I’ve enjoyed the first season of The Bridge on FX, but as others have also argued, notably Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress, the show’s creators, Elwood Reed, Björn Stein, and Meredith Steihm, and their collaborators, have split their narrative between a conventional serial killer story and a sprawling, multi-layered exploration of a place, or, maybe, places, depending on how you want to look at the border and at El Paso-Juarez. I think the series has been at its best when pursuing the latter, and at its least interesting when following the former. During the middle part of the season, from about episode three, “Rio”, through episode eight or nine, “Vendetta” and “The Beetle”, I looked forward to watching The Bridge as much as I have any show this year. Since revealing the identity of the killer, however, the series has moved strongly in the more generic direction, with this week’s installment, “Old Friends”, being especially undistinguished in terms of plot and story, albeit still strongly acted.
(Spoilers to follow)
Rosenberg articulates the tension between the show’s narrative forks well in this passage from her review and recap of “Vendetta”, referring to the revelation of the real suspect as a fairly stock white guy ex-cop:
I think The Bridge might have been able to earn this revelation if it had spent a season or two on a more prosaic but infinitely more interesting project, sketching in the details of the societies and economies of both Juarez and El Paso. When the show gives us hints of that, as was the case in tonight’s glimpses of Graciela singing and drinking with a group of musicians on a streetcorner, or its quick sketch of Santi Jr. and his role in Juarez, it’s always the most interesting part of an episode of The Bridge. A show that was more willing to be slow, like The Wire, might have set an entire episode at the party Daniel sent Adriana to attend, an interesting freebie of a story that she’ll now turn into a blockbuster, and would have handled the characters such that it made sense that their presence their and all of their interactions during the evening felt like one of those magic paintings when it finally becomes clear. But The Bridge is so unfortunately tied to its central murder mystery that it can’t afford to linger too much.
As the series has made clear, this region has no shortage of crime, from smuggling people to gun running, drugs, and murder of the non-serial variety (though, as shown in “Maria of the Desert” what constitutes a serial killer is a matter of perspective), which could make for interesting opportunities to show border crossing, cooperation and friction, but without relying on the kind of sensationalism or master-minding (to crib from Alyssa Rosenberg again) that has driven this season’s primary investigation.
At this point it is tempting to compare The Bridge to The Killing, another series that began promising much in terms of story and place before taking different, less interesting turns instead, but I don’t think the comparison is apt (and, significantly, has become less common as the newer series has progressed).
While the backlash against The Killing is often pegged to the lack of closure in that show’s first season, for me the series had degraded long before that finale. It took only an episode or two beyond the premiere before it became evident that there was little consequence to setting the story in Seattle. I can’t think of a single notable character introduced in season one, or two, for that matter, whose reason for being wasn’t directly related to the murder investigation, and virtually all of those were presented as either suspects or accomplices at some point. Ultimately, The Killing showed little in the way of world building, no matter how many grey skies and how much rain and water appeared in the backgrounds and establishing shots. By the time season one was ready to conclude, an answer to the question, “Who killed Rosie Larsen?”, was about all the series had left (well, that plus Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman).
By contrast, The Bridge already includes critical elements that are, at most, only tangentially related to the serial killer and that suggest future plans that are more about context and less about plotting. This season will clearly only scratch the surfaces of characters like Charlotte, Steven Linder and Fausto Galvan. Local press, on the El Paso side, have already been successfully incorporated into the story world, and through Adriana the series also has at least one well-realized character who effectively lives on both sides of the border.
While there is room for growth – we’ve been shown little about the command structure of law enforcement or how the agencies networked along the border might be entangled around more mundane issues and cases; similarly, government figures, live ones at least, have been, essentially, absent, and I think that the series would be enriched by having counterparts in Juarez for Daniel and Adriana – there is also a structure in place to accommodate such growth. So, contra The Killing, as The Bridge winds down its first season, the main mystery is its least interesting aspect, and the promise of a wider, richer narrative remains authentic, if still less than fully realized.
Of course, having a serial killer driving the narrative machinery is not, in itself, a problem, but thus far the producers and writers have been unable to ground David Tate’s actions with the same sense of place that infuses other story lines and characters. There are nods in that direction, notably in the way that the tragedy sparking Tate involves figures from both Juarez and El Paso and also the fluidity of the border, but, at the moment, these seem incidental rather than integral to the plot.
At the Television Critics Association, Meredith Steihm and Elwood Reid indicated that their plan for a second season does not entail another serial killer story. While that only goes to what the season won’t be about, the most obvious alternatives, threads that are already embedded into the narrative, point to criminal enterprises that should present greater possibilities for place-based storytelling than has season one’s serial killer.