Where did it all go wrong for Broadchurch? Chris Chibnall’s gripping crime drama captured the nation’s imagination in 2013 by reimagining the whodunit as a means to explore the impact of grief on an entire community. The first series was one of those rare shows that actually had you leaning closer to the television to find out what happens next just a few second faster.
An unexpected second series looked like it would continue in a similar vain, initially overcoming any fears of ‘second season syndrome’ with a powerhouse of an opening episode that appeared to have found an exciting way of continuing a story we thought was all wrapped up following Joe Miller’s startling confession.
In a bold and brilliant move, Chibnall had Miller shock everyone, including his own lawyers, by pleading not guilty to Daniel Latimer’s murder, thus enabling the writer to further explore how impossible it is to move on from the death of a child through an arduous court case.
With almost 10 million viewers sitting down to watch the trial commence, Broadchurch looked set to transfix the country yet again.
And then it all crumbled like the gorgeous sandstone cliffs under which Danny’s body was first discovered. The electric tension of episode one evaporated almost instantly as events became even more improbable and additional drama was seemingly shoehorned in to compensate for the lack of an engaging plot.
Instead of the first series’ understated intrigue that gradually exposed the dirty secrets of the town’s denizens, Chibnall attempted to prolong his drama by stuffing it full of the kind of high drama that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Eastenders.
Illicit affairs, abusive spouses, secret abortions, and characters miraculously returning out of the blue to reignite old feuds, it’s all been going on in Broadchurch recently; unfortunately, very little of it kept us wanting to tune in for the next instalment. Not even Lee Ashworth’s endless appearances brooding on top of the town’s various grassy knolls could keep us intrigued.
All was not lost, however, provided Broadchurch could rediscover at least some of its subtlety for tonight’s finale.
The omens were hopeful going in, with last week’s penultimate episode finally raising the stakes, as the jury appeared to be on the brink of announcing their verdict and the pieces of Hardy’s investigation into the Sandbrook murders seemingly falling into place. But could it stick the landing?
It has to be a resounding yes. Remarkably, Chibnall somehow stuns everyone with a gripping episode packed with devastating revelations, confessions and outpourings of grief that provoke powerfully emotive performances from the entire cast.
Most of the final episode is devoted to what happened in Sandbrook, the broken case that nearly destroyed Hardy, as Miller uncovers a key piece of evidence that forces Lee and Claire to finally break their silence.
In an unsettling flashback that recalls the first series’ tense finale, Ricky Gillespie is revealed as the killer having bashed his daughter’s babysitter’s head against some floor boards after catching her shagging Lee. Threatening to frame him for her murder, Ricky forces Lee to help him get rid of the body, but while he is away Claire and Lee decide to suffocate witness Pippa to ensure she cannot expose Lee to the police.
These scenes are as harrowing as they sound, and if they lack some of the force of the series one finale it’s because we simply haven’t received enough encouragement throughout the series to invest in these characters in the way we have with the Latimers.
Speaking of which, we of course get a resolution to Joe Miller’s murder trial. Sadly, Joe walks free, acquitted by a majority verdict while the Latimers are left to sit in shock, unable to accept that the pain and indignity they have endured throughout the trial has been for nothing.
Thankfully for all involved, that’s not the end of Joe’s journey as, in the episodes most moving scene, the entire community band together to abduct and banish him from the town, packing him off the Sheffield of all places. One suspects he will not be missed.
The final message is one of hope, the Latimers returning to the scene of Danny’s murder in an acceptance that the pain will always linger but life must still go on. It’s a beautiful, absorbing, heart-poundingly tense conclusion that offers far more than the series itself was worth.
Still, it’s hard to look beyond the ridiculous plot-lines that brought us here. Would the Latimer’s really have chosen the prosecution council? Would Sharon Bishop really get away with accusing Mark of murdering his son without even a shred of forensic evidence? And why in the world would Miller care more about Sandbrook than her own children?
The implausibility of these muddled plot-lines is perhaps best summed up by last week’s sudden decision to tackle middle-aged lesbianism. The nuanced portrayal of characters’ private lives was Broadchurch’s biggest strength and kept us all hooked, but the scene in which Knight declares her undying love for newspaper editor Maggie on a blustery clifftop was clunky, obvious and laughably absurd.
Just like the writers of The Fall and The Last Tango in Halifax, Chibnall’s attempts to prolong his landmark drama have been painfully obvious and have lacked the subtlety and invention of series one. Over eight weeks we’ve been bombarded with outrageous melodrama and questionable plot twists as Chibnall tried to make sense of his scrambled narrative.
The finally may have provided a satisfying conclusion in its own way, but it has taken a terribly frustrating journey to get here, which is probably why so many viewers fled to the far superior Silent Witness. Perhaps now, after so many recent warnings, drama writers will learn to leave well enough alone.
Oh no, wait, it says after the credits that Broadchurch will return. Some people just never learn.