The Bridge S3 E1-2 (BBC4)

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Contains spoilers for the first two episodes

bridge-0It’s been two long years since the second season of The Bridge was first broadcast, and while BBC4 had kept its Nordic Noir slot warm with some very decent propositions in the meantime – ranging from the ambitious sweeping historical epic 1864 to the perfectly professional if slightly pedestrian police procedural Beck – there’s still been nothing to compare with The Bridge, which might just prove be the high water mark of Scandinavian crime drama.

Or is it?

The trouble is that after so long away there’s always the risk that a series’ actual qualities might have grown in the mind out of all proportion to reality, an unhealthy dose of rose-tinted memories take over resulting in unachievable expectations for when the show does finally return. Certainly for me there was a degree of nervousness as the opening titles began, just in case this new season wasn’t going to be up to the sort of standards that I’d built up for it in my own mind in the meantime.

The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that we all knew going in that one of the main bedrocks of the series is missing this time around. The show had always been predicated on the idea of a cultural clash of sorts between Sweden and Danmark: The Bridge is a shared production between the respective national broadcasters, and focuses on a joint murder investigation being conducted by police forces from both countries, the whole thing neatly symbolised by the iconic sweeping lines of the Øresund Bridge that links the two nations. Originally the Danish side was represented by Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), a big bear of a man with a complicated emotional life who apparently shambled his way through a case yet in fact still had his own talents and flashes of insight. Meanwhile the character of Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) represented the cold, clinical and precise side of the Swedish character as seen and oft-criticised by the more laid-back Danes, a certain amount of mutual national stereotyping being required on both sides to make the show’s premise work.

bridge-4Unfortunately season 3 starts a man down with Bodnia having quit the show, having been unhappy with the direction his character had been taken and also pointing out – with some justification – that the way things had been left at the end of season 2 made it possible for him to return this time around and maintain any sense of believability. Bodnia was in many respects the beating emotional heart of the show and he’ll be much missed; even more significantly it leaves Helin as the undisputed star and potentially tipping the delicate balance that the show’s original premise had worked so hard to establish and maintain.

Goodness knows it had already been a very hard equilibrium to maintain: Saga with her unique traits was always such a scene-stealingly original character that she had threatened on more than one occasion to run away with the programme, and it was only Bodnia’s weighty and grounded performance that managed to keep the ship on an even keel. With him now out of the picture there was a very real danger that The Bridge might capsize entirely and become The Saga Show – which while an intriguing idea to be sure, nonetheless just wouldn’t be the same.

It’s clear that the show’s creator and chief writer Hans Rosenfeldt was keenly aware of the problem of replacing the character of Martin with someone genuinely new – and not just a cheap knock-off copy – but without doing it in such a way as to alienate The Bridge’s loyal fanbase in the process. Even so, we inevitably have to start with a strong first episode focus on our remaining point of identification which means that it’s mainly about Saga, even as a new murder case requiring cross-jurisdictional investigation gets underway.

bridge-1There is a new partner on the Danish side in the form of Hanne Thomsen (Kirsten Olesen), an older woman who doesn’t take to Saga’s odd ways at all and moreover blames her for what befell Martin at the end of the previous story. It’s a clever move: Hanne is by no means an intrinsically nasty character, but she certainly doesn’t hold back in her disdain for Saga. It reminds us that Martin’s acceptance of his partner’s quirks was an exception rather than the norm, and while our sympathies undoubtedly lie with Saga it’s also hard not to agree with the veracity of some of Hanne’s stinging barbs. Even so it’s clearly not a stable situation and so it’s no surprise that the latest team-up doesn’t last long before Hanne demands to be reassigned, although fate intervenes before that can happen.

What this brief interregnum achieves is nonetheless important, as it puts a firebreak between Martin and his actual successor and lessens to a small but crucial degree the tendency to directly compare them. By the time he officially shows up at the end of episode one, we’ve already actually been introduced to Henrik Saboe (Thure Lindhardt) – we just didn’t realise it at the time because he had been presented for all the world as being likely one of a number of emerging suspects in the case that Saga and Hanne had already embarked upon. He had certainly been acting suspiciously enough in the first episode: seemingly a happily married family man, he turns out to be an insomniac with a drug problem who goes off in the nighttime to pick up casual partners for sex with the full knowledge of his wife, to whom he comes home and reports on the night’s activities. Yet any early preconceptions we might have made about him are soon comprehensively undermined by finding out that he’s a senior politice detective who has just asked in no uncertain terms to take over from Hanne.

While he clearly finds Saga’s unusual mannerisms take some getting used to, he seems to find them more amusing than irksome. He doesn’t bat an eye when Saga – with her usual brutal directness – informs him of her dim view of the investigative standards of the Danish police. But where the original pairing of Saga and Martin had been to some degree one of taking national clichés and then exploring them, Henrick is no Martin redux and therefore quite different from the sort of Dane that Saga had been expecting: he’s hyper-observant and also intuitive, able to pick up on small things that Saga dismisses as irrelevant minutiae and then put them into an emotional context that she is quite simply unable to comprehend. It’s clear that this utterly baffles her, and moreover that Henrick in general is nothing like the Dane she is used to.

bridge-3For all his personal demons Henrick is played as quite closed and inexpressive while on the case, bringing him very much closer to Saga than Martin ever was. It’s an interesting move in a genre which by default will usually set up its lead characters as an oddball pairing of complete contrasts. The Bridge as ever dares to be different and is prepared to throw away the rule book when it feels that it needs to, and in doing so it means we get to explore another side of the Danish national character rather than plough the same Martin-shaped furrow for another ten episodes. It’s an intelligent move and one that is cleverly introduced by the writer and shows every promise of working out well; we’ll miss Martin of course, but new blood and new directions for the show might be just what we need to keep The Bridge fresh and exciting.

As the unequivocal star of the show now, Sofia Helin also gets some interesting new material to work from rather than just be required to play the same collection of autistic (although not specifically identified as such) mannerisms. Having let her guard down with Martin only to be left feeling betrayed – and unable to understand why everyone else seems to believe that she betrayed Martin rather than the other way around – Saga is left with only one point of human contact to anchor her in the form of her understanding and emotionally supportive boss Hans (Dag Malmberg). In a nice extra layer of Swedish/Danish collaboration on the show, Hans is now married to his Copenhagen counterpart Lilian (Sarah Boberg) after the pair had been brought together by Martin and Saga’s previous collaborations. However Hans is abducted and held hostage, and it’s very much a case of the remaining threads of Saga’s world starting to unravel especially as she finds the new chief Linn Björkman (Maria Kulle) entirely unsupportive by comparison and distinctly less to her liking. To cap it all there is the return of Saga’s estranged mother (Ann Petrén) who clearly can no better understand how to handle her unique daughter than Saga can comprehend her in turn, but who insists on talking about family matters relating to her father and her long-dead sister which makes Saga increasingly agitated and desperate.

Having got this far into the review you’ll notice that there has been almost no mention of the case that Saga and her new partner Henrick are working on, and that’s because so far it’s not made a huge impression. That’s not a particular criticism, since the characters have to come first and there’s plenty of time to crank up the thriller aspect of the show later. At the moment all we know is that someone has murdered a prominent Danish LGBT activist and posed her in a deserted Swedish office block posed as part of a tableau of domestic bliss, with plastic store mannequins representing a typical nuclear family around the dinner table. All of them, victim and dummies alike, have been adorned with a painted clown’s face. It’s not long before a second murder victim shows up, this time the first priest to conduct a gay wedding in Denmark, and so the theme appears to be intolerance with a clear link quickly made to hardline Christian activist and strident video blogger Lise Friis Andersen (Sonja Richter) whose husband Lars (Olaf Johannessen) just happens to own the very haulage yard where one of the murders was committed. Lise is so clearly the guilty party that with eight episodes still to go the only thing we can be sure of it that she is not in fact the guilty party at all; if anything, the Andersen’s distinctly creepy young cleaner Rikard (Anton Lundqvist) seems a much more likely culprit at this early stage.

So after having gone all round the houses, what’s the final verdict on season 3 of The Bridge? Does it live up to the high standards of the first two? Is it still head and shoulders above the rest of the pretenders to the crown that have been paraded before us in the Nordic Noir spot in the intervening two years?

bridge-2The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’ on all fronts. I think it might just be even better than the golden-hued memories of the original two runs. Aware that the whole world is watching, waiting and expecting nothing but the best from the show this time around, the production team is even more confident and assured in what they’re doing and where they’re taking the characters, and are serviced by a cast that is delivering on all levels. To co-opt some lyrics from a James Bond film theme, “nobody does it better – makes you feel sad for the rest.” Like the finest wine imaginable, the first drop on the tongue and you’re completely under its spell as a warm feeling starts with a tingle of recognition and pure delight in your brain and which then spreads throughout your entire body.

I admit it, I’m hooked – and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

The Bridge season 3 continues on BBC4 on Saturday nights and will be released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on December 21.

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