Warning: contains The Bridge spoilers series 1-4.
There will never be another show quite like The Bridge. Its final episode, screened in the UK in July of this year, brought its four-season run to a close with an ending happier than many fans had expected. It was, though, a bittersweet parting. In a television landscape crowded with quality programmes, something about Hans Rosenfeldt’s creation has captured our imaginations. It’s easy to reel off a list of the series’ qualities: superlative acting, intricate plotting, the bleak beauty of its cinematography. For most viewers, though, the real draw lies elsewhere.
Saga Norén’s place in the pantheon of TV’s greatest characters was assured by the end of The Bridge’s first series. Like most of our favourites, she’s immediately recognisable: the Porsche, the leather trousers, the clipped delivery. In other respects, however, she’s very different. We’re used to small-screen detectives with messy personal lives and unorthodox approaches to getting results. Over time, characters like this tend to lose their edge. They’re softened, made presentable, ‘fixed’ with settled relationships. Female protagonists are particularly vulnerable to this trend. They’re made over, body and soul: rendered more vulnerable, softer, less threatening. It’s a trajectory so common in popular culture that it barely warrants comment.
The Bridge’s triumphant final episodes dodge easy answers and comforting platitudes to leave us with something treasurable. Saga’s status as a neuroatypical woman has always been a distinctive feature of the series, a situation fraught with potential difficulties. Too often, characters depicted as on the autistic spectrum are used as comic relief, presented as ‘challenges’ for others to fix or mould in some way, or simply sidelined after a few half-hearted attempts to boast of diversity.
Rosenfeldt, his co-writer Camilla Ahlgren, and the show’s phenomenal star Sofia Helin have shattered this lazy status quo forever. Saga Norén is permitted to be messy, exasperating, dogmatic, and harsh; she’s also heroic, forthright, moral, and – in her own, offbeat way – deeply compassionate. She’s never an object of pity – in fact, she’s never an object at all. She’s our lead: strong, decisive, yet immensely sympathetic, a profoundly intelligent woman with a genius for detective work whose social awkwardness has many of us wincing in recognition. As the full horror of her abusive childhood reveals itself in fits and starts, we learn just how this remarkable woman has survived for so long in the face of incredible suffering and loss, isolated by a world with little sympathy to spare for someone like her.
At the Q & A following the screening of the first episode of series four at the BFI back in April 2018, a man in the audience asked Rosenfeldt and Ahlgren whether Saga was, in fact, drawn from Scandinavian folklore: Andersen’s Snow Queen with a vintage car and a taste for casual sexual encounters. It was a seemingly left-field question, and was politely deflected by the writers, but as we look back on Saga’s evolution during this final run, it seems to touch on something deeper.
Behind the gritty murder cases, The Bridge’s account of Saga’s development as a human being manages both to be true to life and to evoke the mythical resonances of the fairytale. A hero takes up the call to her own version of adventure, finds companions and adversaries along the way, is held back by challenges, and finally returns with the ‘prize’: in this case, her own sense of identity and self-worth. This is in addition to her triumph in rescuing her lover Henrik’s lost daughter from the clutches of the sinister Frank, himself a classic example of the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing figure so common in stories of this kind. Saga gets to live out her own hero’s journey: the Campbellian mythos found in all our most richly satisfying narratives from the medieval Haveloc the Dane (yes, ‘Scandimania’ in this country has quite the shelf-life) to Star Wars. The fact that much of her development is internal and psychological only renders it all the more satisfying. That’s why it doesn’t matter that so many of the characters crucial to Saga’s journey – the pathologist who assists her faithfully throughout the show’s run, the psychologist who helps her work through her complex personal issues – are never given names. They function as archetypes, appearing and disappearing as needed to advance her quest for self-discovery. It’s testament to the superb, thoughtful performance of Gabriel Flores Jair as the pathologist that his character manages to fulfil this narrative purpose while remaining fully believable. If he ever gets a spin-off, count me in. (His name’s David, by the way; do read this fascinating interview by Paul Hirons.)
Romance shouldn’t need to be obligatory in a story like this, which is fortunate, because we don’t get it. Instead, Saga finds her best friend. The love story that develops between her and Henrik Sabroe, the psychologically disturbed, drug-abusing Danish cop searching desperately for his missing wife and daughters, has few peers in ‘traditional’ literary relationships between men and women. The brilliant Thure Lindhardt manages to give us the impossible: a man both worthy of our Saga and fascinating in his own right. We see a faltering, awkward friendship develop, backed up by the kind of physical benefits Saga treats as an itch to be scratched rather than a sign of affection. Over time, as Saga recovers from her jail term, she realises that the kind of companionship Henrik can offer is, for the first time in her life, a prospect she could welcome. This sudden rush of feeling doesn’t, however, prevent her from making a terrible mistake in handling her unplanned pregnancy that fractures their bond for a brief, terrible period. In a series that inverts her shattered friendship with another Dane, Martin, the supportive fraternal figure who was lost to her after he took the law into his own hands and murdered the man who killed his son, there’s an ominous sense of impending tragedy. Will her rigid behaviour once again force her to part from someone dear to her? Worse, will she sacrifice herself in a bid to make things right and end the cycle?
In the end, though, Saga’s dogged persistence in searching for Henrik’s daughter, Astrid, pays off, and, when another predator circles them, she ends his reign of terror with one well-aimed shot. She drives off in pursuit of new answers, a hero too restless to settle down for good with the man she loves, and too instinctively compassionate to impose herself as he rebuilds his fragile relationship with his child. This is happiness, Saga-style: freedom to learn, to explore, to exist. Sofia Helin deserves immense credit, not only for her performance, but for embodying a character so inspirational to anyone who’s ever struggled to belong. As she relinquishes her police badge to the roiling waters and, for the first time, answers her phone without the legendary words ‘Länskrim Malmö’, the message is clear. Saga Norén has found her place in the world. And if she can do it, so can we.