This post discusses plot points from the August 7 episode of The Bridge.
There comes a time in the watching of any television series when you decide whether or not you’re going to trust it. When I say that, I’m talking about a particular kind of committing yourself to being along for the ride, a decision that you’ll let the things you’re seeing on screen play out until the end, even if one happens to irritate you in the moment, that you’ll trust the show to mean something when it pushes your boundaries, that you’ve decided the people telling this story are of good faith and of certain skill. I’ve enjoyed The Bridge since its premiere, but this was the episode that I decided that I trusted it.
That tipping point came for me came after what seemed like a shaggy dog story paid off in a moment of profound horror. I was bored and even a little irritated by the idea of watching a privileged but troubled white teenager wander off to Juarez, be stupid enough to follow a man she doesn’t know back to his apartment for beers, and then learn, presumably as a proxy for us, that kidnappings are a real problem in Mexico. The story, complete with kindly Mexican heroine, felt trite. But it turned out the point of this misadventure wasn’t to explain to us what Marco and Adriana already have by their simple presence, that there is violence in Juarez, but also goodness. It was to teach that young girl something that would enable her to be valuable to Marco and Sonya. “La Bestia. The Beast. That’s what we call him. The one who’s killing all the girls,” her savior explained after they’d fled the apartment. “One, two, a hundred, no one knows. So he’s just the Beast.” When she told Marco and Sonya after they discovered her in the closet, hiding from the sight of her father with his throat slit and his tongue pulled out through it, and from the man who’d done that grotesque act of violence, she told the detectives “I saw him. I saw the Beast.” She’s putting her own personal, specific nightmare in a larger context to explain the magnitude of her terror. But it seems she may also be correct about the link between her father and the specific killings of women to make a political point to El Paso, even if she doesn’t know it yet.
It wasn’t the only way in which this episode was surprising. The episode begins with a conversation that drives some of the plot forward, culminating in Fausto Galvan’s discovery of Linder burying a man in the desert. But it also did something more specific, teasing out what it is that we mean when we talk about “serial killers,” and drawing out the way they’re a specifically American idea. “What the hell is a serial killer?” Fausto wants to know. “Someone who kills lots of people,” his aide answers, but Fausto continues to test him. “Lots of people kill lots of people. Soldiers, terrorists, presidents. You think I’m a serial killer?” Galvan wants to know. “I kill lots of people.” The other man answers carefully: “Serial killers are crazy. They do other things. Rape, mutilate, eat their victims. They also do sexual things.” “Then you’re only a serial killer if you enjoy it,” Fausto muses.
It’s a conversation that gets at both the relationship between the two men, the way Fausto tests those around him, and the way men need to take care, but also gets at the larger cultural milieu in which The Bridge operates. What are we to make of the hyper-rational but deranged serial killers who haunt our airwaves? Is The Beast,a serial killer if he doesn’t enjoy his murders, but commits them only in service of larger political goals? If The Beast is a manifestation of collective, misogynist impulse, is society crazy? And if so, how do we distinguish serial killers from the population as a whole.
That’s a particularly important question given the possibility that The Beast might be not just Mexican, not just itinerant, but white and a member of law enforcement. The clues are building slowly. “They IDed Ralph Gedman,” the decapitated FBI agent, Sonya explains. “He visited Crisitna every week.” “You knew Ralph Geman,” she tells the killer when he calls Daniel Frye’s cell phone, and then the phone at her desk. “Better than others,” the voice on the other end of the line tells her. “I’m not special…If I knew, others knew…Institutions know, and they ignore. And they protect.” “He was white, but I never saw his face,” Maria tells Marco and Sonya of her ordeal. “There was a cage,” separating the backseat of his car from the driver. “Like a police car?” Marco wants to know. It’s Sonya, unencumbered by the rules of politeness in a way that increasingly mirrors the show’s approach to its story, who dares to speak the possibility aloud: “Maybe he’s one of us.”
That theme of written and unwritten rules persisted in the show’s smaller moments, too. At the Television Critics Association press tour it became clear, if news to me, that some viewers don’t intuitively grasp that Sonya lies somewhere on the autism spectrum and just think she’s a jerk. But one of the reasons this episode was a game-changer for me was the ways it managed to work in the ways that Sonya’s worldview serves her better than the neurotypical people around her.
When Sonya tells Marco, at dinner with his wife, “You left your wallet at Charlotte Millwright’s,” and returns it to him, she gets him kicked out of the house. Marco’s irritated that she got him in trouble, telling her “Partners look out for each other. That’s an unwritten rule. Just forget it.” But who actually created that difficult situation, Marco by having sex with a woman not his wife and being stupid and careless in the aftermath, or Sonya for being unaware of his subterfuge? At the station in El Paso, Sonya explains to Hank that Marco “Slept on a bench. In the back room,” and the show gets a nice little joke out of Marco insisting “I can speak for myself. Slept on a bench. In the back room.” She’s being clear. He’s being prideful. She’s also able to focus beyond Linder to see new possibilities. And then there’s her very funny question to Daniel Frye, and his very funny answer. ‘You do a lot of drugs, don’t you?” Sonya wants to know. “Why?” “I’m not telling you that,” Daniel protests, before telling her immediately. “Cuz they’re there, and they’re fun. And they make you hate yourself just a little bit less.” Sonya may not be blessed with self-awareness, but she’s not cursed with it in a way that makes her do stupid things, either. And in the world of The Bridge, the ability to see clearly is just as important as the ability to intuit and feel.