‘Under the Bridge’ EPs Unpack the Finale and Critique the True Crime Genre: ‘We Did Not Want to Make Copaganda’

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for “Mercy Alone,” the series finale of “Under the Bridge.”

“Under the Bridge” doesn’t have “a traditional ending,” says showrunner Samir Mehta.

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After the penultimate episode of the true crime limited series saw Warren Glowatski (Javon Walton) sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in the 1997 murder of Reena Virk (Vritika Gupta), in the finale, the white, wealthy Kelly Ellard (Izzy G) received only a five-year sentence despite having been the ringleader.

“Justice wasn’t really served in real life, so it couldn’t ever be that type of story where you get to the finale and the bad people go away,” Mehta says. Instead, the episode focuses more on the characters “finding their best shot at peace and finding a little bit of grace in their suffering. Exhibiting a bit of mercy isn’t ever going to make the horror go away, but might allow movement towards a better place.”

Before Kelly’s trial, Reena’s mother Suman (Archie Panjabi) visits Warren in prison to begin making amends, saying it’s “the only way out” of her suffering. “Suman’s radical forgiveness of Warren needed to be the centerpiece of the episode,” says series creator Quinn Shephard. “It became about stopping cycles of violence through things that really happened. We knew what they said in court. We knew what Suman did. Now, how do we make it mean something?”

“Under the Bridge” is based on the book of the same name by Rebecca Godfrey, who is played in the series by Riley Keough. Rebecca’s process of writing about the murder and her interactions with a fictionalized Native police officer named Cam (Lily Gladstone) frame the series, helping it contend with its own place in the true crime genre. As Cam says about Rebecca’s book, “Bad for the world is good for you.”

Mehta and Shephard spoke with Variety about the archival research and creative liberties that went into “Under the Bridge” and their attempts to make a true crime series that critiques that justice system and avoids sensationalism.

How much of the scene where Suman forgives Warren is true to life?

Samir Mehta: In Canada, they do this thing called a victim impact statement where they have the victims of a crime, or next of kin, write in the immediate aftermath how it’s making them feel. It was just devastating to read Suman Virk’s, where she just talks about how it felt in the weeks and months after losing Reena, so a lot of Suman telling Warren what she’s going through came from that.

Quinn Shephard: Then statements are something they give to the perpetrators. That was something she wrote that would then be given to Warren, so we put that on screen.

Mehta: Yeah. It was distilling the themes into a scene, because we consolidated time quite a bit for the sake of storytelling. It was a way to take the real forgiveness of Warren — which came a little bit later, in reality, with Suman and Manjit entering a program of restorative justice with Warren and ultimately speaking on his behalf at his parole hearing — taking the feeling of that, and bringing it into the dramatic context of this episode.

Warren’s and Kelly’s dialogue does a lot to differentiate their respective relationships to their crime. How did you approach writing their lines?

Shephard: Warren and Kelly’s testimonies in the final two episodes are almost word-for-word adapted from a combination of their police interrogations, their court transcripts and Warren’s interviews with Rebecca. We definitely wanted to be very accurate about what responsibility they took and when they took it, or what responsibility they did not take at all, in the case of Kelly. Kelly’s voice was so defined by this flippant absurdity and unpredictability in everything we had about her. We identified this level of impulsive childlikeness, but also a lot of darkness and a real attraction to violence that we were trying to incorporate into her dialogue.

She just said or did whatever came to mind. If she wanted to do a British accent in court, she was gonna.

Mehta: Warren’s tricky, because there’s a lot of a divided opinion on him in real life. We wanted to entertain the possibility that there’s the sweet kid that Rebecca sees, and then there’s the killer that a lot of other people see. You just want to give him a hug, but is this actually just a really charming manipulator? Is it even possible to tell the difference?

You mentioned Warren’s ongoing relationship with the Virks after his trial. How did knowing these characters’ future affect your writing of everything that happened in the past?

Mehta: The fact that Kelly never really expressed remorse is the reason she’s portrayed how she is throughout the whole show. There’s a reason that Warren has more dimension, and it’s because he ultimately displayed more dimension, whereas Kelly held pretty firm to the denial of it.

Shephard: Some characters in the show were almost entirely based on where we knew they landed, if we didn’t know what happened in the middle. The main girl Dusty is based on did this interview with Dateline where she says the quote we have in the ending: “We were monsters. We should have gotten more time.”

When we were writing, we knew she was friends with Reena and that she was involved, and we knew that she had this profound regret and spoke openly about wishing she could have gone back and stopped it. That’s the character. We were almost using the endpoint as the as the journey so we could see her grappling with that regret on screen.

What about Kelly, who finally admitted to wrongdoing in 2016?

Shephard: Because of the context that she was trying to get day parole, it feels a little late to be believed as a change of heart. I’m not inside Kelly Ellard’s head, nor do I pretend to be, but I think that she demonstrated the least remorse of any of the teens and was the most culpable.

Rebecca says says she thinks she connected with Warren because he reminded her of herself. You worked with the real Rebecca Godfrey until her death in 2022. What was it like to develop that thread with her?

Shephard: The development of the show, and sitting with me for so many hours talking about why she might have connected with certain people, was her own journey. When she shared with me why she might have seen herself in Warren, I knew that was where her character was going to end. Rebecca was terminally ill for the entire time that I knew her. This was something of an end-of-life process, and telling this story was the most defining journey of her life in certain ways — she worked on this case for seven years.

So she was quite open with me about the emotional processing she did. It’s quite intimate to go on that path with somebody in real time, with the understanding that she was allowing me to put that on television. It was very generous.

Mehta: It might have taken her 25, 30 years to come to some of this self-actualization, perhaps by virtue of the fact that it was towards the end of her life, and we took that arc and put into the show. TV Rebecca is only 27 or 28, but she’s going through a bit of a retrospective. It might have taken longer in real time, but she’s getting there in the world of our show.

Since Cam was a fictionalized police officer, what drove you to write the scene where she discovers she was taken from her birth family rather than being put up for adoption, which later leads her to quit the force?

Shephard: So many details about Cam were born out of the desire to criticize the justice system. We really did not want to make copaganda, and wanted, in fact, to have a character whose arc was realizing that she the community she was raised in is complicit in violence. And from my perspective, I think Americans glamorize Canadian history. There’s this sense of, “When things get really bad in America, we’ll go to Canada” — a perceived innocence. The Sixties Scoop is such a good example of something that there’s not a tremendous amount of education around in the U.S., but is a defining part of Canadian history and of oppression at the hands of the police. So having a character who doesn’t have that education about herself, who grew up in the foster system and was raised in a police family to believe that she was one of the good guys, only to realize that she’s been wearing the uniform of her oppressor, was a broader commentary on Canadian culture, on systemic racism, on the justice system, on so many of topics that are inherent to [Reena’s murder].

Speaking about Rebecca’s book, Cam says, “Bad for the world is good for you.” What does that line mean to you?

Mehta: That was us being critical of true crime and critical of ourselves. True crime is a strange genre. The two of us are not quite sure, even as we make it, what the appeal is. You want to make sure you’re not exploiting tragedy, so we did our best to make the most mature version of true crime to honor the fact that there is, for some reason, a desire to consume these stories. That’s an agreement we’re making with the audience: If you want it, we’re willing to give it to you, but we’re going to attempt to do it in a way that is respectful. To do it at all comes with a cost. You are doing something that might be bad for the world; we’re not really sure. But we felt that at least admitting that was important, and making it part of the fabric of the show communicates to our audience that we’re aware of it.

Why does the series end with Reena’s parents listening to her favorite Notorious B.I.G. CD?

Mehta: We always wanted to end with Reena in some way. The sensationalism of the crime and the killers is somewhat distracting from the real pain of this family, so that really had to be the end moment for us, and it ties back to the moment with Suman and Raj [Reena’s uncle, played by Anoop Desai], who is a bit more connected to Reena and says, “You never really listened to her.”

What’s so sad about it is only after death does Suman realize — our character, at least — “Maybe I should have tried a little bit harder. I don’t have to be a different person, but it might have been okay if I just opened my heart to see where my daughter was coming from.” It’s pointed and I think that she finds the CD hidden under the bed. This is something Reena was afraid to admit she had in the house. In that moment, Suman is like, “My daughter was hiding her true self from me. Let me attempt to get to know that person, to the extent I can.” Maybe it’s not too late to make that journey internally, even though it’s too late to ever share that with her.

What’s on your mind as you walk away from this project?

Shephard: I would really encourage audiences to not try to find the real-life people whose names have been changed for the purposes of protecting their privacy, and to be really conscious of what you say on the internet about real people who have died. This is a story about very human characters who made a lot of mistakes of varying degrees, and the victim-blaming I’ve seen on the internet has been a little shocking. Be conscious of the fact that this is true, and as sensitive as possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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