Beyond the Booth: How ‘Broadchurch’ Makes Confession Communal
Note: Contains potential spoilers for Broadchurch, Series 1 and 2.
Take one sleepy seaside town in England, add a pinch of intrigue, stir in a brooding Scottish detective and his engaging local sergeant, and you’ve got the makings of Broadchurch, a British crime drama whose first series was, according to its millions of viewers, basically perfect. The show was so successful, in fact, that producers decided to follow up with a second series, despite having positioned both of its main characters, DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), as on the verge of leaving the village. Since airing earlier this year, Broadchurch Series 2 has garnered mixed reviews, with some believing it “met the challenge” as an encore while others questioned whether it even needed to exist. Despite Broadchurch’s emotional rollercoaster, however, the previous series had resolved itself in a reasonably satisfying—albeit tragic—way. If the point of a good murder mystery is to uncover the truth, Series 1 delivered.At its heart, confession—whether of faith or of a lack of faith—is about building community.
So when Series 2 opens by gathering the now familiar residents of Broadchurch in a courtroom to await Joe Miller’s guilty plea in the murder of 11-year-old Danny Latimer, it appears to be nothing more than a perfunctory link to the previous series. Joe will be sentenced, and DI Hardy and DS Ellie Miller will move on to another case, perhaps the niggling Sandbrook murders that hang unsolved over Hardy’s head. But everything changes when Joe unexpectedly enters a plea of “not guilty.” DS Miller’s lip quivers perfectly while her eyes rim with tears. Danny’s father Mark leaps to his feet, enraged, exclaiming, “Be a man, Joe—you know what happened!”, while his heavily pregnant wife looks like she might go into labor right where she sits. The courtroom is left in helpless shock as the truth uncovered in the previous gloriously devastating episodes evaporates.
Instead, Joe’s denial ushers the villagers back into a spiral of doubt, suspicion, and despair. They have no choice but to proceed to trial. If Joe won’t speak the truth about his actions, the State will have to prove it. But when one of the first orders of business is to have Joe’s previous confession thrown out, the defense is freed to put forward alternative theories. They cast doubt on the legitimacy of Joe’s arrest, the evidence itself, and even DI Hardy and DS Miller’s motives. And just as we saw in Series 1, without shared truth, the threads of community quickly begin to unravel.
Despite critics’ mixed reviews, Series 2 leads us to a place beyond the “whodunit” of the typical murder mystery and asks us to explore a more complicated question: What happens to a community when a guilty person refuses to acknowledge his guilt? More than being simply another piece of evidence, Joe’s confession seems to be what is holding Broadchurch together in the face of evil. If they have nothing else, at least they possess the truth about who killed Danny. But without Joe’s confession, the community they’d worked so hard to maintain begins to crumble once again.
Within the Church, the term “confession” has two usages. The first refers to the affirmation of a specific doctrine: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord…” So begins the Apostle’s Creed, one of the oldest and most foundational of Christian confessions. With such statements, we are able to create distinct communities based in a shared reality. Creeds and confessions don’t define reality, though. Instead, they form the bonds and boundaries of communities: If we have nothing else, at least we know the truth about these things.
Christians also use the word “confession” in a more familiar way: We confess our sins. Whether this happens within the confessional booth, an accountability group, or in the dock, when we confess our sins, we speak the truth about our actions. But often we mistake the confession of sin as an individual act. At its heart, confession—whether of faith or of a lack of faith—is about building community.
Evangelicals, who have traditionally emphasized the individual believer’s immediate relationship with God, tend to focus on the personal benefit of confession; “unconfessed sin,” as the thinking goes, will hinder your fellowship with God and strip you of your own sense of personal peace. Consequently, we’re encouraged to bring our sin into the light so that it won’t have a hold on us anymore. We’re also told that such transparency will allow others to be transparent with their own failings.
What we don’t always recognize, however, is that the confession of sin also serves a purpose similar to that of the confession of faith: It creates and maintains the bonds of community. When we confess the creeds, we speak together about the nature of God and his world. When we confess our sins, we align ourselves with a shared reality about what is right and what is wrong. We align ourselves with the truth that the community holds in common.
But when we refuse to confess our sin—when Joe refuses to acknowledge his own guilt even in the face of the most damning evidence—we destroy the bonds of community because we deny the very truth that has bound us together in the first place. And suddenly, we become isolated from each other, with each individual forced to determine the truth for himself or herself. Like the residents of Broadchurch, we begin to recede into our separate spheres: Marriages head to dissolution, neighbors turn on neighbors, and confused children are torn between their father’s version of “the truth” and their mother’s. Without shared truth, community is impossible.
What Broadchurch Series 2 reminds us, then, is that proof of wrongdoing—even, as in this case, evidence—is not enough to maintain the bonds of community. We must confess. Whether it is a husband caught with an Ashley Madison account or a church with a complicated history of racism, we must confess. We must declare the truth not only to ourselves, but also with those around us. No excuses. No defense. Without such a clear-eyed statement of shared reality, there is no hope for reconciliation. The marriage will crumble, the racial divide will never heal, and friends and family will be left to wander in a morass of conflicting realities.
In the end, the residents of Broadchurch understand that there is no way for a community to move forward when one of its members refuses to acknowledge the truth about his actions. If the courts cannot establish a baseline for reality, the community must do that itself. Thankfully, for Christians, our ability to hold the truth in common also means understanding a deeper truth about the nature of forgiveness: Those who confess their sins and forsake them will obtain mercy. This does not mean that sin goes unpunished, but it does mean that through confession and shared truth, the bonds which once held us together can once again be restored.
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