The Bridge

last updated: 10 July 2018 (approximate reading time: 10 minutes; 1986 words)

The final series 😢 of The Bridge is now out. Have you been watching it? If not, you should go out and find it.

Let me try and tell you why…

Which Bridge? There Are Lots of Bridges…

Before I tell you why you should watch, let me clarify what we’re talking about. There are lots of bridges and several shows/movies called The Bridge.

When I say The Bridge, I’m talking about Bron/Broen, the Swedish/Danish TV show that first aired in 2011 (and which was shown in the UK with English subtitles). For this series, the titular bridge is the Øresund bridge which joins Copenhagen in Denmark with Malmö in Sweden.

Since this original series aired, there have been several remakes taking the basic concept:

You can ignore these remakes 😁 Seek out the original—that’s what I’m talking about here. And ignore all the “Bridge” movies too…

So why all these adaptions? What made this series so interesting in the first place? And why the obsession with bridges?

Premise

The initial idea behind The Bridge is simple: a dead body has been dumped (on the Øresund bridge).

The twist, is that the body lies precisely on the border, half in Denmark and half in Sweden. As an aside, there are two further twists around the body, but if you haven’t watched the series I’ll leave you to find those for yourself.

Not only does the body straddling the national border take the usual “jurisdiction argument” trope and give it a new dimension, but it also brings added weight to the secondary question—where was the murder committed?

However, more important than the premise, there is one compelling reason above all others to watch: Saga Norén. And when we meet Saga we also meet Martin.

Martin and Saga

So we have a dead body…that means mean need a detective, right? And the dead body has been laid precisely on the border between Denmark and Sweden…that means we need two detectives—one from Denmark and one from Sweden, right?

Saga Norén (played by Sofia Helin) is the lead detective from Malmö and Martin Rohde (played by Kim Bodnia) is the lead detective from Copenhagen. Together this Swede and Dane set out to solve the crime.

Martin and Saga are both competent detectives, but their approach is different.

Martin is a relaxed, genial character, always alert to the other person’s feelings—he remembers birthdays and sends flowers, he tells someone they’re doing a good job when he feels they need a morale boost, and he senses when something is wrong then asks how they are feeling. Saga is disconnected and displays behaviors which may be associated with autism spectrum disorder.

Where Martin is emotionally literate and will “read” people, Saga is blind to the nuance. Humor, irony, and sarcasm are all lost on her. From experience she can recognize when someone is trying to tell a joke, but she doesn’t understand why anything might be funny. Martin will consider other people’s feelings before he opens his mouth—Saga is always surprised when people are upset by her unvarnished truth.

Martin’s approach is to apply the rules that matter to him and in this he is warm and humane. He’ll bend a rule to get a result or ignore rules he doesn’t think matter. By contrast, Saga applies all the rules. Any law, any police regulation, must be applied without question. On their first meeting, Martin lets an ambulance carrying a heart for transplant pass along the outside of the crime scene; Saga reports him for this breach of protocol and is then surprised that other people feel Martin’s approach to the situation may not be worthy of a formal reprimand.

Saga

I’ve talked about Martin and Saga because they arrive on screen together and they are a pair. However, the character of Saga and Sofia Helin’s performance are what draw the viewer and what keep the viewer hooked. The performance is compelling; Helin’s portrayal of the character is utterly believable.

Saga understands the world in intellectual terms. She reads extensively (indeed, one of her later partners calls her Wikipedia due to her broad and detailed knowledge) but she is unable to learn about human nature through observation. Instead she experiences cognitive dissonance when her book learning doesn’t accord with what she sees in front of her.

As a person, Saga is alone and disconnected. Alone, but not lonely. Disconnected, but not hostile to other humans—she just has trouble understanding other people and calibrating their reactions.

But this disconnect and lack of understanding is her strength. She listens to what people say and hears what they say—she doesn’t then apply her own interpretation. And not feeling any connection to other people, she doesn’t worry about trying to please them or deal with their feelings. Instead, she simply does what is necessary to perform the task she has been set—and that task is to find the person who left a dead body on the bridge.

Saga is a compelling character. She is unique and unlike any other character and her portrayal by Helin is masterful. However, the story is not about Saga. She is the sidekick to Martin. Sure, Saga is far more interesting in terms of character than Martin and Helin’s performance is such that you can’t take your gaze away from her, but the story in series one and two is Martin’s.

The Tragedy of Martin

As with much drama, The Bridge has an external story and an internal story.

The external story is the action that everyone can see—usually, and over-simplistically—the police solving a crime. The internal story is typically about one of the characters dealing with their emotions and the demons that drive them.

In season one of The Bridge the external story is the hunt for the murderer. There is a similar external story in the later seasons.

The internal story—for both season one and two—is Martin’s. The story is driven from Martin’s basic flaw: he is drawn to women and (yet another) one of the rules he’s happy to break is fidelity. He’s willing to be unfaithful to his own wife and to encourage his colleagues’ wives to be unfaithful with him.

Apart from this flaw, Martin is a good man. He’s a good policeman and he tries to do the right thing. But then he strays…and there are consequences. It is these consequences that drive much of the drama.

For each series the external story—the crime—is solved in a satisfying and largely believable manner. With Martin and the internal story, there is resolution, but this resolution is distressing for Martin. Without giving too much away, at the end of the first series, there is an event which could loosely be described as the worst thing that could happen to Martin. For those haven’t watched, I won’t get specific.

At the start of the second series we see Martin struggling to recover from the events at the end of the first series. As the story unfolds, it appears that there may be a happier, or at least satisfactory outcome for Martin. However, this is not the case and by the end of the second series—as a consequence of his flaw—he loses everything he hasn’t already lost.

From a policing perspective, Martin and Saga are equals, although Saga may be considered the better officer when it comes to figuring out crimes. And Saga is definitely the more engaging character. The irony, however, is that from a dramatic perspective, while Saga looks like the main character, in reality the story is Martin’s and Martin’s alone. Saga is simply Martin’s sidekick for the first two series.

When Does the Sidekick Become the Lead Character?

For many TV shows there is a lead character and a sidekick; this is particular so for police procedural drama. In part, this approach reflects the reality of policing—in most forces around the world, officers are paired up as they pursue an investigation. But for television and film, there is a more significant reason for this pairing: with two characters you can have conversation.

When characters talk, they can express their thoughts, feelings, and suspicions about the case (and about their own lives) in a manner that allows the viewer into their world. With one character on their own, it is much harder to externalize these elements with film and television. Clearly, this externalization is less of a problem for novelists who can focus more readily on any character’s internal world.

From a dramatic perspective, a sidekick is also there to be the ying to the protagonist’s yang—they are the lead’s other half and together the two characters form a singular whole with each individual being pushed to a higher level by the presence of the other (the two together being, literally, greater than the sum of the parts).

With a pairing of characters, it may not be obvious who is the lead and who is the sidekick. That is certainly the case with The Bridge where there is nothing inherent in either character that makes one the lead or the sidekick; it’s all a question of what story is being told. In the case of seasons one and two of The Bridge, it is Martin’s story that is told, not Saga’s.

However, there are certain elements of a story that make the sidekick the secondary character. The key element is that the sidekick is not making their own choices or driving the action. Instead, they are accepting the role that has been thrust upon them.

In The Bridge, Saga is following the task that has been thrust upon her—solving the crime (in other words, she is pursuing the external story). Martin, however, is more concerned about his own issues—his internal story. He could follow the role that has been thrust upon him (solving the crime) but instead, he prioritizes following his own needs.

Another determinant of who is the lead and who is the sidekick is what’s at stake—in other words, what happens if the character fails?

Saga is following a murderer so something “bad” has already happened. If she fails to apprehend the murderer, the consequences may not be significant. She would be disappointed, but, the disappointment would not unduly concern her or affect her life. And provided there are no further murders—and by the end of the story it appears that the murderer has killed all the people he intends to kill—then the ongoing consequences for the wider society would not be troubling.

Where the consequences of failure were comparatively mild for Saga, Martin does fail, and for Martin his failure is life changing. Something happens from which he can never recover. His world is changed and that change can never be reversed.

Moving into series three, Martin’s story has been told and the consequences of the events at the end of series two mean that Martin in no longer working as a police officer. With no Martin, the story needs a new lead and for series three and four, to a greater or lesser extent, the story is Saga’s.

Series Three and Four

I have largely focused on series one and two because you should start watching at the start if you haven’t seen this series. Added to which these were the series I most enjoyed most and felt gave the most satisfying story.

Series three and four are great—they just don’t quite reach the heights of the first two. Series three also has a very different feel having Saga as the lead character with a new sidekick of her own.

Seek out The Bridge and grow the love Martin and Saga…and then watch it again. 

Filed under

Category: books, tv, and movies
People: Sofia Helin   Kim Bodnia  
Tags: The Bridge   crime fiction