Beth Startin reflects on the ITV drama Broadchurch and finds an important message on abuse that subtly thwarts the conventional assumption that women whose partners have committed terrible crimes should have known what was going on
Content note: contains non-graphic references to child abuse and murder.
I’m not the first to say Broadchurch is great. The high viewing figures and rave reviews, along with it reportedly being the most tweeted about UK drama ever, are testimony to that. It may have finished some time ago but its impact has continued. Beneath the complex plotline and the delicious David Tennant collapsing at every moment is an important message regarding child abuse and society’s attitude towards it. In particular, the series addresses one of the social pressures attached to motherhood and the common misconception that abusers can always be identified by their targets or those close to them.
For those of you who didn’t catch it during its recent run, Broadchurch is an eight-part murder mystery drama, set in the fictional village of the same name, where DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) and DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant) lead an investigation into the murder of Danny Latimer (Oskar McNamara), the best friend of Ellie’s son Tom (Adam Wilson). Danny is found on the beach in episode one and the series investigates various suspects for the murder, dropping clues in typical ‘whodunnit’ fashion while exploring themes of grief, loss and life in a small town where everyone knows your business.
Danny Latimer’s killer turns out, unexpectedly, to be Ellie’s husband, Joe (Matthew Gravelle). This is particularly interesting in the light of Ellie’s attitude towards another case of child abuse. Here, one of the murder suspects, Susan Wright (played very creepily by Pauline Quirk), has moved to the village of Broadchurch in order to escape her past; her husband’s abuse of her child is revealed when she is questioned in relation to Danny’s murder. Ellie shows no sympathy towards Susan’s difficult family life and her struggle in finding out that the man she loved had turned out to be a child abuser. Standing outside the police station, Ellie expresses disbelief that Susan could have been unaware of what was going on in her own family.
The irony of the story is that Ellie’s situation is similar to Susan’s: just as Susan was unaware that her husband was an abuser, Ellie was unaware that her husband killed her son’s best friend. Ellie’s violent physical reaction to being told this (vomiting in the corner and screaming) is moving in a TV world where loss is so easily forgotten. Indeed, there is a very real sense that Ellie’s life will never be the same again. This is refreshing, when compared to soaps such as Coronation Street, where those with murdering partners and murdering children (along with, in fact, murderers themselves) go on to live like nothing ever happened at all.
While it would perhaps be wrong to suggest Ellie is somehow receiving her ‘comeuppance’ for her previous lack of understanding, the programme does seem to be subtly offering the message that it is impossible to judge mothers and wives by one universal standard. We shouldn’t expect people to be aware of the ugliest, darkest secrets of their family’s lives just because they are mothers. How could Ellie know her husband was a paedophile and murderer? Likewise, Ellie’s realisation that Susan is in a similar position comes too late.
This important lesson is represented subtly but effectively and thwarts the conventional assumption that women whose husbands are abusive, particularly towards children, should know what’s going on. I don’t think it would be inaccurate to call this a kind of victim-blaming. After all, this is a case of expecting the wife of an abuser to know exactly what is happening, rather than seeing that the blame truly lies with the man who committed the crime, regardless of the women surrounding it.
Somewhat strangely, this particular point is represented by a slug. This is seen in episode two, never mentioned or explained but intended to represent, according to creator Chris Chiball, “that things are wrong in [Ellie’s] house”. In the final episode, after the murderer is revealed, the slug is trodden on.
Broadchurch stresses the pressure on mothers to ‘know’ and encourages the audience to understand that abuse is the abuser’s fault and no-one else’s. ‘Slug-gate’ is so subtle that is arguably only effective in hindsight and I think that is what makes Broadchurch so clever and absorbing. It’s not trying to deliver any moral maxim, but its social observations are there, lurking beneath the surface of the narrative, intended to make you think. This is largely due to the nuances of the complex story, as well as Olivia Colman’s heart-breakingly emotive acting. Ellie didn’t know there was a slug in her house but we don’t blame her, because being a mother does not mean being omniscient.
Head and shoulders right-facing profile shot of Olivia Colman as DS Ellie Miller (left, near) and David Tennant as DI Alec Hardy (right) on a beach looking out to sea. This is the picture used on the cover of the DVD release of Broadchurch (series one).