Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The desert surrounding the two cities at the heart of FX’s mystery series The Bridge, which completes its first season Wednesday, is almost unfathomably vast, a massive, empty gulf of land into which so many lives are tossed. It’s an apt visual metaphor for the case that sneakily proves to be at the series’ center, which is just as difficult to understand, let alone comprehend. Hundreds upon hundreds of women go missing in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Many turn up dead. Yet almost anyone who could help—in Juárez, or in El Paso, Texas, on the other side of the border—turns a blind eye, because to begin to make an accounting of all the lost would result in an intense shame. All of this happened, and no one cared.
The first season of The Bridge is a touch sloppy in its plotting—in particular, its back half feels ungainly, seesawing among plot points—but there’s a striking earnestness to it that sets it apart from many of the other murder mystery prestige dramas that have sprung up in the past year. Early in its run, the vicious serial killer who sits at the show’s center, calling down judgment on those who sit around him or her who do nothing to help those hundreds of missing women, seems to be making a deeply political statement about the relationship between the United States and Mexico and just how much the former is willing to overlook in the name of its own border security. Later, however, this political fury is revealed as a kind of false flag, a diversion so the police won’t realize the killer’s true reason for existing is a deeply personal, highly coincidental connection with one of the people working the investigation.
At first, it’s rather disappointing. The show had so successfully built out its world that getting lost in episode after episode of the mastermind killer taunting victims from afar distracted from the things that were actually fun to watch. But as that storyline wended its way to a conclusion before the season finale, the false-flag nature of the killer’s original manifesto felt ever more appropriate. It was simply an attempt to make American cops feel bad about what they had let pass just a few miles over the border, one that would be as easily ignored as anything else once the killer’s true motives were sussed out. But in the episode after the killer’s capture, developers Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid turned this into a virtue, the camera turning toward a small army of women poking the dirt in the Mexican desert, hoping for shallow graves filled with answers and those who wouldn’t come home. Here is what was important all along. And everybody—even many in the audience—let it slip away from the center.
The Bridge has an uneasy relationship with its central storyline throughout that first season. The serial killer investigation is closely adapted from the Danish/Swedish series this one is based on, from the inciting incident—a body found on the bridge between two countries—on. The original series, like many of the popular Nordic noir television series that have been re-made in the U.S., relies heavily on contrivance and coincidence. It’s a conceit of the genre that fans of such shows are often willing to go with, but which can feel utterly ridiculous when placed in other contexts (like the American/Mexican border). By borrowing so heavily from the original plot, there was a point in the season’s midsection when it felt as if the show would never get back to the weird, wonderful world building that had made its early episodes so fun. (That world building had included surprisingly sharp work from Matthew Lillard, as an addict newspaper reporter, and Lyle Lovett, as a shit-kicker lawyer who saunters around with casserole dishes and dire warnings for his clients.)
While the plotting and resolution of the serial-killer storyline were mostly effective for this sort of thing (depending on one’s taste for extreme coincidence), they also seemed to arrive from another series entirely when compared to everything else. But in the final episodes of the season, after the case wrapped up, the season stubbornly refused to wrap up with it. And as many other shows of this ilk have conditioned viewers to expect, the rug was neatly pulled out from under the audience to reveal what the show had been about all along: both the tenacity and the impossibility of life in the face of all this death.
The show’s center throughout were the steady Diane Kruger, as an American detective with something very like Asperger’s, and the beautifully volatile Demián Bichir, turning in enormously moving work as a Mexican cop who’s incapable of not feeding his appetites when they rear their ugly head. (In this manner did the show turn one of its earliest missteps—when he went to bed with Annabeth Gish as a woman tangentially related to the case who spirals off into her own storyline—into a virtue.) Bichir’s open, wounded performance and Kruger’s closed-off one made for a familiar riff on the buddy cop format, to be sure, but both were terrific when called upon, and their unlikely friendship became the unexpected center of the show with surprising speed.
The question of how life can survive surrounded by all this death—literalized in the shots of that endless desert—found its true home in Kruger and Bichir, both marked by loss, both unable to do anything about it. The season had its problems beyond ungainly plotting, as the Gish storyline never really got going, and the show spent perhaps too little time with Thomas M. Wright as a strange and foreboding figure of the series’ wilderness. And though the season finale was solid, it tried to serve too many masters and mostly came off as a little muddled in the face of what the show was trying to do. Yet every time the show returned to Kruger and Bichir, it proved soulful and devastating, a series trying to make sense of the senseless and failing every time, before it would get right back up and try again.