The Bridge S1E1: Pilot

kyra: As has been covered ad nauseum by other TV critics, The Bridge is the brainchild of former Homeland vet Meredith Stiehm. Finally at the helm, Stiehm returns to TV with another psychologically flawed female lead. This time, its Diane Kruger (you might know her from Inglorious Basterds) as El Paso cop Sonya Cross. Sonya, while clearly being a phenomenal cop, has Aspergers. This is not exactly an original premise, as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and, more recently, Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham both suffer similar afflictions. Add to this the fact that the show is ostensibly about finding a serial killer, a la The Killing and Top of the Lake, and it doesn’t exactly seem that creative so far. However, Stiehm has ambitious plans in mind. As she explained in an interview with Alan Sepinwall, she is viewing the first season as a launchpad to explore the entire scope of life in Juarez, Mexico. You may have heard of a show trying this before. That’s right–the greatest show of all time: The Wire. I apologize for all that background, but I think it’s important. When The Wire was on the air it passed most of us by without a second thought. If we are witnessing the birth of a show that could do for Juarez what The Wire did for Baltimore, then we should take notice. I know, I know–these are lofty expectations. I just want it on the record.

Although there are so many familiar tropes (the psychologically flawed lead as I mentioned, the ‘last good cop in a sea of bad cops’ in Ruiz, a serial killer cop drama), I thought for the most part the pilot set up plenty to be excited about. I also really like the way FX has made their last two big dramas (this and The Americans) 90 minutes long (so a little over an hour without commercials). The extra time is invaluable when first introducing these characters, and I think it’s a smart thing for shows to do going forward. Buckeye, any overarching thoughts, or do you wanna dive right in?

 

Buckeye: Wouldn’t you know it kyra, but I do have some overarching thoughts, and hopefully they’ll help start discussion on the episode proper, too. First, I think you’re absolutely right to cite The Wire. Personally I hadn’t read Stiehm’s interview with Sepinwall, but if that large scope is indeed her ambitious plan, then it’s David Simon she should look to as a guide. In fact, the very first scene of the pilot recalled the opening scene of “Collateral Damage,” the second episode of The Wire‘s second season, where all of the cops from all of the departments (city, county, and state cops) drop the investigation of thirteen dead girls found in a shipping container to the obviously unprepared Beadie Russell, a port cop. It will be a monumental task for Stiehm to match The Wire‘s excoriation of bureaucratic indifference with her new show, but one of the details I most appreciated from the first episode, and looks as though it will be pursued in future weeks, of The Bridge was its willingness to illustrate just how difficult it is for people from different institutions to work together, for reasons large and small. That our principals are not only from different police departments, but from police departments in different countries, only amplifies these difficulties. I’m excited for this show because (1) I spent too much time in college studying Latin American literature (much of which lately involves the Drug War), and (2) because this is an under-dramatized story that, as Andy Greenwald noted, deserves telling. The only major American movie or TV show I can think of that has tackled this subject explicitly was Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, which is now twelve years old.

I’ll start with my largest concern from the pilot, which involved Diane Kruger’s character. Whatever tick she has—kyra suggested Asperger’s—it’s off-putting. One reason I struggled to get into Hannibal this spring was the aforementioned Hugh Dancy, whose character I felt was a chore to watch; he came across as both frantic and whiny. I thought Kruger’s Sonya much more palatable, and it helps that she has (seemingly) less eccentric people surrounding her (with cool, chill Mexican dude Ruiz and her liutenant, Hank Wade, played by Buffalo Bill Ted Levine), but her presence was still one of mousiness. That’s the point of her character, to be sure, but I’m of the opinion that Stiehm could meet her characters somewhere in the middle and draw them less sharply. According to Greenwald, Stiehm’s largely responsible for Carrie’s mental illness on Homeland, a completely unnecessary characteristic—because it’s too extreme—that I think harms that show. For example, it might make more sense to have Sonya be a rookie who plays everything by the book. It’s early, but this is something I’ll be looking out for.

What’d you make of the office politics, and Sonya’s interactions with Wade and Ruiz, in particular?

kyra: While I take issue with your criticism of Carrie’s bipolar disorder, that’s an argument for another day. I think Sonya’s mental makeup serves at least one valuable asset: she’s completely without fear in her job. She has no issue getting up close to severed bodies or confronting potential suspects and witnesses head on, albeit without tact, but this is crucial because let’s face it, she’s a pretty, tiny, blonde girl. Without that psychological flaw would we really believe this woman would be a cop investigating gruesome murders? I’m not so sure, but because she is obsessed with detail and solving cases I think it works.

Of course, the pilot also sets in motion a plot point that will force her to branch out and already gives rise to a showing of emotion she mostly lacks. Namely, Hank Wade is considering (or has already committed to, it’s not clear) retirement. Hank and Sonya clearly have a long history together, and I would posit that Hank was more of a father and mentor to her than her own parents. Given Stiehm’s Homeland background, this is very possibly derivative of the relationship Carrie has with Saul.

Granted I know next to nothing about psychiatric disorders, but my sense is that people with Aspergers and other similar conditions don’t like change. The retirement of Wade would be a considerable change in her life–one that almost leads to tears in the pilot. Hank is a good guy. He defends Ruiz’s decision to let the guy having a heart attack cross the bridge (and prevents her from filing a report that would considerably cool their working relationship), and he’s taken the time to look out for Sonya. His accent and voice are also both awesome and soothing. The other cop we meet in El Paso is Tim Cooper, who lets Ruiz in on a little secret–Sonya’s weird. Obviously this is no shocking detail, but it lets the audience know that the other cops make fun of her behind her back. Without Hank to protect her, who knows if she could’ve survived in the department as long as she has.

The other value in having Sonya as something of a blank emotional slate is she is being paired with Marco Ruiz, who has enough character for two. He walks with the swagger, stasche, and cool jacket of someone who’s seen and heard it all before. When he first comes to El Paso he knows just how to ingratiate himself with the staff via delicious Mexican breakfast food (let’s not forget Mexico was just named the fattest country in the world). While he is still at heart a good cop, when you’re a cop in Juarez it requires moral compromises. You must choose between ‘silver and lead,’ which means take cartel bribes or end up dead. You also must accept there is simply too much crime for one man to stop in a sea of corruption–something the serial killer wants the El Paso police to recognize.

Although his son likely thinks he’s a hardass, Marco gives him a scarily terse lecture on how smoking one joint can lead to working for a cartel. While it may have sounded a little over the top, I thought this was a great illustration of the stronghold the cartels have in Mexico. All they need is a tiny hook to lure you in (a joint), then they ask you to return the favor (make a delivery), and you are on the line for life. Another subtle illustration of Mexican culture was Marco’s chat with a friend who told him he needed another child because he needs money. Ironically, at least to my eyes, they look at children as being income producers rather than subtractors. I’m looking forward to watching Marco educate Sonya about the many other differences between Juarez and El Paso.

Buckeye: I think you make a great point about Sonya’s dependency on those who trust her, most particularly Wade. Whatever grievances I have towards this trend of creating characters who aren’t just neurotic but are clinically sick or afflicted in some way, it seems like where The Bridge is concerned, its writers have put some thought into how people with mental disorders would interact with their surroundings. It makes sense that there’s a father figure who will have shepherded someone like Sonya, or how else would she have progressed this far (the whole I’m-getting-ready-to-retire schtick of Hank’s feels a little contrived, and I doubt either of us actually think that’s going to happen), and unfortunately there are always going to be those who snicker behind her back. I still maintain that the show could have introduced Sonya with some softer edges, but…

…as you point out, it’s probable that Marco Ruiz will be doing this job for the audience. You noted that the show has positioned Ruiz as “the last good cop,” and while there’s nothing about his character that has surprised me yet, it’s not like this character type is some cliché: The only other Mexican “last good cop” I can name is Benicio del Toro’s character in Traffic. In many ways it’s characters like del Toro’s and Demian Bechir’s here that are our newest iterations of the old private eye characters from Hammett and Chandler. Ruiz seems to hold himself to a higher standard than a lot of cop characters who’ve been appearing on TV shows lately (nothing suggests he’s got a weakness for drink or women—yet), but he’s not as confined to the boundaries of the law because he works in Mexico and it’s not exactly clear what the law is (especially when El Capitan looks like quite a big fan of graft) nor whose in charge. We’ve been missing a lot of good noir stories lately, and this is just another reason, I think, to explore the netherworld that exists so close to the US-Mexico border. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that some of the best of Latin American literature has centered on male detectives, and I’m excited to see this translated onto the TV (and hopefully more mainstream movies, too)

You mentioned the serial killer, and both of us have at least hinted at the danger that lurks on either side of the El Paso-Juárez bridge. But are you surprised that our serial killer suspect is American? Maybe it was just me but I was expecting the cartels, not some random psycho, to be behind the violence in The Bridge.

kyra: Before I address the killer, I might add that Detective Gordon from the Batman trilogy is also the ‘last good cop’ in Gotham. Also, I agree that there’s no way Wade is leaving before this case is over. It’s no different than the Rosie Larsen murder being the last case Lynden would be on before moving from Seattle. It’s gonna keep bringing them back in and staving off that retirement that feels so close.

It’s interesting to me that the potential killer is American considering the political message he’s broadcasting sheds light on Mexico’s problems, not America’s. Since we don’t have much to go on so far, let’s itemize what we do know:

1. Whoever murdered the judge presumably took her ID card, possibly as a “trophy.”

2. Our unnamed kidnapper was shown poring over a woman’s ID (I believe the girl he kidnapped).

3. The kidnapped girl fits the demographic of the other ‘Juarez girls.’

4. So far the kidnapper has not exhibited any violent tendencies beyond yelling and locking her up. She did ask if ‘it was him’ as if she knew who he was, but it is very unclear. He could simply be getting paid to smuggle illegals into the country.

4. There’s a fairly prominent reporter somehow connected.

5. A woman’s recently deceased husband kept a mysterious locked area on his ranch that she didn’t know about, but the Hispanic head of the help did. Perhaps he’s smuggling illegals into the country?

Am I missing anything? Hard to draw any conclusions quite yet.

Buckeye: I think you covered what we know so far, except that when the reporter touted his journalistic résumé, he listed only the Houston Chronicle and the NEW YORK POST. Hopefully he was in the headline-writing department over there. Stay tuned on Wednesday night…

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One Response to The Bridge S1E1: Pilot

  1. Pingback: The Bridge Season 1 Review | Room Eleven

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