The MVP: Lily Gladstone Anchors the Quiet Devastation of Under the Bridge

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The MVP: Lily Gladstone Anchors the Quiet Devastation of Under the Bridge

Editor’s Note: Welcome to The MVP, a column where we celebrate the best performances TV has to offer. Whether it be through heart-wrenching outbursts, powerful looks, or perfectly-timed comedy, TV’s most memorable moments are made by the medium’s greatest players—top-billed or otherwise. Join us as we dive deep on our favorite TV performances, past and present: 

[Spoiler Warning: Contains spoilers for Episode 3 of Under the Bridge.]

There’s a surprising amount of pressure attached to kicking off a column. With no past entries to be concerned with, the options are endless… but who is truly worthy of that coveted first spot? I could have easily pulled from my Rolodex of favorite TV performances of the past (and trust me, you’ll hear about those soon enough), but with so much great TV on at the moment, I wanted to highlight some of the incredible work currently being done on the small screen right now. So after rewatching the first three episodes of Hulu’s fantastic new true crime series Under the Bridge, I knew that there was only one person who could act as our inaugural entry: Academy Award nominee Lily Gladstone as fictional police officer Cam Bentland. 

Under the Bridge, which is based on the nonfiction novel of the same name, follows author Rebecca Godfrey (Riley Keough) as she gets swept up in the investigation of the murder of teenager Reena Virk (Vritika Gupta). Over the course of the series, we watch as Rebecca effectively reworks the novel she was originally writing about the lives of teenage girls in her Canadian hometown into the devastating true story of Reena’s life, how it ended, and who is responsible. As she gets pulled further into the lives of these wayward girls and the systems that failed them, she comes face to face with officer Cam, whom she hasn’t seen in more than a decade and shares a very loaded history with. Adopted into a white police family as a child and cut off from her ancestral ties, Cam becomes Reena’s champion as she investigates her murder, doing everything she can to bring her justice. 

Gladstone, in their first project following their Oscar-nominated performance in Killers of the Flower Moon, is truly a revelation here. She brings a quiet anger and slight awkwardness to the role, delivering a Cam that feels just as out-of-place and uncomfortable in her skin in this mostly white town as Reena was prior to her death. It’s that strong connection that makes this case so personal for Cam, who herself was removed entirely from her Native heritage when her father adopted her; she understands Reena’s struggle to be a non-white kid on an island that would rather turn a blind eye to their racist biases than confront them head-on, and that deep cognizance is only highlighted by Gladstone’s signature open-hearted performance. 

In the very first episode, Cam convinces the entire Saanich police department that the then-missing Reena has been murdered. They round up every teenager who was involved in the party under the bridge that night and question them all, fully believing that teenage hijinks have devolved into murder. But, at the very end of the episode, security footage from the night of the alleged murder shows something none of the officers expected to see: there, on that grainy tube TV, is Reena, alive. She stumbles out from under the bridge and just… walks away.

The shocking scene is soundtracked almost in its entirety by Nirvana’s “Something In the Way,” which, truthfully, was a risky move. Some of the most prominent lyrics in the song are Kurt Cobain’s haunting voice crooning “underneath the bridge,” and for a series that greatly overuses its title in the dialogue of these first two episodes alone (I literally wrote in my notes, “take a shot every time they say ‘under the bridge’”), the needledrop could have easily been eye-roll worthy. But instead, as Reena’s grainy form emerges from beneath the bridge (Cobain once again singing “underneath the bridge”), it’s the cut to Gladstone that gives the entire scene an unshakable gravity. Standing there in the center of the frame with tears in her eyes, the camera slowly brings us closer and closer for Cam’s final line of the episode: “It can’t be.” 

under the bridge

A number of emotions cross Gladstone’s face all at once, from confusion to disbelief to relief; and even as we watch Reena stumble into the darkness in the episode’s final moments, it’s Cam’s expression that remains the most haunting visage of this cliffhanger ending. Two very different reactions flash across Cam’s face: one of genuine worry for Reena (if she just walked off into the night, then where is she now?), but also one of concern for her career. There’s a brief moment in the hazy glow of the TV screen where Cam believes that she made the wrong call; she trusted her gut that these kids were responsible for a murder and it led her astray, and now she’ll have to deal with the consequences. And it’s that depth, that constant war of empathy and logic (pointedly, her nature as an outsider in this town or her nurture as just another officer in this police family) battling it out within Cam’s head, that is so clear on Gladstone’s face in this scene, setting the stage for her arc throughout the rest of this miniseries. 

There’s a paradoxical confidence to Cam, one that stands starkly against the almost-painfully awkward way she moves through her interactions with Rebecca, particularly in Episode 3. She’s wearing a slouchy sweater, one that Rebecca insists she looks good in, but there’s a different set to her shoulders with it on. Gladstone shrinks outside of the uniform, becoming less statuesque and instead carrying a marked softness. Her dance sequence with Rebecca is made all the more charming by that slight reluctance, joining her on the dance floor with a bit of a shy smile and one hand squarely in the pocket of her jeans. Gladstone brings a type of lesbian yearning and skittishness to Cam similar to their performance in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, but even further electrified by the chemistry that they share with Keough. 

And the next day, after their hookup at the bar, that confidence is back as Cam slightly skirts Rebecca’s offer to get dinner and have her “come over afterwards” instead. It’s that dynamic shifting that’s so compelling from this character, and it’s only elevated by Gladstone’s fluidity as a performer. Cam’s assured in the version of herself that she has crafted over the years (assimilating into her white family, joining the police force, adjusting to life post-Rebecca and Gabe), but once she’s confronted with this case, the identity she created for herself and the identity she was robbed of begin to war against one another. It’s her confronting this paradox within herself that ultimately allows her to have an outsized amount of empathy for Reena. Just from these three opening episodes alone, Gladstone sets the stage for Cam’s complicated character arc to unfold across the series’ remaining five episodes, and their performance delivers in every scene. 

It’s always a pleasure to watch wonderful acting showcases in an already compelling and well-done series, but seeing Gladstone breathe so much life into Cam demonstrates part of what makes TV worth watching in the first place. Alongside Gupta, Keough, Izzy G., Chloe Guidry, Javon Walton, Aiyana Goodfellow, Archie Panjabi, and the rest of the ensemble cast that makes this series stand out from an overcrowded genre, Gladstone brings their very best to this role and goes a long way to make Under the Bridge appointment viewing every single week.

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Anna Govert is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and her unshakable love of complicated female villains, you can follow her @annagovert.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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