Last night was the much anticipated (for me, at least) premiere of The Bridge, the new FX drama about homicide detectives on the border between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. As I wrote earlier, I was curious and nervous about the prospect of a TV show dealing with the staggering number of murders committed on the border, especially the murders of young women. Over the last half-year, I worked on a project researching the gendered violence and economy of the maquiladoras in Juarez focusing especially on the portrayal of violence against young women. I was concerned that, like so many other TV cop dramas, the show would sensationalize the violence and skirt the real issues underlying the murders. Much to my surprise, the Pilot was actually pretty solid.
The Bridge opens on a body being dropped on the bridge between El Paso and Juarez. The body literally lies across the line, half in the United States, half in Mexico. As two detectives show up to the scene, Sonya North (Diane Kruger) of El Paso and Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir) of Chihuahua State, there’s a minor clash over jurisdiction before North claims the body for the U.S. The victim is a Texas judge who takes a pretty hard line on immigration. She’s described as beliving in the wall, anti-Dream Act. She “doesn’t like Mexicans; thinks they should stay in Mexico.” Meanwhile, the bridge is closed for crime scene analysis and a woman from the U.S. asks that the ambulance carrying her husband, who is having a heart attack, be let through. North is no-nonsense–there’s hospitals in Mexico. But Ruiz lets the couple through. It’s this weird moment of bureaucratic clash over the remains being juxtaposed with who can and cannot cross the border, made ironic because a rich U.S. citizen is initially denied the right to cross by a U.S. cop. It all seems so messy, but appropriately so given the mess that border politics are. Oh, and then they go to move the body and it comes apart, cut in half right along the borderline. Hello, metaphor, nice of you to slap me in the face.
The episode does a lot of other exposition, establishing North as an unempathetic, very technical cop with no life, but some secret pain, and Ruiz as a good, if more laid-back, cop devoted to fatherhood and doing as much good as he can. The audience sort of gets a feel for the different jurisdictions of the cops and the assumptions they each bring to the table. For example, Ruiz walks into North’s precinct and starts speaking Spanish to the secretary who has to stop him. Although she’s of Mexican descent, she was born and raised in El Paso and doesn’t speak Spanish. North, on the other hand, clearly thinks that all Mexican cops are corrupt and seems to have an overly-simple and self-righteous view of what can be done in Juarez. What I found most interesting, however, was how the episode situated the feminicide in Juarez.
During the autopsy of the Judge’s body, the El Paso cops discover that actually they’re dealing with two bodies: “White arms, brown legs.” North wakes Ruiz up at 3:30 in the morning to figure out where the other half of the body is. He discovers, “She’s one of them…The dead girls of Juarez.” Then, because of North’s blunt nature, we’re treated to this really awkward conversation:
Ruiz: “[She’s] 1 of 250 girls who disappeared last year. They go missing from buses and factories, always 15 to 20, dark hair beautiful”
North: “So you have a serial killer”
R: “No one knows.”
N: “So no one tries to find out?”
R: “There’s just too many…They don’t really want us to investigate. Easier that way.”
N: “Easier how?”
Boom. Okay, so there’s the whole issue about the white woman from the U.S. swooping in to save the day, accusing the Mexican cops of being corrupt. That could be a problem, for sure. But, on the other hand, that “Easier how?” just sings with frustration about how long the problem has gone on. Overly simple? Yes. Good to see on a U.S. cable TV show? I think so.
Then North basically accuses Ruiz of being corrupt. By this point, we’ve gathered that she’s a pretty cold person and he’s far more sympathetic. He responds that it’s not that simple, that the bribes offered to Mexican cops aren’t just straight-up bribes from the cartel:
Ruiz: “They tell you…take our silver or take our lead.”
North: “So you just let the girls die.”
R: “I do the best I can. The situation is…
N: “You should try harder.”
R: “Of course I should.” His tone of voice isn’t wholly sincere. He at once acknowledges that yes, there’s more to do and also that she’s being too pushy and making too many assumptions.
The show then jumps into a somewhat scattered storyline about a jaded reporter almost getting blown up. The episode ends with a threat made by the person who left the judge’s body on the bridge. Warning that this is just the beginning, he asks, “Why is one dead white woman worth so much more than thousands dead just across the bridge?”
Steven Volk and Marian Scholotterbeck argue that while sometimes representations can become a space for mourning and working for justice, others “narratively revictimize Juárez’s women by representing them within a framework of male dominance and female submissiveness” (58). I think that there’s still ample time for the series to veer off in the latter direction, but so far, it seems to actually call attention to the privileges and oppressions that create the violence in Juarez. There is a subplot in the Pilot, I assume setting up things to come, in which a man abducts a Mexican woman, coaxing her into the trunk of his car. That and the teaser’s promise of torture and violence to come make me nervous, but I’m hopeful that the narrative will continue to put pressure on discourses about law and order in this border, asking questions about how people are granted access while others are violated. Overall, I thought the Pilot was pretty heavy handed in the metaphor it set up and in the way it approached topics, but it did a really good job developing exposition about the context of the murder while remaining interesting and of setting up larger questions and problems to address as it works through these particular serial killers. Plus, unlike some other works I’ve seen, it doesn’t pretend that this serial killer is responsible for all the killings. Instead, twisted as it is, this killer is drawing attention to those killings. I’m curious.