Mild spoilers up to The Bridge's ninth episode below.
Artisanal murders are all the rage these days. On Showtime's Dexter, NBC's Hannibal and Fox's The Following, small-batch, labor-intensive, sold-with-a-story slaughters have become TV's equivalent of the Cronut. Handsome, intelligent, and mannered as court eunuchs, serial killers have become the new artists and aesthetes. On Hannibal, for example, flesh is but a canvas. The show so regularly features museum-worthy tableaux of vivisections that it inspired an "11 Most Beautifully Gruesome Crime Scenes" list. One religion-inspired human diorama had two scoops of back flesh carved out of the torso and stretched outward to resemble angel wings.
Wading into television's high crimson tide is FX's The Bridge, the police drama best known (and ridiculed in some circles) for featuring German model-turned-actress Diane Kruger as an El Paso homicide detective with Asperger's. Fashion cachet aside, The Bridge's real draw is its unique universe. The action takes place in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico—a case could be made that the setting is the passage between those two cities. Many of the characters, like Kruger's partner Demián Bichir, a Mexican national who spends his 9-to-5 hours in El Norte, live with one foot in America and the other in Mexico. Barely two miles apart, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are separated by a border that's almost laughably porous yet undeniably real. The season-long mystery that unites detectives Sonya Cross (Kruger) and Marco Ruiz (Bichir) is a bisected body found on the Rio Grande bridge—actually, two half-bodies: the head and upper torso of a white woman and the legs and bowels of a Mexican woman.
With that none-too-subtle provocation, The Bridge's killer distinguished himself from the rest of his TV brethren by introducing politics to the realm of serial killing. Until his personal vendetta was revealed in the show's eighth episode, "The Beast" had made a kind of political performance art with his slayings by targeting figures who represented Americans' willful apathy toward violence and hardship south of the border: a pro-deportation judge, a group of undocumented immigrants, a prostitute who serviced yanqui johns.
In the killer's most blatant bid for attention, a young Mexican woman was tied down in the middle of the Texas desert for hours, while a webcam recorded her dying slowly of dehydration. The snuff film was broadcast online as an indictment of the United States' indifference toward the hundreds of Mexicans who die crossing the border every year. Sure, the activism-via-attemped-murder makes no moral sense, but remember, we are dealing with serial killers.
Still, the self-contradiction of The Beast's killings are, for the show, strangely productive. The mystery at the heart of the series is a case of the utmost importance to Sonya and Marco, but its closing hardly matters in the context of its backdrop, Ciudad Juárez's decades-long epidemic of "femicides." The capture of one Beast will have no impact on the many others still out there, preying on women. Both on and off the show, there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of women's bodies, mutilated in an endless variety of nauseatingly creative ways, whose cases will never be solved. Systemic violence and sexual assault against women in Ciudad Juárez is such a scourge, in fact, that a real-life female vigilante named "Diana the Hunter of Drivers" recently murdered two bus drivers as retribution for rape. (Incidentally, some have theorized that at least one of the probably multiple Juárez murderers could be a bus driver, since they are in frequent contact at odd hours with the main targets of femicide—poor factory workers.)
Within the context of the Juárez murders, then, Dexter and his ilk seem positively quaint. None of the serial killers on TV come close to the murders in Juárez in sheer quantity. By juxtaposing its central mystery with its brutal setting, The Bridge allows for the latter to somewhat trivialize the former—the show knows that Sonya and Marco's success doesn't really matter in the long run. And that juxtaposition also highlights the political implications of the other serial killers on TV: that we can only fetishize their violence because they're rare, and thus, another first-world privilege.
In the darkly comic opening scene of the series' fifth episode, The Bridge contrasts the two kinds of murderers we often see on TV: American serial killers and Mexican criminals. Fausto Galván (Ramón Franco), a cartel heavy, muses on his own murderous lifestyle. "I kill a lot of people," he admits. Eager to make his boss feel better, a lackey assures Fausto, "You're a businessman. ‘Serial killers' are crazy. They do lots of other things: rape, mutilate, eat their victims. They also do … sexual things," "You're only a ‘serial killer' if you enjoy it," Fausto concludes.
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Though their conversation takes place in Spanish, both use the English phrase—the term and its meaning are gringo concepts. Fausto can enjoy a smidge of moral superiority in the knowledge that in his world, murder for aesthetic, sexual, or any other personal purpose is a pathology—and a luxury. The value of life is affirmed in the taking of it because its loss counts. In his world, death is simply the cost of doing business.
Serial killers used to signify humanity's potential for evil, but their recent proliferation on television have neutered their vileness by turning them into compelling weirdos, the anti-hero trend taken to its extreme. The Bridge's use of the Juárez murders as a setting and a moral reference point allows the series to contextualize the culture's current fetishization of serial killing in a political milieu that aestheticizes death because it can. It's an ugly portrait of our society—much uglier than anything Hannibal could come up with.