[9 July 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I don’t want pink, it’s for whores and little girls who want to be princesses.” The brutally named Eleanor Nacht (Franka Potente) looks at her new minion, a kid named Kyle (Daniel Polo), and instructs, “Something else please.”
The scene comes early in the new season of The Bridge, and while it’s brief and dark, occurring during a late night visit to Kyle’s home so he can provide Eleanor with some of his mother’s clothes, it’s as chilling as any of the show’s notoriously graphic corpse compositions. The chill here arises from Eleanor’s quiet malevolence, her assessment and instruction of the child, her status as cable TV’s latest serial killer. Just so, her particularities make her simultaneously different and too typical: raised a Mennonite and shunned, fond of “churchy” outfits and prone to dispensing horrific violence in her role as a cartel enforcer, Eleanor essentially embodies vengeance, the central motivation for pretty much everyone in The Bridge.
This includes the two detectives at its center, Chihuahua’s Marco (Demián Bichir) and El Paso’s Sonya (Diane Kruger). Their teaming was initiated last year by the discovery of a woman’s body on a bridge between the US and Mexico, and the case that seemed at first to be about the ongoing ugly politics of that border and turned out to have a more banal impetus, that is, vengeance. While vengeance is surely a reliable dramatic device, its use here is also potentially more far-reaching. In part this has to do with its attribution to Eleanor, who reveals her terrible backstory later this season, but her specific story also seems vaguely irrelevant: vengeance in the abstract does its own narrative and emotional work.
And yet, Eleanor’s job here is plain enough, as she inspires Sonya and Marco’s investigation, alarms or annoys other cartel members. As the loyalist and least constrained of Fausto Galvan’s (Ramón Franco) cartel killers, she’s sensational but also representative. As you wait for her to do something awful to young Kyle, you also wait for Sonya and Marco to find her; “Kyle’s dead,” Sonya laments after they make one not-so-enlightening investigative stop. Still mourning the loss of his own son at the end of last season, Marco holds out hope that maybe she’s wrong.
Sonya’s approach to the case is, as always, practical and direct, methodical and a little mystical (as she makes her way to a crime scene with grim resolve, one of the male cops behind her observes, “There she goes!”). She’s determined to identify right and wrong, to see her way through darkness, a desire that matches, rather uncomfortably, with Eleanor’s declared pursuit of what she calls, alternately, “grace” and “light.” You come to see that Sonya and Eleanor are differently damaged women (Sonya haunted by her sister’s murder, Eleanor haunted by her own life), but Sonya is obviously your point of identification and Eleanor is the new season’s resident monster.
As you might expect, this hackneyed arrangement of women characters is bolstered by the men who shake in their boots around Eleanor and the men who want to look after (or maybe decode) Sonya. Her mentor Hank (Ted Levine, brilliant, again) continues to worry for her, to imagine he can protect her, perhaps by intimidating her new lover Jack Dobbs (Nathan Phillips) or perhaps by lying to her about long-ago history. Marco lies to her too, explains away his lapses with sad references to his family, pretends he’s not also in bed with villains. (That she’s not so gullible as he hopes is visible in her skeptical expressions, but she never presses him.) Marco insists that the problem is the world around him, that you can’t tell the bad guys and good guys apart, all you can do is survive and do your best to maintain a tiny bit of order in your corner of turf.
While you know that Marco’s world-weary perspective makes sense, you can still appreciate Sonya’s, understand her desire for order. You want to believe Sonya might make it right. This even though you know she can’t possibly make good on the deal she offers Eva (Stephanie Sigman), whom she hopes will seal the case against the Juarez cops who raped her last season. You know Sonya can’t possibly protect Eva, any more than the men who promise to do so. Still, you can appreciate Sonya’s earnest pursuit of something like justice. Eleanor or Eva (or even Annabeth Gish’s inept drug smuggler Charlotte) pursues vengeance that is bloody and spectacular, but Sonya doubts the world around her by definition. She can’t imagine that the order she seeks can lead to certainty, but she might imagine her unrelenting focus will make a dent, for a minute.
As before, The Bridge loses its own focus frequently, sliding off into multiple storylines that follow pairs of characters, some less interesting than others, some downright distracting. But for all the time that feels misspent on Charlotte and her idiot boyfriend Ray (Brian Van Holt) or the self-deluding addict reporter Frye (Matthew Lillard) and his long-suffering partner Adriana (Emily Rios), The Bridge offers brief moments that resonate and sometimes, even chill. Eleanor doesn’t like pink, Eva swings an axe while wearing a pretty sundress, Sonya baffles her fellow cops, repeatedly, painfully aware of corruption and lies but utterly focused on her own truth.
And so Sonya and Marco remain ideal opposites, the sort of partners who populate most detective shows but something else too. They cross borders each day, including the one between Texas and Mexico. And as they come to understand and look out for one another, they illustrate the fiction of order. It’s the fiction that produces formula, expectation, and satisfaction. It’s also the fiction that produces vengeance.