Ciudad Juárez lies just across the river from El Paso but exists a universe away. While the latter has been repeatedly championed as the safest American city of its size, the reputation of its Mexican twin has moved in the opposite direction. Since the ratification of NAFTA in the early ’90s, Juárez has become an obscene cyclotron of unchecked capitalism and violence. Young women are drawn there by the thousands to work low-paying but dependable jobs in duty-free American factories, called maquiladoras. Young men arrive by the truckload to work high-paying, extremely risky jobs with the Mexican cartels. And both are killed with terrifying regularity. Though Juárez lost its dubious honor of being the most violent city in the world in 2011 — a year in which it officially registered 2,086 murders out of a population of 1.2 million1 — the horror and savagery of the crimes, particularly those against women, lingers as the body count continues to rise. Theorists and thinkers have ascribed the death toll to globalization, misogyny, drug trafficking, magic, or some unholy combination of the lot, but there have been no good answers and no real solutions. Hundreds of pink crosses now dot the deserts outside of town to commemorate the victims and shame the forces of local corruption and international apathy. In the last interview before his death in 2003, the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño was asked to describe his vision of hell. Knowing his life was almost at its end, Bolaño didn’t hesitate: “Like Ciudad Juárez,” he replied, “which is our curse and our mirror.”
In the decade since Bolaño’s passing, cable television has become expert in telling a particular kind of story, one in which it takes a transgressive setting — the Mafia, a funeral home, Baltimore — and uses it as a cursed mirror to reflect on some greater truth about American society. The best dramas have forced us to recognize the darkness in ourselves and ourselves in darkness. But even during its vaunted Golden Age, television has shied away from telling a particularly hellish tale, one with tendrils that reach into the backlots and boardrooms of Hollywood. TV isn’t the only medium to mostly ignore the violence that has ravaged Mexico, of course,2 or treat the country as a garishly lit3 other populated solely with scrabbling hard cases or subservient poolboys. It’s just the most unfortunate because television, with its expansiveness of time, character, and tone, is uniquely suited to capture the blood-streaked shades of gray Mexico’s rough recent history demands. (Still dubious? Watch Traffic again. I’ll wait.) What’s more is that, when entrusted to the right hands, a story about Mexico in 2013 is, invariably, a story about us.
The Bridge, premiering tonight at 10 on FX, seeks to tell that story and, in the early going, it tells it well. Based on a successful Danish series4 and shepherded by Homeland writers’ room MVP Meredith Stiehm and novelist/Cold Case producer Elwood Reid, the show smartly relocates the original’s premise from the no-doubt fascinating frontier between Denmark and Sweden to the far more turbulent border between El Paso and Juárez. In the opening moments of the pilot, a body is discovered abandoned at the midpoint of the Bridge of the Americas, the heavily trafficked crossing between the two cities. The severe American cop, Detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger), recognizes the corpse as that of an anti-immigration judge. Her Mexican counterpart, Detective Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir), is just used to death. (“We have lots of bodies,” he shrugs wearily.) She takes the case and he takes his leave. But when the corpse is revealed to be two dismembered halves, one gringa and one chava, jammed together across an international line, Cross and Ruiz are forced into an uneasy partnership.
Let’s pause here to note that there are hundreds of ways this could have gone wrong. Mismatched police, as a trope, is older than Roger Murtaugh, and a lurid focus on savage violence in general and the murder of women specifically has limited cable’s color palette of late to pulpy shades of black and blue. Plus, the ferocity of the real-life Mexican drug war coupled with the current, headline-blaring tension over border politics could have pushed the production toward unpalatable extremes, either PBS solemnity or Fox sensationalism. But FX has stolen the crown of development excellence from HBO, continually finding ways to blend high-minded ambition with gripping diversion. And Stiehm proved her dexterity in her time on Homeland, where she was responsible for maintaining Carrie Mathison’s fragile humanity beneath the weight of a bipolar disorder and, increasingly, a schizophrenic story line. (Her first credit on the show was “The Weekend,” widely considered the best episode of the first season if not the series.)
In her hands, The Bridge crosses effortlessly between worlds: night and day, crime and punishment, genre procedural and lyrical meditation. When the goings get grim — and with teenage prostitutes, homeless huffers, and literal ticking time bombs in the first two hours, they get grim in a hurry — the violence feels like a necessary slap to the face, not a cheap punch to the gut.
In recent years, the traffic between El Paso and Juárez has flowed primarily in one direction: north. Thousands of Mexican nationals cross the border on a daily basis for shopping or, like Detective Ruiz’s teenage son, school, while increasingly fearful Americans stay on their side, convinced that the terrible things occurring in Juárez will never bleed into their backyards as long as they stay close to them. But The Bridge‘s pilot, as lensed by Miss Bala director Gerardo Naranjo, paints El Paso and Juárez not as distinct cities but as mirrored chambers of the same diseased heart; his camera lingers on the snaking highways and byways, choked with cars like clotted blood. Before the bodies can even be removed from the bridge, there’s a palpable sense of leakage, that no armed guard or strident ideology can ever possibly hope to keep the barrier secure.
And so we’re introduced to a rich man suffering cardiac arrest, his trophy wife (Annabeth Gish) wildly waving greenbacks in order to bribe their way past the police roadblock and back to sterile American safety. And we meet Steven Linder, a shuffling creep played with Jame Gumb–like dolor by Top of the Lake costar Thomas M. Wright. Linder’s motives are mysterious at first — he’s seen stuffing a Mexican woman into the trunk of his car and then gently applying a Band-Aid to a cut once she’s safely in his trailer — but no matter his ultimate role, the mere existence of his human import-export business picks at the scab of a “free trade zone,” where legality is fluid and morality is cheaper than mezcal. (As for Jame Gumb, he’s there, too: Actor Ted Levine plays Hank Wade, the cowboy-hatted American police lieutenant who’s as fair as his aim is true.)
Listing precariously above this maze are the two leads, Kruger and Bichir, and both are exceptional. Kruger has the showier role: Though it’s not explicitly stated, her Sonya Cross has Asperger’s syndrome, a shade on the autism spectrum that grants her a ferocious intellect and a serious lack of empathy. Cross understands the letter of the law but not the spirit: She initially refuses to let a dying man’s ambulance drive through her crime scene, and her idea of comforting a new widower is to assure him that his wife was already dead when he tried to text her. A German-born former model who once played Helen of Troy, Kruger is no one’s idea of a Texas homicide detective, but the character’s condition, and Kruger’s dedication to playing it straight, goes a long way toward explaining the incongruity. So does her appearance: Sans makeup, Kruger’s porcelain skin looks eerily translucent. Couple that with her unblinking eyes and horse-bedazzled jean jacket (!) and the border-patrolling Cross comes across as an alien in her own right, caught somewhere between Sil from Species and a stage-fright addled Aimee Mann. She’s both all-in and barely there.
This icy remove is a perfect counterpoint to the rumpled warmth of Bichir. His Ruiz is the latest in a long line of “last good cops in Mexico,” an amiable cliché that stretches from Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil and Benicio del Toro in Traffic to novels like Martin Solares’s The Black Minutes and Bolaño’s own tortured foray into a fictionalized Juárez, 2666. Bichir, a Mexico City native, played the mayor of Tijuana on Weeds and was nominated for an Oscar in 2012 for his brilliant turn in A Better Life. But as good as he’s been before, he’s even better here. Within seconds of meeting Ruiz I’m already prepared to spend multiple seasons riding alongside him, buying breakfast pastries from street vendors and sighing at the casual cruelty of the world. While his peers earn extra pesos working security for drug lords and his boss jukes crime stats to save his own bacon, the stalwart Ruiz soldiers on, averting his eyes and seeking refuge in his wife (fellow Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno) and kids. What makes the performance great is the way Bichir plays Ruiz’s incorruptibility as something close to an inconvenience: He’s clever but unambitious; a clock-puncher, not a crusader.
At least that’s how he thought of himself before he got a taste of the cheap coffee and straight shooting of the El Paso PD. The killing that draws him north appears to be part of a larger sociopolitical statement about the value of white lives vs. brown, and the zeal with which Ruiz signs up for the hastily formed task force5 seems to surprise everyone, including himself. At first it could almost be played for laughs the way an irritable Cross bulldozes right over Ruiz’s more sensitive touch.6 But the longer they collaborate the more it reads as a sly commentary on the bumpy working relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, the way the former demands cut-and-dried results in the wars on drugs and illegal immigration and leaves it to the latter to cut the corners necessary to achieve them. Cross is a square peg and Ruiz’s Mexico is a vast, cavernous hole. As befits a show called The Bridge, Stiehm parks her characters right in the murky middle, has them flit between English and Spanish, and sets up her protagonists on a quest to piss everyone off simply by doing their jobs.
The first few episodes of The Bridge aren’t an easy watch. The pacing is deliberate, the relationships subtle, and the canvas broad. Spiraling out from the main investigation, in concentric circles of intrigue, are Gish’s sprawling ranch and the secrets it contains,7 the back roads traversed by would-be illegal immigrants and the shady coyotes who take their money along the way, and the local newspaper where bombed-out former New York Post–ie Matthew Lillard forms a cross-cultural partnership of his own with an earnest Mexican American reporter played by Emily Rios. It’s both vital and refreshing the way a show centered on the violence and unrest in Mexico takes great pains to present a proud and complex country not entirely consumed by its demons — and to demonstrate how Juárez, while technically part of Mexico, is as close to the United States culturally as it is geographically. This expansiveness helps put to rest any fears that The Bridge, by choosing to build a season around a single case, might come off as slight or, like The Killing, devolve over time from a promisingly tart ceviche into a pile of cold red herrings. The journey already feels rich enough to validate the destination, no matter when it arrives or what it may be.
It was Stiehm and Reid who successfully lobbied to set the show along the Mexican border — the producers were initially scouting locations around Detroit and Canada — and to their great credit they seem committed to doing justice to all aspects of this lawless frontier. In a recent interview with Alan Sepinwall, Stiehm name checks The Wire as an inspiration, and while that has become an invocation as common to showrunners as Jesus is to NFL running backs, in this case it’s both relevant and heartening. Like David Simon’s interlocking, uncompromising masterpiece, The Bridge manages the neat trick of being both tough and entertaining; it’s a made-up story that feels true.
As cable dramas retreat further and further into the sterile, knowable past of period pieces or the even more barren imaginings of fantasy and horror, it’s such a relief to encounter a show willing to examine the messy present without blinking. Nobody wants to think about what’s been happening in Mexico or Americans’ own culpability in the madness. But it’s impossible to turn the other way forever. Better to be like Sonya Cross and run fearlessly up to ugliness and poke it in the eye; better yet to be like Marco Ruiz and be very much afraid of what lingers in the dark and chase after it anyway. As a dying Roberto Bolaño wrote in 2666, “No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.”
This article has been updated to correct Chicago’s daily murder rate in 2012.