Sin and Grace in Broadchurch

SPOILER WARNING:  This post reveals the identity of Danny Latimer’s killer and the conclusion to the first season.


“That’s nothing to do with this.”

As Broadchurch’s investigation into Danny Latimer’s death evolves and expands to include new suspects this line recurs.  “That’s nothing to do with this,” is how the townspeople respond when detectives force them to explain their histories, the mistakes they would rather forget, and the invisible tragedies that render each person opaque and threatening.  Most often the characters are correct:  their pasts have no bearing on Danny’s death.  Yet their secret lives are not simply red herrings that stretch the story line into another episode. Rather, they have to do with something more central to the series than Danny’s death: the mystery we are as human beings.

That theme is most evident when Ellie, drowning in the aftermath of her husband’s confession, pushes Hardy to explain Joe.

Ellie:  “So what does that make him?”

Hardy:  “Why do you need a category?”

Ellie:  “I need to understand.”

Hardy offers various ways of thinking about Joe’s motivations, but concludes:

“I mean, I don’t have these answers, I don’t.  People are unknowable.  And . . . you can never really know what goes on inside someone else’s heart” (Episode 8).

“Unknowability” runs throughout the series.  The investigation exposes the lie in this English village’s assumption that everyone knows each other.  Through stories that unravel and intertwine, the investigation proceeds not only into a child’s death but into who people really are.  There is a religious element here—the depths of sin, brokenness, and tragedy are personal and communal.  As we walk with Hardy towards Danny’s cell phone, the pace of action becomes deliberate and inevitable.  The murderer makes no desperate bid for freedom.  Joe is “sick of hiding”:  he wants to be known, even as someone who has committed a terrible crime.  When Hardy presses him for details about his relationship with Danny, Joe cries out, “If I can’t understand it, why should you?” (Episode 8).  We are not only unknowable to others but also to ourselves.

Later, when Joe’s confession is about to be made public, Hardy warns the other officers that the news “is going to run a crack through this community.”  The crack, of course, was already there—unknown because unacknowledged.  Ellie foreshadows Beth’s question when she asks Susan, “How could you not know?”  Yet Broadchurch doesn’t just leave us with that fearsome crack.  Without turning religion into a bromide, the series also points to grace’s unknowable path through brokenness.  If the people of Broadchurch are unknowable in sin, then they are also rendered mysterious by their potential for grace.

Beth GriefThe scenes of grief in Broadchurch are brutal, and DI Hardy, played by David Tennant, carries in his body the effects of investigating the origins of grief.  Broken by a prior case in which a murderer of children went free, Hardy is barely human at the series’ beginning, telling Ellie to turn off her shock at Danny’s death and unable to even conceive of using her first name.  It is testament to Tennant’s talent that he sheds his popularity as an actor in order to craft a deeply alienating character in the first episodes.  It is also a mark of the narrative’s depths, however, that we first warm to Hardy through his interactions with Joe at dinner in episode four:  the murderer whose true motivations are unknowable breathes life into Hardy’s humanity.

By the series’ conclusion, Hardy’s humanity shows signs of resurrection.  It is as though a heart pulverized by personal tragedy has begun to beat once again.  The arrhythmia that threatens his life fades into the background; whether he eventually succumbs to it or not, Hardy is alive.  The successful conclusion to the case seems too shallow a reason for his change, and maybe Hardy’s own mixed relationship with faith is at play.  While he makes an ambiguous claim to being religious in episode four, in the final episode Hardy recalls his mother’s last words to him:  “God will put you in the right place.  Even if you don’t know it at the time.”  After years in professional and personal darkness, perhaps Hardy has discovered a reason for his hope.

The religious anchor of the series is Paul, a young Anglican vicar, posted to a church that stands empty and apart from the village, who attempts to establish a presence within the broader community.  Played by Arthur Darvill, the vicar has an amazing capacity for honesty, even though he is not forthcoming about his own struggle with addiction. Paul tells the truth without destroying relationships. When a local man, oblivious to the emotional toll on the community, complains of the death’s economic effects on tourism, he justifies himself by saying, “I’m just calling it as I see it.” Paul replies, “No, actually you’re being inappropriate.  Tone it down.”  The innkeeper, Becca, whose bar plays host to the conversation, tells the man to pull himself together and to grieve with respect, whereupon he looks to Paul—hoping again to justify himself.  Paul answers immediately and measuredly, “She’s so right, it’s embarrassing” (Episode 2).

Paul is one of the few characters whose truth telling does not threaten the Paul and Bethcommunity but rather builds it up. He struggles to meet the grief of the town, and to be present to the Latimers as they both reject and demand answers from God.  Ministry ought to be easier with a script, but we see Paul wrestling with words that both comfort and rouse. He acts as the community conscience, a voice that points out compellingly where the community has failed and that offers a faithful word in the midst of confusion and alienation.  When Paul comes under suspicion, Hardy interrogates him, and accuses the church of using tragedy in order to be relevant to people’s lives.  Paul responds that the detectives leave people with suspicion alone, rather than with hope (Episode Six).

As the revelation of sins both dreadful and quotidian wrench the community apart, gatherings at the church become occasions for communal re-evaluation in light of the gospel.  At Danny Latimer’s funeral, Paul quotes Ephesians 4 while admitting his own authentic doubt:

“The Bible says:   ‘Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgive one another as God in Christ forgave you.’  After what we’ve been though?  I don’t know.  But we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our God to try” (Episode 8).

Paul tries.  In the series’ final scene, the bonfires on the cliff where Danny died and the beach where his body was found do not shine alone, but are joined by other lights along the coast.  When Becca asks Paul, “How did everyone know?  Was this you?” he replies:

 “I passed the word.

Maybe the word was good” (Episode 8).

As deep as our capacity for sin may be, the “good word” is that we also have an unknown capacity for grace that can be realized through compassion.  We can love and forgive in ways that are hard won and must be chosen.  The bonfires are reminiscent of Easter Vigil fires, when the light of Christ and dawning of the resurrection illuminate the world anew.  There is still darkness, but the light shines; even if we cannot fully comprehend it, neither can the darkness.