‘The Bridge’ debuted three weeks ago with hands-down the best pilot of the summer, getting everyone rather excited that the next great cable drama had arrived. The two sleepy, not-bad-but-somewhat-mystifying hours that followed were a little frustrating, though clearly setting the table for something bigger.
If “Maria of the Desert” is that something, then the payoff was well worth the wait. But I suspect it’s not – and that’s what’s most exciting of all.
This was unquestionably the tighest hour of ‘The Bridge’ to date. Storytelling-wise, “Maria of the Desert” beared little resemblance to the two preceding episodes, replacing their hazy meandering with a laser-focus on the central task – locating and rescuing the eponymous Maria – while spending little time on much else.
This driving sense of urgency proved to be exactly what the series needed, and served this episode beautifully. ‘The Bridge’ is a “slow” show, in that it takes time to establish characters, settings, and stories. But taking this slow DNA and inserting it into high-stakes action including a ransom drop and frantic search for a dying girl allowed the character moments to really resonate. Sonya’s conversation in the car with Hank, for example, may have been the series’ best scene to date, a rare human moment from Sonya and proof to the audience just how much she needs Hank as a mentor. Had this scene been set in the previous unfocused, dialogue-heavy episodes, it would have been wasted, just a nice moment in a sea of nice moments. Here, though? Juxtaposed with all the insanity going on around them? The scene stood out as powerful and perfect.
“Maria of the Desert” also addressed my biggest gripe with the series to date, that the marble-mouthed Steven Linder character is entirely undefined and therefore means nothing to the audience. He’s still not a clear picture by any means, but it does appear that he’s not our kidnapper, and is instead rescuing girls who have escaped the cartels and bringing them to equally creepy Bob at a ranch. Or, you know, maybe he’s also a kidnapper and murderer. Oh well. Not sure if I care about him yet, but I’m on the verge of caring, at least.
Meanwhile, Charlotte wisely took heed of her horse’s murder and Cesar’s warnings, allowing the tunnel to re-open. Drug kingpin Fausto Galvan makes quick use of it, smuggling in a million dollars to pay the Maria’s ransom, partly because the he knows the “gringos” won’t pay up to save the girl and partly because the increased police presence is bad for business. Marco takes the money, notably with Sonya’s approval, and after some initial resistance the FBI agree to use it to make the drop.
A trademark of great drama is the lack of black-and-white morality, which is ironic here given that the defining trait of the series’ main character is her inability to see those shades of gray. Galvan and Daniel Frye, two characters that could easily be purely evil, make the same point this hour about the relative value placed on Mexican girls, and the hypocrisy of the FBI claiming to value everyone equally while failing to secure the million dollars. They might not be good guys, but they’re not entirely selfish or blind to others’ suffering, even if both may have their own motives. (Can we please get this black/white memo to Charlotte’s stepdaughter so she can stop being THE WORST?)
The ransom exchange ended up being unnecessary. Sonya, thanks to hours of monitoring the live feed, identifies that Maria is tied down at an oil well, and Hank and Sonya find her just in time. But the drop is already well in motion, as Agent Gedman enters the bar, is handed a phone, disconnects his ear piece and walks to the back room. His body would be discovered by Daniel, while his head would be left in a trash bag next to an unconscious Marco, whom the killer beat but mysteriously spared.
This was hardly an end to the story, but the one-two punch of finding Maria and the botched ransom drop felt climactic and earned. I still believe the previous two episodes could have been more interesting and cohesive without taking anything away from tonight, but regardless, “Maria of the Desert” is the first of what I suspect will be many season highlights for ‘The Bridge.”