Devastating seems to be the key word for describing the BBC-America show Broadchurch to the uninitiated. When I was contemplating watching it, three separate acquaintances of mine each used that word — to wit, “That show is devastating. So good! But so devastating.” Part of their aim was to give fair warning that this isn’t one of those shows where you snuggle up and watch Maggie Smith or Benedict Cumberbatch deliver charmingly spiky one-liners. But there was something else behind the warning, something that hinted at the hard-won beauty just beyond the devastation.If there’s another TV mystery whose final reveal of the truth lands with the same crushing impact as this one, then I will readily eat the hat of your choice.
As with most small-town murder mysteries, Broadchurch is primarily about community. Set in a fictional English seaside town, the show’s eight episodes center around the murder of 11-year-old Danny Latimer and the unraveling effect it has on the residents’ assumptions about themselves and their town. Knowing and trusting all of one’s neighbors loses its appeal once one of them kills a child, even more so when one doesn’t know which of them did it. And the police investigation does little to narrow down the list of suspects. As it turns out, just about everyone in Broadchurch has secrets they want to keep hidden — and the more the investigation digs through their garbage for clues about Danny’s murder, the more fissures in the community’s idyllic facade are revealed. These small-town dynamics are utterly engrossing, if rather commonplace for the genre.
Broadchurch’s real hook, though — the thing that makes you lean forward and prods the part of your brain that senses impending devastation — is the portrayal of the two detectives in charge of the investigation. Detectives Alec Hardy (Doctor Who’s David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) could hardly be more different from each other, not just in their personalities but in their perspectives on the case itself. Hardy is an outsider to the community, unfamiliar with Broadchurch’s social webs and unburdened by presuppositions about who is incapable of murder. Miller is a Broadchurch native, a close friend of the Latimer family with a strong sense of the community’s fragility in the face of such a horrible crime. Hardy pursues the truth at all costs, while Miller is keenly attuned to the cost of the truth.
They are perfect foils for each other, in a way that informs not only the story but also the way that you watch it. As a consumer of mystery fiction, you have at least a little bit of Hardy in you. You watch not only to imaginatively inhabit the story’s drama but also to see a puzzle solved. You want the truth. A mystery story that doesn’t answer the question of whodunit? is one of the most unsatisfying stories of all. But Broadchurch also tempers Hardy’s hard-boiled attitude with Miller’s tenderheartedness; you cannot fully forget that their investigation concerns more than the abstract concepts of evil, truth, and justice. “Do you understand what it will do to this town if it was him?” Miller demands after Hardy arrests a suspect. The show holds their perspectives in tension with each other, and it holds the audience in tension along with them.
The tension cannot hold indefinitely, though, and Miller’s willingness to believe the best of her fellow townsfolk slowly erodes over the course of the series. “I hate what I’m becoming: hardened,” she grouses as she begins to adopt Hardy’s trust-no-one approach. Olivia Colman is wonderful here; she plays Miller’s growing flintiness as a process that she is fully aware of yet helpless to halt. In a television show that is already sensitive to loss, Miller’s loss of reflexive trust in her neighbors’ goodness counts as one of the most saddening casualties of the investigation.
It’s hard to fault her. The closer she and Hardy get to the truth of the case, the more apparent it becomes that a mere arrest will not suffice to salve the wounds that the investigation has opened. What recourse is there, other than to toughen your skin and expect the worst? And Broadchurch is a show that makes good on its threats — if there’s another TV mystery whose final reveal of the truth lands with the same crushing impact as this one, then I will readily eat the hat of your choice.
This is how Broadchurch gets you. It does what most good mystery stories do: the questions are answered, the truth is revealed, the puzzle is solved. Then it steps away from the victory to observe the sundered relationships and betrayed trust that constitute the mystery’s fallout. Broadchurch gives us what we want, then says, “There. Are you happy now?” No — no, we aren’t happy. Or at least I wasn’t.
As I watched the show, an out-of-context line from David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest kept occurring to me: “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” I remembered it not because it applied all that closely to the characters’ situation but because it applied to me. I wanted to know what happened so badly that I had to resist the impulse to binge-watch all eight episodes in a couple of sittings. But the show’s writers were not going to let me off easily. If I wanted to know the truth about who killed Danny Latimer, I had to first reckon with the cost. The cost for me — just as it was for Broadchurch’s characters — was devastation.
I don’t wish to give the impression that Broadchurch is all bleakness and desolation. The show’s characters are sharply (and often humorously) drawn, and the writers close the first season on a note of hope. And the truth does, after all, set us free: a precept that we as Christians accept as a given. The unsparing portrait of tragedy that we see in this small town serves only to remind us that the truth, while necessary, is often harsh.
In any case, there’s something to be said for making yourself vulnerable to a piece of art and letting it wound you. The pain you feel is acute and exquisite, pure in a way that’s similar to experiencing intense remorse or a first heartbreak. In a strange way, it’s elevating — the pain lets you know that you are alive and not callous to the sharp edges of the world’s joys and sorrows. This is something to be thankful for. Broadchurch may very well devastate you, reader. Let it.