In recent years, television’s crime procedurals have had a tendency to treat female characters’ mental illnesses or presence on the autism spectrum as a source of superpowers. On Bones, Temperance Brennan’s cold affect is a way for her to manage her emotional reaction to victims, and her intense focus makes her capable of seeing things that other investigators miss. Carrie Mathison’s bipolar disorder on Homeland makes her obsessive and sometimes leads her to behave in ways that are emotionally inappropriate, but those flaws often break in her favor. The Killing‘s Sarah Linden’s devotion to her cases has made her mentally ill, but in a way that she keeps rising above to help victims. And so one of the things I like most about The Bridge, which premiered on FX last night (my full review is here) is that the show is interested in examining the full impact of what appears to be Sonya Cross’s (Diane Kruger) Asperger syndrome on her ability to do her police work, rather than viewing it as a simple power-up that makes her better at her job than anyone else.
“Could you protect me?” Sonya asks Hank, her boss, towards the beginning of the episode, and he promises her that “I’ll do my level best.” This episode pulls off a delicate balance: without making Sonya incompetent or a damsel in distress, it makes clear why Sonya might need protecting within the larger police bureaucracy, because of the unconventional way she goes about her job. “Remember eye contact, all right?” Hank tells Sonya when she heads off to inform the husband of Lorraine Gates, an anti-immigrant judge found dead on the Bridge of the Americas, that his wife has been murdered. “Right, I will,” Sonya tells him. But once she’s at the house, it’s clear that Hank’s suggestions and strategies can only go so far in replacing the natural ability to read people and know how to respond. “She was dead by then,” Sonya tells the man, who is distraught that his wife didn’t pick up a call from him. “Which is very sad for you. Would you like a glass of water?”
It’s also clear that Hank and others’ attempts to protect Sonya from hurt and embarrassment go only so far, too. “You been by to see him?” a coroner asks Sonya, seemingly about an ex.”Not recently,” Sonya tells her, distracted by the judge’s body. “Good, don’t give him the satisfaction,” the older woman tells her in a motherly tone. Hank cautions her not to get too absorbed in the case, saying of that crimes like this one that “It’ll scratch up your soul, give you bad dreams.” “I don’t dream,” Sonya tells him, getting caught up in the literal details of the situation, and missing his warning about her capacity for emotional harm. When she starts stripping down in the office, Hank gently cautions her that “I told you to use the ladies room,” and Sonya gives him a curt “Yeah. Next time,” though whether she’s absorbed his point, and the consequences he’s trying to protect her from, remain open to question.
One area where Hank’s instructions appear to have some impact is in Sonya’s early relationship with Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir), which gets off to a bad start when the Mexican cop appears disinterested in the body on the Bridge, then waves an ambulance through the crime scene, and finally, when Sonya discovers that Ruiz did relatively little to investigate the death of Cristina Fuentes, a missing girl whose legs, as it turns out, were paired with the judge’s torso. “His name is on the report for Cristina Fuentes, but he didn’t investigate at all,” Sonya complains to Hank, who tells her, “Well, now he gets a second chance.” And when Sonya files a complaint against Marco for letting the ambulance cross the crime scene, Hank explains to her gently, “People dont’ like to be ratted out to their superiors.” “Then they should follow procedure,” Sonya tells him grouchily. But she keeps working with Marco anyway.
And Sonya’s bluntness gives the show some room to discuss immigration issues in franker terms than it might have otherwise, and makes Sonya willing to consider possibilities that others might ignore for the sake of delicacy. “She just made a ruling against some Mexicans, you know, stopping them from standing on the corners and looking for work,” Judge Gates’ husband tells Sonya when she asks if his late wife had any enemies. “Why can’t they stand at a corner?” Sonya demands, brushing aside the justification that day laborers present a traffic problem. “You have a right to stand on a public street, and to signal by your presence in the particular place that you’re looking for day work.” It’s absolutely the wrong place and time, but a refreshingly rational sentiment. And even if it’s uncomfortable for Sonya to ask Gates “Any drugs?”–as he makes clear when he spits at her “Lorraine was a mother, for Christ’s sake.”–she’s right to enquire. “My mother used drugs,” Sonya tells him. Parenthood and virtue are not actually synonymous, and it’s valuable that Sonya can see that, though not necessarily that she feels compelled to say it.
Sonya’s demeanor makes it fun to watch Marco try to deal with her. “Email would have been quicker,” she says when he shows up at her office with a file. “But not as pleasant,” Marco, something of a libertine, tells her. “I brought some breakfast.” Later, she calls, and exhibits enough of a sense of courtesy to ask Marco “Were you sleeping?” “I do that at night, yes,” Marco tells her. But he’s spurred into action by her doggedness. “I’ll do it first thing in the morning,” Marco tells Sonya in response to a request. “Who can I call to look into it now?” Sonya asks, not out of malice but a genuine sense of urgency, and Marco hauls himself out of bed.
That doesn’t mean he adopts her decision-making style. “They’re Americans. They want an American hospital,” he tells Sonya as justification when he waves the ambulance, carrying Charlotte and her husband Karl, in the midst of a heart attack, through the crime scene. And when Sonya accuses Marco of not caring about Cristina Fuentes, not understanding that he’s not possessed of her lack of social life and the drive that allows Sonya to work non-stop when she’s interested in something, Marco makes clear that he’s personally invested. “Cristina Fuentes was found six blocks away from my house,” he tells her.
There’s no question that the crime before them will occupy Sonya and Marco, given that they’re up against a killer who apparently can scramble electrical systems, bisect bodies, and rig fiendishly clever bombs. But I’m almost more interested in the relationship that will develop between them as a result of that work.