[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]
Broadchurch is a small town murder mystery, but while that description may convince some that they’ve seen it all before, those who venture fully into this layered and heart-breaking story about the death of a young boy will be rewarded with a shocking conclusion and what may be the best contribution to the sub-genre since Twin Peaks.
So, what is it about Broadchurch that allows it to rise above many of its predecessors? It’s the town itself. Not it’s natural beauty – though there is something to be said for the contrast between the majestic cliffs of the Jurassic Coast and the ghastly crime that takes place on its shores – but rather, the people that populate Broadchurch.
We feel their pain as the Latimer family deals with the death of their 11-year-old, Danny. The mother, Beth (Jodie Whittaker), is the first to know, losing control as she spots a familiar pair of sneakers peaking out from underneath the coroners cloth that covers her son’s body on the beach. The boy’s father, Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan) is stoic for his wife and daughter when talking to the police, but in the morgue, he is a gentle quiver as he talks to Danny one last time, telling him, “I love you zillions, superstar” before racing his sadness out of the room.
It’s such an intimate moment – well-scripted and impeccably delivered. We can’t imagine that Mark could ever be a suspect or an adulterer, but then, when he is and we find out that he has been lying about his alibi, you can’t imagine that Danny’s killer could be anyone else. This is a dance repeated over and over again (perhaps too often… small towns have secrets, but not this many) with the vicar (an underused Arthur Darvill), Mark’s friend Nigel (Joe Sims), the owner of the local newspaper stand Jack Marshall (David Bradley), and others throughout the 8-episode run, as the search for the killer begins to make paranoid detectives out of all of us.
All of a sudden, we’re re-watching episodes to look for clues and validate theories, talking incessantly about the show. Among the viewers from the UK who watched this series in droves when it premiered on ITV in March and the cult fans that have risen up since the series began to air on BBC America in August, “Who killed Danny?” has become the new “Who shot J.R.?” and “Who killed Laura Palmer?”.
Broadchurch is more than a series of moments leading up to a revelation, though. Writer/director Chris Chibnall is trying to talk about the media’s penchant for exploitation, the nature of suspicion, and all the secrets that live just under the surface. These themes are dotted all throughout the series, but in Jack Marshall, Chibnall has the perfect delivery system.
Like the other characters that find themselves in the cross-hairs during Broadchurch, there’s something about Marshall that brings out our cynicism. Why else would a lonely old man spend his time with the boys of the sea brigade? “Surely, he’s the killer” we think, but when we find out the truth, it’s gut wrenching: this is a sad old man painted evil by the press.
In episode five, Jack takes his life, more out of embarrassment than fear after he suffers the indignity of becoming a media chew toy; his tragic family secrets splashed on the front pages of the papers that he sells. Shame on the townsfolk, shame on the police, and shame on the media. But shame on us?
It’s a bit manipulative to push us to question ourselves over the easy way that we buy into Marshall’s guilt, but it gets the job done. As Broadchurch settles in for the home stretch after that episode, we more easily recognize that the public’s hunger for a name has grown dangerous and that lead investigator Alec Hardy’s somewhat selfish push to close the case quickly is not entirely admirable and a little reckless.
David Tennant is DI Alec Hardy and he is in-arguably the most recognizable face on the show thanks to his term as the Doctor on Doctor Who, but the two roles couldn’t be less similar. Gone is the lightness and the vibrancy. Hardy is dreary, spent, and he trusts no one in town. Hardy isn’t from Broadchurch. To the residents, it is a tranquil postcard that suddenly has a splash of blood on it, but Hardy is a visitor paying penance in purgatory for the last murder case that he worked in Sandbrook – one that was undone by recklessness under his watch. That failure and the guilt from it almost kill Hardy – who is hiding a heart problem – but he refuses to quit, even after numerous hospital trips during the Latimer case.
This is why DI Hardy needs to close the case quickly: he’s racing against his supervisor’s attempts to park him, but is he motivated by his guilt or by his belief that he’s the only one that can solve the case?
Hardy’s chief lieutenant, DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) isn’t a bad cop, she’s just a trusting one. Ellie is from Broadchurch, and she is diametrically opposed to DI Hardy (who got the job that was hers). She’s a part of this tragedy, not impartially probing it. Her son, Tom, was friends with Danny, she’s friends with Mark and Beth.
These cases change people, though, and as the weeks crawl, the case steals away her light and hope. She’s becoming more like Hardy, and we start to wonder what he was like before the Sandbrook case took its toll.
The final reveal is a surprise that rocks Ellie’s world. For a character so seemingly devoid of compassion, DI Hardy shows an ample bit as he follows the breadcrumbs to their end, keeping Ellie in the dark until his suspicions are confirmed. There is no satisfaction at the end of the case, just a human moment between Alec and Ellie as he clues her in.
“How could you not know?” is a phrase that will surely figure into season 2, whenever and however it occurs. It’s what Beth asks Ellie after the killer’s identity is revealed, and it’s what Ellie asked Susan Wright (a one-time suspect and star of her own sub-plot with Nigel) the day prior.
If Ellie is the focus, then it will be very interesting to see her evolution. How can she possibly police a city that knows that she slept with a murderer under her roof? David Tennant’s involvement in the next series is not yet confirmed, but if he does return, one imagines that he’ll re-train his focus on the Sandbrook case now that local reporters Oliver and Maggie have broken the story about what really happened there.
Regardless of who returns and who doesn’t, the challenge will be to find a way to continue this story while most likely staying away from the “murder in a small town” trope. There is plenty of ugliness left to uncover in this pretty town, but for a second series to succeed, Chris Chibnall can’t try to recreate or top a brilliant first season that may be un-toppable.
Broadchurch season 1 is currently available on VOD.