Of Bridges and Borders

Gillian Roberts


Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia in The Bridge


In April 2012, my partner suggested we watch the first episode of a new Scandinavian thriller beginning to air on BBC4. I’d never heard of it, but was ready to switch off from my academic work, scrambling as I was to meet a book deadline. We started watching The Bridge, and it wasn’t long before I turned to my partner and said, “Oh my god, is this is a cross-border police drama?” The aforementioned book is about representations of the Canada-US border, and the chapter I was working on at that point focuses on the Canadian cross-border police dramas Bordertown, Due South, and The Border. So much for switching off, then. Yet as we watched the first episode of The Bridge, the dead woman’s body lying in the middle of the Øresund bridge between Sweden and Denmark, we felt thrills of genre recognition: “It’s going to be two halves of two bodies,” said my partner—the crime thriller aficionado; “One half’s going to be from each country,” I said, then gleefully added, “There’s going to be jurisdiction issues!”

I should admit at this point that I have never been to either Denmark or Sweden, and know comparatively little about each of these countries. But as a Canadian viewer with a by now unusually—and possibly unhealthily—extensive knowledge of Canadian cross-border police dramas, I could recognise the dynamics at play in The Bridge: not just issues to do with whether it’s legal for a police officer from one country to fire a gun in another (we’re on firm Benton Fraser territory here) but also the issues to do with national jurisdiction, the simultaneity of partnership and friction between neighbouring nations, the differences between them—both apparently superficial and more deeply embedded in their societies—that are both reflections of and contributions to the nation-state border as a meaningful demarcation. I speak neither Danish nor Swedish but found myself listening out for different sounds, wondering whether Martin’s different pronunciation of Saga’s name was down to his being Danish rather than Swedish or just plain getting it wrong.

In an interview with The Guardian in May 2012, Sofia Helin, who plays Saga Noren, suggested the series might be adapted for a UK-France context (the upcoming Sky Atlantic The Tunnel, eschewing overground for submerged international linking mechanisms). But the first adaptation to emerge has been produced in the United States, by the FX network. Initial plans for the series would have added to my workload, given that the setting of the American series was first envisioned as the Canada-US border. Ultimately, however, Elwood Reid, the writer responsible for the US remake, changed his mind in favour of that border that has tended to eclipse the 49th parallel in mainstream US consciousness: the US-Mexico border.

The Bridge, FX networkSo, why abandon the North America’s northern internal border for its southern counterpart? Reid explained, as reported in Melbourne’s The Age, “In the original series I couldn’t understand the difference between Sweden and Denmark […] People said the Swedes are very severe and the Danes are more [inclined to party] but politically, and on screen, they looked the same to me. With Mexico, there is a stark difference … It’s the grinding point between two economies, two countries [that] are radically different. It gives the show, without having to invent anything, so much ‘pop’.”

They looked the same to me. Well, nobody’s ever said that about Canadians and Americans, have they. The slippage between sameness and difference at the Canada-US border is one of the reasons it is so fascinating as a geopolitical site, loaded with cultural significance and a range of (often conflicting) meanings. Reid demonstrates both a disappointing lack of interest in exploring what the differences between Sweden and Denmark might be, how the cultural dynamics of the Swedish-Danish co-produced The Bridge function on either side of and across the Øresund bridge, and a lack of imagination about how these elements could be translated into a North American context at the 49th parallel. Imagine a Canadian Saga (she’s got to be the Canadian one, right?) being dismissed by an American Martin for her pronunciation of “about,” her affection for hockey, and the fact that Martin can’t even remember the name of her “president.” (That’s okay, he’s in lofty company: both George W. Bush and Barack Obama got that one wrong, too, in their own particular ways.) In all seriousness, however, Canada’s very specific situation of looking like the US (if you squint, anyway), being mistaken for the US (often by the US), while being at a distinct disadvantage in relation to the US in terms of political, military, economic, and cultural power lends much to the cross-border police drama genre.

As it happens, it was recently made public that the United States wants to make its police officers exempt from Canadian law in joint border-policing initiatives. Border security has been a high priority since 9/11, accompanied, on the Canadian side of the 49th parallel, by an anxiety about attendant risks to Canadian sovereignty. If Canadian law simply will not exist for American police officers working in Canada, it would appear that such anxieties have not been misplaced. Constable Benton Fraser, unfailingly polite though he is to his American colleagues, would heartily disapprove. So would Major Mike Kessler, though he probably saw it coming.

I haven’t seen FX’s remake of The Bridge yet, though I certainly look forward to it. Will it, as Reid’s comments somewhat worryingly suggest, present Mexico and the US as only radically different countries, or will it manage to account for the complex borderlands region and the cultural hybridity it has produced? Will this version pop in ways a 49th parallel incarnation allegedly could not? Or will we have to wait until a compatriot of mine decides to make a Canada-US version, after all, to see?

Gillian Roberts grew up in Ottawa, Ontario and Victoria, BC, but now lives much further from the Canada-US border. She is Associate Professor of North American Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham, and is Co-Investigator of the Culture and the Canada-US Border international research network.


2 thoughts on “Of Bridges and Borders

  1. Good, thought provoking article Gillian. The American plan for a remake of “The Bridge” is sad in two ways — 1. Why not create something original instead of lamely copying the Scandinavians? ( as they also did with “The Killing.”) 2. Why not feature, as you say, a border between two countries that have subtle differences rather than glaringly obvious ones? As you note, the differences between Sweden and Denmark are not immediately clear, so the writer and the viewer have to work harder to work out the contrasts, but potentially gaining deeper satisfaction in the end. Presumably, the same would apply to a Canada/USA cross- border drama. It would have been much more intriguing to witness the differences between teased out rather than just being zapped with the obvious from the word go.

  2. I’m afraid the northern border would simply have made the new series, The Bridge, even more similar to its European counterpart. I have a number of complaints about the new show, but it has done a good job of highlighting the hybridity of the southern border. The obvious differences enable a slow reveal of how the characters and their lives are similar despite those obvious differences, not just because they’re all human beings, but because they are part of the same community.

    The southern border isn’t as different from the northern one as many Canadians and others often assume. It’s not always easy to tell Mexicans from Americans; contrary to the stereotype, many Americans are brown skinned and speak Spanish as their first language. It’s also not that unusual for people in the border towns to work on one side of the border and go home to the other in the evening. Families often contain members with different passports. The Bridge does a good job of portraying all that and high time too.

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