This review contains spoilers.
Saga Norén is a creature of routine. Her emotions are walled in by years of isolation, circumscribed by force of habit: coping mechanisms so entrenched that they’ve become a way of life. It works, just about – that is, until something unpredictable disrupts the established pattern. Then things fall apart.
Over three series of The Bridge, we’ve learnt more about this most unorthodox of detectives, scrutinising her face for the occasional glimpse of what lies beneath the surface impassivity. At first, we saw her through the eyes of her Danish partner, Martin: affectionate, impatient, uncomprehending. He looked on in horror at her lack of social graces, but he managed to coax her out of her shell sufficiently for him – and us – to appreciate her many qualities. Then he killed the man who murdered his son, and Saga turned him in, because that’s what a police officer does. No more awkward conversations in the car. No friendly face in a world not built for people like her.
Everybody she’d ever cared about had left her, one way or another. Her sister, lost to suicide; her mentor, Hans, the victim of a serial killer; even her abusive parents. Everybody but her new Danish colleague, Henrik, pleading with her in the darkness by the railway line, begging her to help him find his missing daughters. She’d wept in his arms, broken down for the first time, and then they’d picked up the pieces of their lives and started again. No illusions this time, though. She knew about his reliance on a cocktail of drugs to deaden the agony of his loss, and about the hallucinations of his lost wife and children that drove him to keep going. He knew about the autism that governed her behaviour, about her family, about the self-doubt that gnawed at her, a parting gift from her destructive mother to go with her successful plot to frame Saga for her ‘murder’. There was no need for the romantic clichés: they’d already had sex, an act never exactly rich in meaning for Saga in any case, and she’d turned down his dinner invitation with her usual bluntness. Instead, there was a shared look, a half-smile, and an understanding. A future: one that could be shared.
It takes a moment for it to dawn on us, as she opens her eyes to the morning light, that she’s in prison. Sofia Helin has always been extraordinary in the role of Saga, but her depiction of this ordered, precise woman’s response to being caged is perhaps the finest work she’s ever done on this show. That, as long-time viewers will agree, is saying a great deal. She makes a daily circuit of the prison yard, reads obsessively, and tries her best to avoid other prisoners, who have their own issues with her. Now her every moment is spent living in somebody else’s idea of a routine, other people’s emotional problems – her biggest fear – pressing in on her at every turn. The outcome of her appeal can’t come soon enough.
Henrik’s also struggling to cope on many fronts: his fears for Saga’s well-being, his ongoing battle with prescription drug addiction, and the constant, insistent feeling that he could be doing more to track down his missing daughters. Thure Lindhardt needed only one series to establish himself as the perfect foil to Helin’s Saga, and in this opening episode, he perfectly captures Henrik’s attempts to cope with his own bleak life. He, at least, has the distraction of a new case to investigate. The stoning to death of the head of Denmark’s immigration service is one of the more graphically brutal murders we’ve seen so far in The Bridge – again, that’s saying quite a bit – and it leads to a tangled web of stories involving domestic abuse, political terrorism, and the refugee crisis. On the evidence of this first episode, the case is shaping up to be every bit as complicated and fascinating as those in previous series.
There’s even a new partnership to deal with, as Henrik is paired up with the grumpy Jonas (Mikael Birkkjær). This detective’s particular social inadequacies are, somewhat depressingly, far more tolerated by society than Saga’s, but he makes the prickly, bigoted Jonas oddly likeable; Birkkjær gives the sense of a man with a capacity for genuine compassion that’s been blunted by a lack of deeper thought. He also gets one of the biggest laughs of the episode when, after attempting to be kind to Henrik before Saga’s verdict comes through, he then conspiratorially warns him to be careful, given what happened to her previous partners: ‘She’s got it in for the Danes.’
That Danish perspective is particularly relevant, as a new development for this series is the fact that the case takes place on their side of the famous bridge, with only the occasional foray into Sweden. It’s quite a shift in emphasis, but it lends the new case a fresh spin that keeps The Bridge as intriguing as ever, even as it heads towards its conclusion. Then, of course, there’s the absolutely maddening cliffhanger on which this episode ends. Is this a good time to remind you that they’re only showing one episode at a time now it’s moved to BBC Two? No? All right, I thought not, calm down…