Following on from our previous considerations on the Danish/Swedish TV detective serial Bron/Broen/The Bridge, just finished airing on BBC4 (you can read our other thoughts on the show elsewhere in the blog), we have as promised returned to discuss various interesting motifs from the show. This might read more like an essay than a standard post – we hope that it’s readable and that it provides some enjoyment in the process.
One key theme in the programme had to be the idea of physical change and the symbolism therein. Sandstrod’s complete bodily overhaul has to be the dominant example in the series of someone striving to totally erase their previous identity in a bid to start a new life.
Sandstrod’s tragedy is, of course, that he becomes harrowingly divorced from humanity itself in the process. However, separate considerations such as Martin’s vasectomy, Charlotte’s wig, Stefan’s crazed branding of a violent husband and Daniel Ferbé’s drug consumption indicate various levels, sometimes extremely sophisticated, upon which physical change of an individual within The Bridge poses questions about the identity of that person.
In Martin’s case, it was difficult not to see his operation as a sign of an identity crisis. He seemed worried about the fact he was presiding over a sizeable family, but appeared to have no idea about how to properly connect with them over a long period of time (a grievance most obviously voiced by his son August throughout the dramatic narrative).
What Martin’s operation clearly did not do was quench his propensity for infidelity and moral ambiguity. He betrayed his wife Mette by sleeping with property investor Charlotte no sooner than his operation had taken place – and used his operation as a way of justifying his actions (he saw his act as a way of ’proving himself’). Martin seems to undergo physical change as part of a bid to control his very personality, but the series closes on a question mark as to whether his redeeming qualities – the unwavering emotional and professional support he freely gives to Saga – can be transferred to his relationship with his pregnant wife. If he can succeed, it will be a triumph of mind and heart – with bodily change already proven an inadequate mechanism for a happy and productive family life.
There is some uncertainty about the purpose of Charlotte’s wig within the plot narrative (to get some idea of the debate it prompted, you can read all the various parts of the excellent Guardian blog and the various readers’ posts on the matter), but I am tempted to see it as something that works better as a pure piece of symbolism than as part of a naturalistic discourse. Once Charlotte herself has her heart broken from beyond the grave by her husband, she removes her wig. With it goes any sense of monogamous responsibility as she leads Martin into his own betrayal of Mette.
Unlike Martin, however, it is unclear whether Charlotte will have any prospect of redemption – she has changed physically (to the viewer at least), but as she plays no great part in the plot after having slept with Martin, we do not know whether she will learn any of the lessons about faith and responsibility that Martin painfully undergoes. In this respect, it is tempting to see Charlotte as a character whom in some respects shadows Martin, but whom Martin needs to break free of if he is to distinguish between physical appearances and moral and emotional substance.
A similar parallel exists with regards to social worker Stefan Lindberg and Saga Norén herself, albeit this time regarding the issues of legal and professional correctness of procedure and social justice. Norén’s most obvious moment of bureaucratic pedantry – her decision to report Martin for letting an ambulance across the Öresund bridge at the scene of the initial murder – mirrors Stefan’s initial determination to follow the letter of the law, even if it means separating couples and evicting them from properties.
Yet Stefan clearly is anxious to help those on the fringes of society, as seen in the case of his homeless and emotionally unbalanced sister Sonja. Whilst Saga’s successes in re-connecting with humanity form the most poignant story arc of the series, it is, perversely, her lack of emotion and her unwavering sense of professional duty that prevent her from stumbling into the pitfall Stefan encounters. Confronted by Veronika Holmgren’s cruel and vindictive husband, Stefan subjects his aggressor to excruciating punishment by branding him with a conventional steam iron prior to murdering him. One has to question whether, in spite of Stefan’s life-threatening predicament, this can be seen in any way as a justified act of self-defence – it is almost as if Stefan sees the act of mutilation as a way of putting evil in its place.
Unlike Sandstrod, any changes Saga makes to her physical appearance (such as very publicly changing her clothes in a busy police headquarters) point to her untarnished innocence and insouciance; it would be a Saga-esque argument that she is not damaging anyone’s livelihood in the process. By way of contrast, Stefan participates in some kind of physical change because he is inordinately pre-occupied with meting out justice (making him not dissimilar to Sandstrod). Unlike Saga, anger and indiscipline get the better of him and he does damage the livelihood of others in the process; he appears condemned to prison, his sister no safer than she was in spite of his good intentions for her.
If the shortcomings of the various characters discussed seem to correspond to the classic definition of sin (in Martin and Charlotte’s case, lust and temptation; in Stefan’s case, anger), then the bodily and mental change undergone by journalist Daniel Ferbé during his drug trips, whilst different from the physical change undergone by others, are symptomatic of his fatal flaw or sin: vanity. One wonders if Ferbé, apparently at the mercy of Sandstrod in a car booby trap earlier in the narrative, is trying to escape the world that has plagued him through self-indulgent hedonism and artifical stimulation. If this is the case, he learns nothing in the process (ironically, it would have been better for him to have a hallucinatory experience so bad that he started to re-assess his whole life).
Whilst, like Charlotte’s wig, there are some plot uncertainties about the incident of Daniel’s trip and its total relevance to plot proceedings, it is clear that Daniel’s self-absorption is no better (or indeed, even worse) after his drug trip. He only stops to think about how he might save children as per Sebastian’s demands, and commits arson in the process rather than co-operate with the police (unlike the smashing of the wall in episode 10 which neatly symbolises the dissolution of Saga’s various emotional barriers, this act only heightens the sense of Ferbé’s pending self-destruction).
The incident of drug consumption indicates that Ferbé is both self-obsessed and dissatisfied with his lot in life; he is less likely to blight the lives of others through his professional misdemeanours whilst high on artificial stimulants, but the change is no more than that: artificial. Without proper self-respect or respect for others, Ferbé is fatally condemned to repeat the mistakes he has made before (as Sebastian cruelly reminds him seconds prior to his death).
Innocence, experience and neutrality
If many of the characters in The Bridge are culpable and do demonstrate sin in its most classical sense, one of the most profound – and problematic – considerations in the series is that a character who seems bypass the very notion of sin, Saga Norén herself, appears to be perpetually at risk of doing society a disservice. Her unwavering candour and her pre-occupation with legal nicety threaten to destabilise both her mission to locate the killer at large and the budding Platonic relationship with Martin that may transform her for the better (a lesser man than Martin may have proved impossible over the revelation his teenage son has spent the night at Saga’s, an act she justifies on the basis that August is past the age of sexual consent).
A common motif in the last two episodes is that Saga has to learn how to lie – and therefore join the ranks of the transgressors around her, but perhaps vitally demonstrate lessons about human pain and tact in the process. Nonetheless, a pessimistic reading of this character development would conclude that Saga is flawed before she starts to integrate with society and flawed afterwards. Whilst the author takes a more sanguine view – that Saga is nothing short of heroic and, although flawed in some respects, well on the route to newly-sharpened social and emotional literacy, one interesting consideration is whether there are any key characters within The Bridge who do not appear especially culpable.
Given that the individuals portrayed can be adjudged weak or flawed by intervening too much (Ferbé), allowing someone else to intervene in their lives and succumbing to gullibility and flattery (Mette Rohde), being too honest (Saga), being too dishonest (Martin), being young and naive and lacking a sense of danger (August and teenage girl Anja Björk, both ultimately murdered by Sandstrod) and being cynical (Ferbé and Charlotte’s deceased husband), an intriguing consideration arises whereby the two characters who manage to be permanently judicious and tactful, whilst free of obviously jarring traits, are Saga’s boss, Hans Petterson, and her some-time bedfellow, Anton.
Beyond the obvious positive dynamic of the Saga-Martin relationship in solving the crime, it is difficult not to acknowledge that Petterson’s well-judged unobtrusiveness and sense of world-weariness are crucial in giving Saga a working environment in which she feels comfortable. Petterson is aware of the complexities of Saga’s character and, like Rohde, does pick up on the importance of lying in order to be tactful – as such, he can hardly be called naive himself. Yet his calm authority contrasts starkly with the selfish, PR-minded attitude of Rohde’s counterpart boss, and throws up an extremely sobering consideration: that if Petterson is flawed, then society itself in its current state is intrinsically flawed. If so, many might feel that the alternative is simply not worth countenancing.
By the same logic, in a series where Saga Norén appeared to challenge even Sarah Lund from The Killing as a ’human superwoman/superheroine’ creation, the show’s writers cleverly dealt with a twist on conventional sexism (Saga unthinkingly treating Anton as a sex object) without destabilising the important strain of feminism that carried the show forward. Anton’s bemusement at Saga’s clinical pragmatism in the bedroom contains much comedy value in a show where darkness and despair is often the norm, but also underlines his relative lack of affectation in a drama where so many characters are bearing secrets and lies of their own.
It remains to be seen how the Anton character may develop (that he remained rather incidental to proceedings is indicative of the sheer heroism and substance of Saga Noren herself), but his own discerning understanding of what Saga was professionally working on, and his very reasonable placidity in suggesting he was after more than sex, make him perhaps the most straightforward sympathetic character in the show.
If this is the case, then one wonders in conclusion if The Bridge has somehow made a case for one of the most prized concepts synonymous with Scandinavia in the last 200 years. In his devastating drama Andorra, the Swiss playwright Max Frisch appeared to contend that the importance placed by his nation on neutrality – or, within the small-scale community depicted within the drama, the idea of not getting involved in other people’s affairs – was a terrible conceit if it amounted to wilful blindness and not intervening when others were suffering terrible prejudice and victimisation.
Programmes such as The Killing and The Bridge have, as discussed on this blog, paid tribute to a modern way of Scandinavian cultural thinking, particularly evident within the crime genre, in which individuals must intervene in the affairs of others, sometimes with vigour and hard-bitten relentlessness, if they are to protect the concepts of freedom, peace and democracy held so dear. Yet The Bridge at least reminds us by the same token that it is possible to intervene or get involved in the wrong things and for the wrong reasons (Ferbé’s vanity, Stefan’s anger and Rohde’s womanising sit uncomfortably alongside Sandstrod’s fanatical quest for vengeance in this respect).
Rohde’s amiable interventions do make him the pivotal character in helping to re-shape Saga as a more rounded human being – but his physical change, and the physical change of others around him, do not serve to make the world a better place (indeed, Saga’s insistence on doing things by the book suggests that, within the context of The Bridge at least, social stability based on correctness of procedure is no bad thing in counteracting aimless moral and personal fluctuation typified by superficial physical alteration).
If those who attempt to re-shape their own physical lives, and perhaps society itself, are often found wanting, and if a character such as Saga without common egocentric impulses or physical vanity still has the capacity to intrude into the Rohde family life and upset Martin in the process, then Petterson and Anton indicate that being at least a little detached from discordant proceedings and withholding severe judgement (but still shrewdly registering events as they unfold) may be a vital spoke in the wheel of social stability. Even those who are far from perfect can prove valuable in this respect; although Mette’s naivete nearly results in the death of her and her children, her absence of harsh judgement with regards to her husband’s philandering and her general dignity compare favourably with the destructiveness of Stefan and Ferbé.
Saga is in several respects as good as a human superwoman, and Rohde is her textbook rugged Everyman foil – but they in turn probably need to be complemented by others who display a measure of neutrality, or sober discretion, at the right time. To use a colloquialism in the final verdict: there is not much point in solving a crime if we do not learn how to chill out in the process. Chilled-out neutrality has served Scandinavia well over the years: one can only hope The Bridge is an accurate artistic verdict on how it may evolve further.
Copyright Aidan McGee/Worldly Scandifriend 2012