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FX's crime drama The Bridge grows too epic in season two

Demián Bichir in The Bridge
Demián Bichir in The Bridge
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Bridge, FX's crime saga set on the US/Mexico border, doesn't just bite off more than it can chew. It shoves the whole plate into its mouth, then chomps down on it, regardless of whether each swallow consists of food or shards of ceramics. It's a show where any given episode can have seven or eight things going on simultaneously, where the plotting is enamored of setting as many plates spinning as it possibly can. It's always dancing a half-step ahead of collapsing into utter chaos and disarray. That it doesn't is at least somewhat impressive, but it also can leave the viewer exhausted, wishing the show would just do a little bit less already.

The series underwent some major changes between its uneven but ultimately compelling first season and this second season. No one — not even those involved in the show — thought the series handled the main plot of the first season, which involved a serial killer with a seemingly political point to make, particularly well. Season two seemed as if it would pivot to questions of the so-called "lost girls of Juárez," a wave of disappearances and violence against women that very well might be a myth. (In short, there's plenty of violence against women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, but, according to some statistics, not disproportionately so.) At some point in the planning of season two, one of the series' co-developers and showrunners, Meredith Stiehm, left the show, returning to Homeland and leaving The Bridge under the stewardship of the other co-developer, Elwood Reid.

The female violence, which seemed to animate Stiehm's conception of the show, has mostly been turned into background noise. What's left is an incredibly complicated story structure that attempts to be equal parts The Wire for the border between El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, and a lurid pulp adventure, where the violence is splashy and the tone is often ultra-grim. It's a crime drama equally in love with the many strange folks who occupy its universe and the sickening crunch fists make when they meet flesh.

It's a mix that doesn't always work all that well, but when it does, it makes for some of the most unusual television around. As in season one, the center of season two is one violent individual, pursued on both sides of the border by law enforcement officials. In season two, however, the violence is largely driven by the Mexican drug cartel run by the violent, soulful Fausto Galvan (Ramón Franco), instead of by a serial killer whose connection to the plot is tangential at best.

This gives the series a better sense of unity, but only just. The need to incorporate every character in the show's sprawling universe still takes its toll, resulting in episodes that sprint recklessly from storyline to storyline, making sure they're all moving in vaguely similar directions. FX sent out seven episodes of the new season to critics, more than half the season's run, and it's easy to see why. The early hours have the feeling of marking time and indulging in dark violence for the sake of having blood splatter frequently. But by episodes six and seven, the various storylines begin drawing closer together, and the show sets characters ping-ponging off of each other in ways that are occasionally thrilling.

It's worth noting that nearly every single one of the show's storylines would be one of the best shows on TV if it were somehow a series unto itself. In what counts as the closest thing The Bridge has to a center, Sonya Cross, an El Paso detective who is likely somewhere on the autism spectrum and is played by Diane Kruger, works with Mexican police officer Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) to solve each season's central mystery. The two can be harder to take when separate — particularly when Marco is wrapping up some business from one of last season's cliffhangers — but together, their trips over and around the border make for affecting, effective television, and season two gets even more juice out of their partnership by having the two work at cross-purposes.

The same goes for newspaper reporters Daniel Frye (a terrifically burned-out Matthew Lillard) and Adriana Mendez (Emily Rios), who have increased prominence in season two. (Both have been made series regulars, instead of the guest stars they were in season one.) Reid and the show's writers often use Daniel and Adriana to tie the series' various pieces together, and it works better than one might expect. Similarly, the show uses the mysterious wasteland drifter of Linder (Thomas M. Wright) to explore the world of border crossings to often haunting effect.

Sadly, the series hasn't yet figured out how to better utilize Annabeth Gish as Charlotte Millwright, a widow drawn slowly but surely into a life of crime, but at least it's giving more time to Brian Van Holt, as gonzo opportunist Ray, and Lyle Lovett, as shady lawyer Monte, another figure the series uses to draw various disconnected storylines together. (The first scene of the season — in which Monte stumbles into the starkly bloody aftermath of a brutal murder to the tune of some vintage country and western music — is stylish and gripping and sets a tone the rest of the season only fitfully lives up to.)

The season's most significant addition is Franka Potente as the mysterious Eleanor Nacht, who crosses the border with designs that are not immediately clear, even to the audience. Potente has been bouncing between various dark TV dramas in the past several years, including FX's own The Shield and American Horror Story, but she's found a part that makes perfect use of her skills here. Eleanor reveals more and more layers with every episode — she has a monologue that's perfect and chilling in the seventh hour — and the effort to figure out just what she's up to makes for a better center to the season than the serial killer hunt in season one.

The problem, as mentioned, is that tossing all of these stories into the same framework results in near-chaotic structures that bounce haphazardly from one thing to another. The series has solved some of these issues by utilizing costume pieces and props — a strategically-placed bandage here, a distinctive pair of glasses there — to keep its huge

cast of tertiary characters defined and discernible, but it's still hard to see just why all of these people need to occupy the same show. Focusing in on two or three of these storylines would make for a better show, even if it might be more conventional in its structure. The Bridge gets points for the sheer ambition of what it's trying to pull off, but those points quickly evaporate if it can't bring everything to a satisfying conclusion.

Season two may be more consistent than season one, but it's also strangely more muted. Season one might have had lower lows, but it also had higher, wilder highs, moments when the series seemed as unpredictable and unique as anything on TV. For the most part, season two has lost much of that, keeping everything closer to the mean. That might result in nothing as drop-dead silly as the ultimate reveal of last season's serial killer's motivation, but it also means there's rarely anything as soulful or unexpected as some of the scenes between Kruger and Bichir from last year. Too many episodes skew away from that wildness and unpredictability and toward something far more conventional. The Bridge might have amped up its brain in season two, but in so doing, it's misplaced much of its heart.

Developed by: Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid, from the Danish/Swedish series Bron/Broen
Starring: Demián Bichir, Diane Kruger, Annabeth Gish, Emily Rios, Thomas M. Wright, Matthew Lillard, Ted Levine
Returns: Wednesday night at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX
Seven episodes watched for review