From the first seven second season episodes, which were screened for critics, emerge two undeniable truths about FX’s “The Bridge.”
Thanks to its uniquely haunting atmosphere and refreshing, infinitely committed performances, the series remains one of television’s most compelling and intriguing. It returns Wednesday not simply as the summer’s most enthralling series but as a star player on FX’s stacked roster of exhilarating dramas.
But for all its excellence as a final product, the first half of the show’s second season does not necessarily unfold according to plan. It is not the precise show executive producer Elwood Reid believes he is creating.
Unable to shield viewers from the relentlessly cruel setting or detach them from its richly constructed inhabitants, the discrepancy between the playbook and the execution does not render the second season ineffective. It does not condemn it to anything approximating mediocrity.
It does, however, spotlight a tragically missed opportunity to transform “The Bridge” from a strong series into an elite one.
In a letter to the television media, executive producer Elwood Reid explains, “The serial killer thread was not the most interesting aspect of our adaptation. The most interesting thing to us has always been the shadow world of the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. And that will be the focus of ‘The Bridge,’ this season and beyond.”
“Season two of ‘The Bridge’ tackles this strange and cool world of the border in all of its complicated, bilingual glory,” adds Reid before detailing the various story threads that will intersect to form a singular, cohesive narrative.
Both ambitious in design and accommodating of a popular critical viewpoint, Reid’s letter reflects the creative team’s desire to draw focus to the infinitely compelling universe rather than to the specifics of the show’s hit-or-miss storylines. Under that vision of the show, the border itself–and the ways in which the struggles, horrors and moralities one experiences differ as he crosses between El Paso and Juarez–is the centerpiece. The intricate, complex nature of that centerpiece then serves to help color the characters and events that take place within the parameters.
That, unfortunately, does not accurately describe season two of “The Bridge.” While the show does move away from a prototypical, procedural whodunnit in favor of a more layered case that creates different intersection points for different characters, it fails in the quest to more successfully spotlight the day-to-day horrors on each side of the titular bridge.
More calculated in presentation, those horrors often serve not to paint a more vivid portrait of the border but to amplify character traits and complicate the central cases.
When season two of “The Bridge” needs to establish a character as a villain, it will involve him or her in a barbaric act of brutality. When season two of “The Bridge” needs to introduce a roadblock into the lead characters’ investigation, it will inhibit their efforts with an almost cartoonish level of corruption.
It tells a story of how evil individuals create a terrifying environment. The story it should be telling is one in which a terrifying environment produces evil individuals.
After all, the effort to clean up the border and eliminate the terror should not hinge on removing a few dirty cops, capturing an evil accountant and eliminating a drug cartel. It should hinge on a fundamental, macroscopic, radical shift in the economics, politics and general mentality within the atmosphere.
Based on the first half of the new “Bridge” season, viewers have no reason to believe the show is aiming to project the latter rather than the former. That speaks to the direct contradiction between the story the creators seemingly want to tell and the one being presented.
From an entertainment standpoint, the contradiction does little to diminish the effort. The simple fact is that the totality of abhorrent behavior and tragic loss does create a suitably bleak atmosphere. It does give viewers legitimate reason to fear for characters’ survival and cheer for the takedown of the characters most responsible for the corruption. It does provide an entry point for viewers to become hooked, engaged and invested.
But if the producers truly believe the best version of “The Bridge” is one in which the environment is the source of horrors rather than the result of them, there is no way the first half of season two can be called “The Bridge” at its best.
The solid, yet imperfect season, which begins Wednesday, July 9, is rich with developments, conversation starters, moments of brilliance and instances of failure. Here are five things to expect in the first half of season two:
The battle between justice and vengeance – A moral debate that came into view at the end of the first season plays an important thematic role in season two. Whether in the context of Marco’s vitriol towards David Tate, Linder’s rage over what the corrupt Mexican cops did to his prized Eva or day-to-day battles with corrupt cops or “The Bridge” concerns itself deeply with locating the optimal intersection point between justice and vengeance.
As the season progresses, the characters–and viewers–will consistently be asked to first determine the most appropriate way to punish an evildoer. Once clear on that, they must then determine the extent to which a good man can punish the villainous individual before becoming evil himself.
A Helena Clone – A few new characters emerge in the first half of season two, but none generates more intrigue than Franka Potente’s Eleanor. Established as a darker version of standout “Orphan Black” clone Helena in the season’s second episode, the cartel accountant operates with a passive, disarming sense of evil. The result is a character that is equally terrifying and intriguing and one that steals the show in the season’s first few episodes.
The development of the Eleanor character loses its sense of urgency and wonder as the season progresses, but there is no denying the impact she makes as the season gets going.
Great acting, Bad accent – Not previously known as an elite actor, Diane Kruger wowed critics with a sensitive, nuanced and electric turn as Asperger’s-afflicated detective Sonya Cross. Somehow more comfortable in her role, more entrenched in her character and more organic with her gestures, Kruger comes across as effortlessly sublime in the first seven episodes of season two.
The one black mark on Kruger’s performance continues to be the management of her accent. Surprising given that the German actress barely projects her native accent in real life, Kruger simply cannot establish a uniform speaking pattern for her character. She “slips” for at least a brief moment in nearly all of the reviewed season two episodes.
Not distracting enough to ruin the otherwise superb performance, it does assure no one could realistically call her effort flawless.
Charismatic choppiness – While Kruger’s performance offers the biggest revelation, Demian Bichir’s turn as Marco Ruiz remains the show’s most effective. As the most prominent, charismatic and relatable presence on the show, Bichir not only carries the action but serves as the window through which the audience can best engage with the events on both sides of “The Bridge.”
If there is a downside to Bichir’s excellence, it is that the writing often proves glaringly unable to do it justice. Bichir’s ongoing moral dilemmas resulting from his relationships with the cartel, with Sonya and with the Juarez police department are often penned choppily and superficially, which provides the actor with little meat into which to sink his teeth.
The same is true of what could have been an Emmy-caliber scene involving a potential act of vengeance against David Tate, who murdered Marco’s son late in the first season. Far too rushed and far too expository, the scene provides Bichir with only an inch of opportunity to showcase how brilliantly he could have tackled the development.
The Right approach to Charlotte Millwright – Annabeth Gish is a fine performer, but virtually nothing about her character Charlotte Millwright clicked in the first season. She returns as a regular in season two, but her character, though still connected to Galvan’s operation and thus involved in the core narrative, plays a considerably smaller role — at least in the first seven episodes.
The burden of carrying her facet of the storyline falls on the shoulders of Brian Van Holt, who plays her lover and partner Ray. Irrefutably annoying and seldomly productive, Ray nonetheless represents an infinitely more endearing and engaging character than Charlotte. Van Holt, meanwhile, performs as if he is having the time of his life.
The result is a funnier, more watchable–and thus more welcome–presentation of the Ray and Charlotte portion of “The Bridge.”
Dobbs comes into focus – As season two gets underway, Sonya learns that Jim Dobbs, the man responsible for killing her sister Lisa, is dying. The news, which is troubling for the woman who hoped she could coach the mentally disabled Dobbs into giving her answers about why he chose her sister, also brings Dobbs’ brother Jack into the fold. Representing not only a potential romantic interest for Sonya but also a key to the motivations of her brother, Jack quickly finds himself pulled into the series’ orbit.
By the season’s midway point, Sonya will learn some crushing secrets regarding Lisa’s murder and Jim Dobbs’ capture.
FX’s “The Bridge” kicks off its second season at 10PM ET on July 9.