Not too long ago, it was hard to find a female crime fighter on TV who wasn’t a gum-chewing tough broad who wore stilettos while chasing down bad guys. Now, women who work in law enforcement wear more sensible shoes, but there’s a new explanation for why they’re just as emotionally withdrawn as their male partners: blame psychological issues. On Homeland, C.I.A. agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) has bipolar disorder, an illness that apparently causes her to have no-strings-attached hook-ups with strangers in bars. On Bones, forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan (Emily Deschanel) displays many of the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, including an obsession with data and an inability to read other people in social situations. (“I don’t know what that means” is her catchphrase.) Guys aren’t immune to the trend either: in the very first episode of Hannibal, someone asks FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) where he falls “on the spectrum,” and his character does have some traits that could read as autistic, including a lack of eye contact and an ability to sympathize with animals. But when female characters have these conditions, the implications are slightly different. These roles sometimes suggest that only a woman who has trouble forming relationships could possibly be so laser-focused on her career.
Maybe that’s why the character of Detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) bothers me so much on The Bridge, an otherwise compulsively watchable drama about the border wars between the U.S. and Mexico. Though it’s never mentioned in the first episode—and I’m basing this review only on the first episode, which just aired tonight, in order to avoid spoilers—Sonya has Asperger’s, a fact that’s supposed to explain her lack of empathy, as well as her penchant for stripping down to her sports bra in the middle of the police department, in full view of her much older boss (he’s played by the great Ted Levine of it-places-the-lotion-in-the-basket fame). Granted, Sonya is supposed to be a rugged vet from El Paso, Texas, and the fact that she’s played by a German ex-model doesn’t help. With her mannequin beauty, rigid movements, and slight accent, Kruger seems less like a woman on the spectrum trying to pass as a border cop than a Euro-cyborg trying to pass as human. (Watch her eyes shifting in this clip, from 0:23 to 0:25, and tell me she’s not a fembot.) But it’s not Kruger’s fault that Sonya sometimes talks like her brain has been programmed by Siri. “I’m sorry if I didn’t exercise empathy,” she tells a murder victim’s husband, right after bluntly informing him that his wife is dead. Although she’s undeniably awkward, the more Sonya ignores people’s feelings, the closer she gets to solving crimes. When a man gets locked inside a car that’s been rigged with a bomb, she calls him on his cell phone and grills him for details while the last seconds of his life tick down to zero. She seems to support that same old boys’ club cliche: the less emotion you betray, the better you’ll be at your job.
Though maybe that’s unfair: The Bridge is based on the series Bron/Broen that aired in Sweden and Denmark, and Scandinavian mysteries are cold-blooded by nature. Plus, if you can get past Sonya’s quirks, there’s a deeply thoughtful story here, adapted for American television by heavy-hitters Meredith Stiehm (Homeland) and Elwood Reid (Cold Case). Sure, it begins with a dead body, just like any other crime drama: A corpse has been dropped on the Bridge of the Americas, which connects El Paso to Juarez, leaving part of the body in the U.S. and the other part in Mexico. But from the moment you learn that the corpse is actually two women—the upper half belongs to a Texas judge known for anti-immigration views, the lower half to one of Mexico’s missing Girls of Juarez—it’s clear that this isn’t a simple whodunnit. As Sonya joins Chihuahua state policeman Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) to interrogate material witnesses—including a journalist (Matthew Lillard) who’s being contacted by the killer and a rancher’s wife (Annabeth Gish) whose late husband was racing to the hospital when the body was discovered—the murder leads to a much smarter, stranger exploration of the shifting moral ground near the border. Soon, the killer leaves a voice mail for Sonya and Marco: There are a few homicides in El Paso each year, the message says, but there are thousands in Juarez. So why is one dead white official more important than so many corpses just across the bridge?
The real power of The Bridge is that it gets you to ask yourself the same question. It’s not long before you’ll care less about the judge than the circumstances surrounding her death. Over the past 20 years, thousands of young women have disappeared in Juarez, where drug cartels rule the streets, and it’s amazing that this is the first time an American series has acknowledged this story, telling it in both English and Spanish. But the show feels very of the moment during a year when Latino audiences are growing quickly and Univision can beat NBC’s prime-time ratings. It’s also hard to believe that it’s taken this long for us to look to Mexico for the next great leading man on TV, especially since Bichir disappears so completely into his role, delivering a rugged sadness that’s somehow sexy. He’ll have you constantly guessing if Marco is a good cop or a corrupt one, or possibly just a guy who’s acting as ethically as he can within a largely unethical system. (Before you complain, the U.S. doesn’t come across as an upstanding nation, either.) By asking smart questions about how much responsibility the U.S. should claim in these deaths, and whether our immigration policies are helping or hurting people on both sides of the border, The Bridge makes a strong case that nothing can keep Mexico’s problems out of the U.S. When the rancher’s wife returns home after her husband’s death, she finds a mysterious key in his pocket, along with a cell phone that a Mexican woman soon calls. Does her husband have ties to Juarez? You can probably guess the answer, but you’ll have to wait until the second episode to find out.
One of the great pleasures of The Bridge is just how many unsolved mysteries it sets up in the first episode. Pilots are often overloaded with expository information, but this one asks way more questions than it answers. Right before the rancher dies, he asks for a divorce from his wife, and it’s hard to understand why. Has he really fallen out of love with her so suddenly, or does he just want to shield her from whomever was calling that secret cell phone in his pocket? When Sonya visits the morgue, the coroner asks if he’s been to visit “him” lately. “Not recently,” says Sonya. “Good,” replies the coroner. “Don’t give him the satisfaction.” It’s unclear who they’re talking about, but you can bet that whoever it is will be coming soon, and he will bring trouble with him. There’s a larger subplot that involves a prime suspect who looks like he could be the killer—we see him driving a prostitute across the border in the trunk of his car, and viciously locking her in a trailer afterward—but something tells me we have no idea what role he actually plays in this yet. That big scar on his forearm will probably give us a clue, since the camera keeps zooming in on it. But for now, the smaller mysteries are far more haunting. At one point, one of Sonya’s fellow cops complains that anyone who’s seen what she keeps in her desk drawer will understand just how deeply weird she is. But we wait, and we wait, and we never learn what’s inside that drawer. By the end of the episode, I was expecting something truly horrific. Severed hands, maybe. Or possibly something worse: another ugly sports bra.
Whatever she’s hiding in there, things are about to get interesting. The next few episodes will delve into illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and child prostitution, with a moral complexity that saves the show from feeling self-righteous. The culture wars between the U.S. and Mexico are so rich here that it’s hard to imagine what issues the original Swedish/Danish version explored. What could two relatively similar Scandinavian countries have to fight about? The quality of their pickled herring? Well, I’m not sure that I need to find out. For now, I’ll keep watching the American version, even if that means enduring all of Sonya’s Lady Robocop tics. How else am I going to find out what that mysterious key unlocks?
Follow Melissa Maerz on Twitter: @MsMelissaMaerz