I have never quite understood the supposed ‘difficult third album syndrome’ myself. Or at least, I don’t understand why so much weight is attached to it. If someone produces something of outstanding artistic pedigree that is, at that point at least, number one in a series of one, surely it ratchets up the pressure for them to dole out the goods even more outstandingly next time round? Surely ‘difficult second artistic anything’ is just as valid a concept?
Suffice it to say there has been no little pressure for the makers of Broen/Broen/The Bridge to realise a highly convincing sequel to the first series. How to retain and crank up the choking tension of the ten episodes first time round without producing a sense of anti-climax? How to come up with an ending as bewitchingly epic and yet brutally uncompromising as the Saga/Martin/Jens shoot-out first time round? Well, in the UK at least, we’ve not got that far yet.
For my part, I am going to give the four episodes in the second series broadcast by BBC4 to date a Bridge rating of about 9.6 out of 10. The corresponding episodes in the first series would probably get the Full Monty tio as they might just say in pidgin-Swedish. Not that I can imagine Saga Norén throwing in exactly that epithet into a conversation at any point in her working life to date. She might say ‘tio’ when discussing a bodycount in the most terse and abrupt way possible, but somehow I doubt the words ‘Full Monty tio’ will pass her lips in this series.
By ‘Bridge rating’, I mean that it’s difficult to compare The Bridge to anything else on television. Admittedly I am fussy about what I watch, but 9.6 for The Bridge still leaves 99+% of all television I can think of failing to hold a candle to this. Somehow it’s not that easy to compare 21st-century Scandi TV gold to 21st-century Scandi TV gold, either; as much as I enjoyed all three series of Borgen, its plot narratives deal with the struggle to strengthen civilisation and democracy in a very rational and low-key (yet no less endearing) way. A character like Birgitte Nyborg is attractive because, at her best, she represents consensual, diplomatic, level-headed (yet strong-headed) civilising humanity.
The Bridge is vast television, just as the Öresund/Øresund Bridge itself is vast. The spectacular setpieces such as the tanker exploding in series 2 and the shoot-out at the end of series 1, and close-up shots such as Martin crying in his hospital bed (also at the end of series 1), are not just very different from the (relatively) small-scale vignettes of Borgen; they’re threatening to do a more-cinematic-than-cinema feat in their ambition. Far more so than Birgitte, Saga and Martin often seem to be on the fringes of society whilst trying to remedy society at the same time; as we discussed here when the first series ended, the narrative of The Bridge hangs just as much on whether characters who have all their virtues and flaws examined with graphic scrutiny can attach or re-attach themselves to humanity as it does on the process of solving a series of connected crimes. This concept remains no less critical in Series Two than it was in Series One.
So why 9.6? I think this is more to do with the strengths of the corresponding episodes in Series One than any weaknesses in Series Two thus far. The locomotive impact of the first half of series one was certainly helped in no small part by the frightening profile of the killer. Even though we didn’t see Sebastian/Jens at that point, just the sound of his throaty, cool voice in various telephone conversations and the sheer scale (and planning) of his psychopathic quest for revenge on society (kicking straight off with the ‘two halves of a body’ on the bridge in episode one) gave him an all-pervasive potency.
It’s interesting that although a convincing ensemble of shady, dodgy, implicated and downright guilty characters (the eco-terrorists who kill but end up being killed themselves, of course) have surfaced thus far, no one single person in Series Two has the same cold, dark frisson of danger as Jens except for..Jens himself. Prison has not curbed his capacity to manipulate, as Martin has found out. His wry, slightly sneering smile remains no less flesh-crawling, especially when one thinks of his previous deeds; it remains to be seen whether his role in this series is as redeemed party (an mind-boggling idea, but fascinatingly hinted at in episode four), as orchestrator-in-chief of the new fanatical homicidal spree across Copenhagen and Malmo, or simply as continued tormentor-in-chief of Martin.
By the same logic, I feel that the initial group of eco-terrorists/Laura/Caroline/Julian in the second series form an interesting group of characters if you happen to think of them as a group (of course, they all have different motives and none of these necessarily overlap). As individual characters, they don’t quite have the repulsive magnetism (to coin a paradox) of hack journalist Daniel Ferbé or the brooding, emotionally wrought stature of Stefan the social worker. Ferbé is a terrific character in that it is difficult to imagine anyone more manipulative or cynical…but for the fact he is being so ruthlessly manipulated by Jens in the latter’s quest for vengeance.
Two cracking set-pieces featuring Ferbé were the initial introductory shot of the character and the first time his car is booby-trapped by Jens. On the first instance, the directors of the series contrived to produce a shot of Ferbé, smug yet reflective in his newspaper office, that was effectively portraiture on a sustained scale (in televisual terms at least). In the second instance, the viewer will even at this stage feel Ferbé is a man who deserves his comeuppance yet wonder if he deserves so wretched a plight. The similarly fraught and ambiguous profile of Stefan (is he more sinned-against than sinning?) is nowhere better encapsulated in his status as a murder suspect and his endeavours to forge a better life for his homeless sister once he is reunited with her.
But, as I indicated, 9.6 out of 10 is still not very far off 10. Maybe The Bridge has taken a leaf of Borgen’s book in that this series feels more like a slow-burner and that the denouement is rather deliberate and pleasingly subtle. Laura is an effective character, significant to the plot in so many ways yet not one-dimensional as a person. She is physically close to the original crime in Series Two when sailing on the Oresund Strait just as a ship full of hostages inexorably proceeds towards the crunching frame of the bridge itself, yet she’s far more than a potential witness. Like Anja in the first series, she is young and vulnerable and in need of an emotional outlet; however, unlike Anja, this has nothing to do with being caught between an estranged mother and father. She turns to her businessman father, the female maths teacher with whom she is having a relationship, and her employer, Julian, for solace, and merely becomes more isolated at every turn (especially come the end of episode four when it’s uncertain whether she will even survive the ordeal at Malmo Stadium).
It could be easy to pass off Laura as a bit of a brat, and a venal one at that, especially given that she spends so much time demanding money from both her (admittedly pushy and not particularly empathetic) father and her teacher/lover. But again, we come back to her vulnerability (it’s difficult not to feel sorry for her when she ‘only’ gets a 10 out of 12 grade from the teacher with whom she shares a bed) and the fact that none of her ‘mentors’ is proving particularly good at providing moral guidance (certainly not Julian, who seems determined to both buy her off and get her on the wrong side of the law when trying to erase his complicity in the eco-terrorism cases). As was often the case with individual characters in the first series, if Laura is flawed, she is surrounded by characters who are just as culpable (if not more so), making for a worrying commentary on the state of society. A good parallel with the Ferbé introductory shot in Series One is that of Laura sailing on the waves of the Öresund/Øresund Strait and in the shadow of the hostage ship in Series Two; it establishes her as a capable and assertive yet solitary figure who still may not have the wherewithal to deal with the cruel machinations of those surrounding her.
Indeed, though the initial group of eco-terrorists don’t pack a resounding punch as characters (as the end of episode four indicates, they probably serve as the prelude to a far greater evil being perpetrated by someone higher up the chain), there’s a lot to be said for other figures such as Caroline and Linus in terms of the sympathy they might exact. As far as ambitious female professionals go, Caroline’s parallel in the first series may well be real estate investor Charlotte Soringer, yet it was difficult to feel any sympathy with Charlotte once she had knowingly engaged in adultery with Martin.
Our assertion that Bron/Broen/The Bridge is not all about sex seems vindicated when a key act in Episode Four is Caroline not having sex with a stud her sister recommended even when her relationship with her husband is loveless. Add to this the scene where Caroline is upset at the breast implants her husband has bought her as a birthday present; the writers of the show get a sensitive issue bang on when Caroline says that just because she comments on the way her body is changing in middle age doesn’t mean she wants to alter it (see our previous comments on Series One about how physical change does not guarantee happiness). Like Laura, Caroline is in need of an emotional outlet; given she (at this stage) resists physical change and base sexual gratification (in spite of the initial temptation) when others such as Jens and Martin (and possibly even Saga) have been weak of flesh, one is justified in wondering whether she will be a broadly favourable female supporting character in the vein of Martin’s long-suffering and (for now) estranged wife Mette (there is a budding parallel in the fact that Mette combines a successful career and family ties with a sense of dignity and a strong realisation that the sex act in itself is not enough).
In its portrayal of underage adolescents, The Bridge retains the shrewdness seen in Series One as far as the second series goes. Linus wrestles with the dilemma of his big brother, Niklas, being part of the eco-terrorism venture and not knowing what to do about it; Saga (typically) tells him that as he did know about his brother’s complicity, he may have to face the law. In terms of innocence conflicting with experience, this echoes the Anja storyline in the first series whereby the teenager Anja, although non-judgemental about the (potentially sinister) motives of a mentally unstable man with whom she takes refuge, can hardly be called innocent once she has caught red-handed shoplifting (the event which prompts her to leave her mother and take refuge in the first place).
However, the Linus storyline builds nicely upon Series One by presenting a new harrowing set of problems for the youngster at the heart of the narrative; whereas one can understand Anja’s mother’s anger at the shoplifting incident, the spiteful bullying Linus endures at the hands of his peers at school is both familiar and inexcusable. As much as Linus creates trouble for himself by trying to draw attention to himself (the incident of self-immolation being the most conspicuous), he does have a sense of moral justice (less obvious with Anja), which leads him to rail angrily at his brother when he realises the depth to which Niklas is involved in acts of terrorism.
Linus’s grief at his brother (his only real confidante) dying is coupled with a thirst for the truth that compares favourably to his adult counterparts; through his characteristically clumsy negligence, the police detective Rasmus lets Linus find out about Niklas’s plight via a TV report and then (not unlike Niklas when found out by Linus) tries to fudge his way out of the situation (which doesn’t make anything better). Linus embracing Saga once she has reassured Linus that Stefan’s death is not Linus’s fault shows up Linus’s and Saga’s virtues alike (even if it’s the last thing Saga expects).
In this respect, children are not just plausibly portrayed in both series of The Bridge; they help exemplify the key themes that child welfare, and the process of humans connecting (or re-connecting) with one another, can both flourish if one combines love and discernment with the key act of telling the truth. The Bridge strongly suggests that it is not childish innocence and naivete but cynical and craven adult self-preservation which has led Western (Scandinavian?) societies to trip up on the issue of child welfare. One need only think about how Anja’s father refuses her shelter because he doesn’t want to antagonise Anja’s stepmother and the similar show of obfuscating by adults supposedly meant to be looking after Linus. In this sense there is a strong sense of continuity between Series One and Series Two and one can hardly mark the new series down on this front.
Ultimately, however, if the full ensemble of characters in the first half of the first series of The Bridge is marginally more rewarding than that seen in the first half of second series, this clearly points to the growing dominance of one single relationship between two characters: that, of course, between Saga and Martin itself. One key piece of narrative from season one which wasn’t satisfyingly tied up in the first episode of series two (why Saga chose not to pursue a relationship with Anton when it looked at the end of the first series as if his perseverance might be rewarded) nonetheless triggers a comparison between the first halves of both respective series; just as Anton is surplus to requirements once Saga has had sex with him, so Saga’s new boyfriend, Jakob, gets short shrift when he turns up at her workplace with food and a desire for company.
One wonders if this is regression, rather than progression on Saga’s part (if Jakob and Saga are going to make a breakthrough, how is it going to be any different from Saga’s relationship with Anton where exactly the same thing was imputed? If she is permanently dysfunctional in intimate relationships, why is she any different from Sarah Lund?), but her apparent lack of progression on this front contrasts with the fact that she seems increasingly inseparable from Martin on a professional front. The Saga-Martin relationship has been painstakingly detailed in the new series through a series of resounding set-pieces and commonly-recurring motifs: Martin’s plain delight at seeing Saga for the first time in over a year; Saga’s complete inability to see why anyone other than Martin would be assigned to the new murder case; Saga’s refusal to let anyone other than Martin accompany her on investigation work (although, to be fair, this seems a good call in keeping Rasmus confined to where he can do the least damage); Martin’s highly protective response after Rasmus’ snide sarcasm directed to Saga (‘she doesn’t get irony. But I do. So stop taking the piss’).
Again, we return to the consideration that The Bridge is all about sex (see our post below). This theory is completely undercut by the fact that a constitutionally asexual relationship can be so absorbing as a dramatic construct. The Times article below dwelt on whether people were as interested in the whodunit as they were in the sex in Series One of The Bridge; in this series, the absence of sex (as far as the previously philandering Martin is concerned, at least) and the absence of a murderous figure with the sheer dramatic potential of Jens in the first half of the series make us wonder if we’re far more pre-occupied with the odd couple than we are with the whodunit or the sex.
Even when a frost is cast over Martin’s relationship with Saga (‘I won’t give you any advice from now on unless you ask for it’), it still seems that Saga doesn’t stand a better chance of learning about social skills and the human nature of emotional dependence if she comes into close contact with anyone else. We beg to differ with the (very good) Guardian blog which suggests that Saga carried out ‘an evisceration’ of Martin and Mette’s nanny on the subject of why the nanny loved children. The nanny got in her own touche when Saga claims that the nanny is not irreplaceable as the service matters more than the person; Martin subsequently tells the nanny that she is irreplaceable and the nanny gives Saga a nice knowing smile. No-one wins in this battle of emotion v logic, but then surely the show presents this as a process of human engagement and reconciliation rather than one of battle in the first place. If the Saga v Martin relationship does get irreparably damaged we will be wondering less whether the series ranks 9.6, 9.75,9.967545225 and more whether this is The Bridge as we know it.