It’s not as if Broadchurch hasn’t, albeit in extremely subtle ways, let us know what was coming over the past eight weeks. It was all there: “Anyone is capable of murder.” “We never really know anyone.” Secret pasts of the town’s seemingly innocuous residents included child brides, addiction, lost children, unfaithful spouses. Maybe viewers started to doubt the people around them, or even themselves. At any rate, they became irrevocably drawn and captivated by the small town of Broadchurch, which boasted some of the finest performances and production values (mood painting by set design and seaside backdrops, with a dreamy soundtrack) shown on TV all summer.
But now summer is over, and Danny Latimer’s killer has been revealed. Thanks to some intriguing parallels and disturbing facts that didn’t add up, sharp-eyed viewers had it pretty much narrowed down at the end of episode seven. When D.I. Hardy asks D.S. Ellie Martin why she didn’t tell him about the falling out between Danny and her son Tom, she says she didn’t know. The audience knows Ellie enough now to know that she would never lie. But Pastor Paul said that he informed the “parents” of the split, so he must have told Joe, Ellie’s husband. Who didn’t tell her. Again, could have been just an oversight (remember Ellie’s crushed face when she discovered that Joe had lied about taking Tom paintballing without telling her), but in Broadchurch, no falsehood or omission goes unnoticed. (Another clue: While innocent Broadchurch residents like Tom, Mark, and Paul were wide awake at 2 a.m. at the end of the episode, Joe, the guilty party, slept peacefully.)
Another path to Joe’s guilt could be found in the focal point of episode seven, the horrific story of Susan Wright’s family. She was married to a man who raped their eldest daughter for years, and when the daughter tried to stop him from going after her younger sister, he killed her. (Susan can’t even admit this part, and says, “She got herself killed.”) During questioning, she pleads to Ellie that she didn’t know what was going on in her house. As a detective, and as a mother, Ellie cannot abide this fact: “That man in your house, how could you not know?” Which makes it all the more devastating for Ellie when she discovers she’s been sleeping next to the culprit she’s been searching for all along.
Even though Hardy figures out Joe’s guilt thanks to emails and messages on Danny’s phone, Joe (frustratingly) pretty much turns himself in. He uses Danny’s other phone to call the detectives at the end of episode six, and in this episode just lets himself be traced as he turns Danny’s mobile on. The somnambulatory march of Hardy toward the guilty party is a prime example of the kind of mood setup this series does so very well: the music, the point-of-view camerawork from behind him, the parade of suspects he walks past, even Tom watching TV in the living room, leading to Joe clutching the phone in the shed. Then in a flashback to 59 days prior we see that Joe was “in love” with 11-year-old Danny, started meeting him in secret after he cleaned Danny up after his father hit him, and gave him the second phone and the £500. Joe kills him in a moment of rage (ironically just after talking Danny down off the cliffs, so we see that he didn’t really want him to die?) after Danny threatens to go tell everyone what they’ve been up to. Again, in a small town like Broadchurch, the reveal of such a secret would be life-altering, and the life that Joe knew would be over. And again, the camerawork is exemplary in this flashback, with frantic cuts that depict how the situation got so out of control so quickly.
At this point in Broadchurch, as all the characters were so intrinsically tied together, I don’t honestly know what would have made for a satisfactory ending. Sure, there had to be red herrings (the fight with the postman?), but some did actually lead, if not to the case directly, to elements of the case (Sandbrooke, the truth about Nigel, the sad fate of Jack the newsagent). And savvy viewers at least had a few elements to work with over the past few weeks to build a case for Joe being the culprit. But it’s just so devastating. Not that Olivia Colman ever falters in her impossible role as the deceived detective; the scene where she faces her murderous husband for the first time shows just how strong an actress she is. Then she and her two sons get shuffled off to a hotel room where they have to eat chips and watch the telly. At least at the end she’s reunited with her junkie sister, so, yay? It’s a depressing ending for a character we’re so invested in.
The saving grace here and throughout Broadchurch is the relationship between Hardy and Miller. Was there any single word that had more gravity in this series than when Hardy, realizing he has to tell her the truth about her husband, calls her “Ellie”? At the end, he’s about the only person she can talk to, to explain it to her, to help her figure out what her life in going to be like now. The progression of this relationship from entertaining bickering to true partnership has been one of the hallmarks of Broadchurch. Another reason to love this show: How many other series would have Ellie spout something like, “I couldn’t believe Susan Wright last week, but now I’m as bad as her!” or some similar rot. Broadchurch demands so much from itself and its audience that nothing is spelled out in such a simplistic manner.
The town scenes have usually been another series highlight, but the season ending, with the ceremonial bonfire, rings false. As a young boy has died, there was never going to be a happy ending here, and although I get the support the lit-up countryside is supposed to signify, it doesn’t really resonate. The final image I will keep is Hardy and Miller on an oceanside bench in the dark, forming the “former detectives club.”
Nevertheless, I hold this series in highest regard for all the reasons mentioned above. It was cinema-worthy television (moody cinema, but still) every week. No idea what the second season has in store for us, but given creator Chris Chibnall’s experience with this one, I’ll tune in. (I’m less enthused about Fox’s U.S. Broadchurch remake, however.)
Most watch television shows for entertainment and escapism, and enjoy them and then turn them off. But programs like this show, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and others mentioned in Todd VanDerWerff’s new essay about the current golden age of television, seem to seep into our psyche. The prevalence of Broadchurch’s blues and grays could color outside our viewing world as well. I spent more time pondering this show (and not just murder suspects, but parallel plotlines and repeated histories) than any other this year. And I even found myself checking on my kids more often after the awful fate of Danny Latimer.
- Joe’s “Don’t lie to me, Tom,” at the beginning of the episode is a bit rich coming from him, don’t you think?
- And it still seems like Tom knows more than he’s telling.
- What are we to make of Hardy’s previous visit to Broadchurch as a child? I believe it was to irrevocably tie him to the town as well. Love the scene on the beach when he describes how the Broadchurch sand was a solace for him as his parents fought. I think only the phone call interrupted him from telling Miller the truth right then, but how worried she looked when he called out, “You’ve done your work here Miller, well done.”
- What was the point of Psychic Steve? He was correct about items related to the Sandbrooke and Broadchurch cases, so is that proof of Danny’s existence from beyond? Moreso than the faith that Pastor Paul has? He’s the only nonlogical character in a cast that seems stemmed from reality otherwise. And did anyone else find Danny’s “appearance” at the bonfire a tad cheesy?
- Broadchurch was my first weekly gig here at TV Club, and I’m grateful to those who went on this journey with me; thanks for reading. Remember Nige and his crossbow, Pete the family liaison police officer, and Hardy trying to seduce Becca in his hotel room? Good times!
Episode grade: B+
Season grade: A-