On "The Bridge," normal is dangerous

The crime show, featuring a cop with Asperger's, makes the case that people who don't fit in can still be essential

By Willa Paskin

Published June 18, 2013 7:53PM (EDT)


Beginning next month, FX will start airing its new original series “The Bridge,” a remake of a Swedish/Danish crime show called “Bron/Broen,” the words for "bridge" in those respective languages. With the premiere just a few weeks off, it seemed like a good time to check out the much-praised original. My interest was also piqued by instincts both generous and snarky: My last experience with a Danish drama was so euphoric-fantastic (go watch “Borgen” right now!) I was hoping for a similar contact high. Barring that, I was eager to be forearmed with enough knowledge to hate on the new version of “The Bridge” in a scholarly fashion, should it prove to be as disappointing a remake as “The Killing” has been of the Danish “Forbrydelsen.” (I have no reason to think FX’s “The Bridge” will be anything but good, but be prepared is the hater’s mantra as much as the Girl Scout’s.)  And so I dove in and binge-watched the 10 episodes of “Bron/Broen.” This turned out to be just the way to watch it, since it took nine episodes before I was won over — at which point I was irrevocably won. (Light spoilers to follow.)

"Bron/Broen" begins when a body is found on a bridge, bisected exactly by the Swedish-Danish border. (In the remake, a body is found on a bridge, bisected exactly by the Mexican-American border. Given all the drama and sneering condescension the original wrings out of the generally genteel and cooperative relationship between Danes and Swedes and their largely un-contentious, un-guarded border, the mind boggles at what could be done with a cultural relationship and boundary as fraught as those shared by the U.S. and Mexico.) The down-to-earth Danish police officer Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), a married father of four, and the Swedish Saga Noren (Sofia Helin), a beautiful blonde with not-at-all cutesy Asperger’s, arrive at the crime scene. Saga immediately, brusquely takes charge. An ambulance, trying to get from Malmo to Copenhagen with a heart transplant patient inside, is held up at the police blockade on the bridge, and Saga, extremely literal and rule-abiding, refuses to let it pass. Martin, warmer and more flexible, waves it through. Saga says she will write him up and does. This is, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Like  “Forbrydelsen” and the Swedish crime novels, “Bron/Broen” takes the perspective that beneath the eminently civilized, homogenous, Ikea-furnished, welfare state facade, something broken and threatening is lurking in Scandinavian society. People are slipping through holes in the safety net and there are powerful forces complicit in that slippage, ones that are often far more dangerous and nefarious than the people who have been cast aside. Or at least, this is the view of the serial killer who placed that body on the bridge. Speaking through a caddish journalist, the killer claims that his crimes are meant to draw attention to five “problems” in society: inequality, immigration, mental illness, homelessness and child labor. (For example, he brainwashes schizophrenics into murder-suicides and poisons a dozen homeless people.) He becomes knows as “the Truth Terrorist,” an evil genius who, maybe, has a social conscience. I will be immensely curious to see if the American version of the show has the killer pad his rhetoric with such a defense of the welfare state, immigration and left-leaning policies in general.

“The Bridge” is a beautiful series, full of wide shots of Copenhagen bouncing its sodium lights to the heavens, and it is immediately, obviously competent and well-plotted, introducing and excusing ancillary characters with more grace than any show I’ve ever seen.  But, initially, the show's serial killer made me crazy. Like all of them these days, he is a next-level genius who has been planning for years and years and is able to predict the cops' every move. We are rapidly approaching the moment when serial killers are even more romanticized than vampires, who were at least moved from the bad-guy category to the bad-boy one, thus making their titillating powers marginally more kosher. It seems as though every single one on TV  — see Mads Mikkelsen in "Hannibal," James Purefoy in "The Following," the stud from "The Fall" — is a hottie with a body and a massive brain whom we are not so secretly supposed to admire and lust after for his powers, among them ignoring the rule of law.

It takes its time, but  ‘The Bridge,” ultimately, does more than these other shows do with its super-mensch serial killer -- or rather, it offers up a more stinging rebuke of him in the form of Saga Noren, who is also living outside socially accepted behavior. Saga, a spiritual relative of Lisbeth Salander, does not have an "adorable” or “funny” version of Asperger’s. (Watching, I kept thinking that“The Bridge” is a kind of super-serious version of “Bones.”) She is very competent, but she has a terrible bedside manner. She is extremely literal and abrasive, never lies, blurts anything out, can’t do small talk, and is unapologetically, at times inappropriately, herself. Early on, she goes to a bar and brings a guy home to have sex. There’s no fuss about it — she doesn’t want to talk or have a drink, she just wants to screw, an extreme version of a certain male fantasy, the gorgeous woman who wants nothing from you at all (and then stays up late at night looking at autopsy photos in bed). Martin tells her midway through the series that she can be very annoying, and she can be: The show wants you to be irritated by her.

"The Bridge" initially seems like it is going to be an inversion of Beauty and the Beast: Saga’s the beauty, but she’s also the beast. Martin, a robust, large man, will slowly, over time, teach her how to behave in a more normal way. But the twist of "The Bridge" — what really elevates it — is that it is not an inversion at all: Saga's the one who has something to teach all along, even if it takes a while for this to be revealed. As their partnership develops, Martin instructs Saga on how to behave in more appropriate ways, to be patient, to give compliments, to lie if necessary. Saga is a kind of sponge for instruction: She hears his advice and she takes it because she cares what Martin thinks.

But as Saga picks up bits and pieces of acceptable behavior, we slowly learn that Martin, the audience stand-in, the normal guy, is the one who has caused more damage. (I am now basically hijacking the insights of my colleague Laura Miller, who let me go on and on about Saga’s pants — leather. She wears them 100 percent of the time. Even right after a shower — before dropping the knowledge on me.) Martin, a man with a full life, behaving within the bounds of accepted behavior, is shown to have sown so much more discord and sadness than Saga, who may be abrupt, weird and almost incapable of connecting with people, but has tread on this earth more lightly. (Even, and especially, her sexual behavior has been more responsible.)

Over its 10 episodes, “The Bridge,” makes the case not that we just have to rid society of all its abnormal elements (as most crime shows contend), but that some of those abnormal elements — Saga, though not the serial killer — in the right circumstances, with the right support, can be a solution to society's problems. What's so great about normal anyway? "The Bridge" is making a second-order case against the high-functioning homogeneity of Scandinavian society (and, also, the crime show genre), not just pointing out that it is stranger and more dangerous than it appears, but that the strangeness, if not the danger, should not necessarily be quashed. Even if society worked as well as it looked like it did, maybe that wouldn't be for the best: Difference isn't just dangerous. Let's see if they translate that.

Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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