama, The Bridge, which premieres at 10pm tonight. “We’ve got some interesting times ahead. This is only the beginning.”

Though the person delivering the message is a politically-motivated serial killer, it’s a deft summary of the show, an adaptation of a Scandanavian drama with a similar concept. Sonya, who lies somewhere on the autism spectrum, is a member of the El Paso police department who’s called to the Bridge of the Americas, a boarder crossing between her town and Juarez, when the lights go out, and after they come back on again, shine on the body of a woman laid carefully at the exact border. Shortly behind her is Marco, a member of the beleaguered Chihauhua State Police, who tells Sonya that he has no objection to her claim of jurisdiction, because “I don’t need your body. Just this morning I got nine heads in the parking lot of city hall. We got our own dead.” When it turns out that the dead woman is a judge, Lorraine Gates, who as Sonya’s boss Hank (Ted Levine), put it, “She’s anti-immigration, she’s for the Wall, anti-DREAM Act. Hell, she doesn’t like Mexicans,” the case acquires a political tinge. And when complications emerge with the body, Sonya and Marco find themselves thrown together for the long haul.

The character sketches are deft, and often funny. Sonya’s social deficits are genuine, and not always endearing. Hank advises her to use eye contact when she informs the judge’s husband that she’s dead, but when her attempts to act normal fail, Sonya quickly becomes frustrated. “I’m sorry if I didn’t exercise empathy,” she tells the man at the end of their interview, aware she’s done wrong, but unsure of how to do better. Hank, who’s protected her in the department, whether from the ribbing of other officers or repercussions for her awkwardness, is planning on retiring. But she’s got a charm to her, too, and her rationality can be comforting. When a bomb’s planted in an abrasive reporter’s (Matthew Lillard) car, Sonya’s hyperrationality is an asset, rather than a deficit. And after she picks up a man at a bar, getting confused after he walks away when she says she doesn’t want a drink and asking him “You want to have sex with me? We could go back to my place,” he comes back for more, showing up at the office to get her number, and patiently working her through her confusion–“What are you doing here? I can’t have sex at work,” she tells him, anxious–to get her phone number.

Marco, by contrast, is all charm, waving Charlotte (Annabeth Gish), a wealthy woman and her husband through, the crime scene in an ambulance in which the couple being transported to a hospital to treat the man’s heart attack, bringing pastries to Sonya’s office to win over the receptionist, and later buying the same woman flowers that he says come from Sonya as well, putting her under the protective umbrella of his gift for schmoozing. But he’s also recently had a vasectomy, convincing himself “I already have three children. Two marriages. It was time,” even though he bristles when his colleagues joke about it. And he’s equally uncomfortable with the idea, raised repeatedly, that all Mexican policemen accept bribes.

Their dynamic’s echoed in the relationship between the reporter, Daniel, whose car is bombed, and Adriana Mendez (Emily Rios), his junior colleague, who grew up in Juarez. Daniel’s a libertine and a cynic who takes hits of coke to pep himself up and mocks Adriana for reporting about pregnant women crossing the border, hoping to have children who will be born citizens. He tells her “I smell a Pulitzer,” in the serial killer story, but panics when he witnesses a shooting in Juarez at close range. “How did you get the job with the Times?” he asks her in a later episode in one of the series most revealing conversations, admitting that, “I went to fancy schools and my family is super-connected.” “I went to UT,” Adriana tells him, clipped. “But how?” Daniel presses forward. “Look at your sister. She’s 18 and she has like 3 kids…How did you not get stuck here, pregnant, and watching novelas for the rest of your life?”

There’s an appealing frankness to both of these relationships, and to the simple fact of a television show that presents women and men as highly effective colleagues and potentially good friends, without defaulting to conventional romantic narrative arcs. Those relationships are fresher than The Bridge‘s reliance on a serial killer, though the specific execution has some strong points even in a murderer-saturated environment. Thus far, the murderer appears to be a man named Steven Linder (Thomas M. Wright) who, like The Fall‘s Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), is employed in social work of some sort, a profession that allows him to convince himself he’s in the right when he insists to Marco, “I’m just a person who helps people.” He’s brilliant at the logistics of murder, in keeping with the trope Willa Paskin described in a recent piece on television’s trope of sexy psychopaths. But unlike the killers for whom “Sociopathy has become like consumption, a dangerous but romantic affliction that allegedly makes its possessor more passionate, more brilliant, more artistic and better-looking, even as it ties him inexorably to death,” Linder’s scruffy and awkward. And his justifications for his murders feels somewhat more deranged than the artistic killers of The Following, or Hannibal, or the sexual fetishism of The Fall. “What’s your point?” Daniel asks Linder during one of the latter’s creepy phone calls to him. “Dialectics,” Linder explains, which Sonya later defines to Hank, who’s been let down by Google, as “Poles. The U.S. and Mexico. Legal and illegal.” But there’s an undeniable perversity to killing young Mexicans to draw attention to the murders of women or the harshness of the border, and The Bridge is a much more straight-forward white-hat-black-hat story, to keep with the theme of dialectics, than its competitors, which have a romantic attachment to their killers.

The significant challenge for The Bridge will be to avoid the trap of The Killing, and rely too long on a single mystery in a way that risks making its characters seem stupid or incompetent. And the show should take time to shade in the world beyond its main characters: thus far, a mysterious, violent Mexican man whose own quest leads the police in Linder’s direction, isn’t doing much to make Juarez feel like a real place, rather than a collection of stereotypes. But there’s some rich work to be done with Charlotte’s attempts to balance her attempts to find a place in El Paso’s social circuit and her husband’s political entanglements in El Paso, and Marco’s son and wife could provide a line into wider Juarez. But there’s plenty there to work with. Interesting times ahead, indeed.

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