The corpse lies directly in the middle of a bridge between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. “She’s American,” declares the blond Texan homicide detective, gesturing at the body. “It’s ours.” The laconic Juarez cop shrugs. “I don’t need a body,” he says. “Just this morning I got nine heads in the parking lot at city hall.”
So is born what promises to be one of the great cop partnerships of all time in FX’s stunning new drama The Bridge. Like the countries from which they hail, Sonya Cross and Marco Ruiz are a chaotic collision of culture, ethnicity and language, so profoundly divided that they doubt one another’s sanity. (“I can’t tell if she’s crazy or it’s just because she’s a gringa,” Ruiz broods to his wife, who helpfully suggests: “Maybe both.)
But they’re forced to work together when a serial killer starts plying his ghoulish trade on both sides of the border, preying on a series of women with nothing apparent in common except the grisliness of their deaths.
The Bridge is adapted from a European series of the same name set on the border between Denmark and Sweden. Writer-producers Meredith Stiehm (whose enviable resume includes Showtime’s taut terrorism drama Homeland) and Elwood Reid ( Hawaii Five-O) have reversed the show’s polarities, changing the icy gloom of Scandinavian noir into the sere, hilly desert around El Paso to brilliant effect.
They’ve retained the quirky personality clash at the heart of the Scandinavian series. Ruiz is a good cop who’s barely able to work because narcotrafficker corruption has eaten away the heart of his department; Cross is a good cop who’s too eccentric for anybody in her department to work with.
Afflicted with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism that obliterates social savvy, Cross (played with riveting intensity by Diane Kruger of Inglourious Basterds fame) has the people skills of an iguana. Arrogant and prickly at her best moments, insensately cruel at her worst, she’s comfortable with eviscerated corpses but only dimly senses her disconnection from living, breathing humanity. “I’m sorry if I didn’t exercise empathy,” she murmurs at the end of an appalling interrogation of a murder victim’s husband.
Her inadvertent insults wound Cruz (Demian Bichir, memorable for his performance as an oily Mexican gangster-politician during the early seasons of Weeds), who has endured a lifetime of gringo disdain on the border while chafing under the indifference of his own police force to Juarez’s growing violence.
Trying to explain why his department mostly ignores crimes linked to Mexico’s drug cartels, he tells Cross it’s a matter of survival: “They tell you plata o plomo — take our silver or take our lead.” Her reproof is obliviously prim: “You should try harder.”
The scenes between Cross and Ruiz crackle with a weird, unpredictable electricity. But this version of The Bridge is much more than character study. Beyond its obvious (and powerful) use of the cops as cultural and political metaphors, The Bridge is also a perceptive look at the border region’s jagged issues of class and race, as well its complex and sometimes violent economic imperatives of our border with Mexico.
Many of the characters live on one side of the border but have jobs or business on the other (notably including a widowed trophy wife, winningly played by Annabeth Gish, who discovers her late rancher husband was importing not only horses but, clandestinely, people). Even Cruz, so cynical about the American side of the border, sends his young son to school there.
But neither literary nor political pretensions are necessary to enjoy The Bridge. At its bedrock, it’s a fine crime drama, full of arresting and gruesome turns, sometimes downright scary, sometimes blackly funny. Many of the latter moments are provided by a dissolute reporter, Daniel Frye (Matthew Willard, Scream), who in search of a big story allows the killer to use him as a media megaphone. The exquisitely scatological insults Frye hurls at his bosses are a reporter’s dream. Well, some other reporter’s dream. I would never talk that way. Honest.