Broadchurch: A Lesson in Grace

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[Note: This post contains minor spoilers to the show. While the central story isn’t given away, if you plan to see it and don’t want it ruined you should stop reading.]

Broadchurch, named for a fictional town set on the Dorset coast of England, is a BBC series following a police investigation into a young boy’s death, presumably the result of a fatal fall from the looming cliffs facing the ocean shore. Detectives Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) serve as the primary investigators who soon discover more about the death and the small community than expected. Hardy is an outsider, a weathered detective recently hired to head up the local police force. Intrigue surrounds his character from the start with vague mentions of a previously botched case that has tarnished his reputation and left him with a deep wound, one for which he believes he must atone. Miller, although experienced and insightful, retains a more pleasant and optimistic perspective about her hometown of Broadchurch, a perspective that is consistently challenged by her new boss. Much can be said about the series’ exploration of a variety of themes – from Hardy’s past which hauntingly motivates his need to solve the case to the persistent underlying question, “Can we ever really know anyone?”

In typical crime dramas, suspense and mystery is packaged into the chase for the villain. While that is certainly true for Broadchurch, there’s much more at play. What is fascinating (and very biblical) about the show is that while a single person commits the crime, no one is truly innocent. With each subsequent clue, Hardy and Miller unearth the personal demons of many Broadchurch residents. This makes for a perplexing and burdensome mystery, one that refuses to fit neatly into categories. Evil doesn’t surface in terms of black and white. It proves confusing and messy because everyone is part of the problem.

Broadchurch is a paradox. Its picturesque cliffs stand as both a natural wonder and a chilling symbol for death. There is tragedy in its beauty and the various characters of the series illustrate this well, many of whom have fled to the coastal town in search of refuge from their pasts. There is the woman who murdered her abusive husband, the man convicted of child molestation, the reporter searching for a fresh start to her career, even the vicar of the local Anglican church. Each carries a personal shadow and yet, these too defy neat categorization. The stories underneath them all create sympathy and even a certain amount of redemption for each transgressor serving as another illustration of the messiness of the human heart and the broken world in which it exists. Nonetheless, all of them have found a shade of hope in the small community.

During the course of the investigation, this hope is challenged. Tragedy and suffering provokes an unfettered humanity in the town. The filters and facades of political correctness break down and real life begins. While many had previously found refuge in Broadchurch, it had been in terms of isolation and not authentic community. These characters long to be fully known and loved and many of them despair because only one or the other is true – they are known and judged, or loved for their projected self. This makes for some explosive boiling points throughout the series as relationships in the community are pressed.

And this is where the show is most eloquent. During a particularly telling conversation between the two detectives, Miller struggles to make sense of a crime and searches for a label to define it.

Hardy: “Why do you need a category?”

Miller: “I need to understand.”

Hardy: “I don’t have these answers…people are unknowable. And you can never really know what goes on in someone else’s heart.”

For the detectives, trust is a liability. And while its rejection allows for the resolution of the case, it is not without collateral damage. In many ways, Broadchurch treats this lack of trust as a prison. The burden of judgment, that of being in a community and not of it, is too much for anyone to bear.

True freedom is found in forgiveness. It is rarely an easy road to tread, but as one character says, “we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our God to try.” I won’t comment extensively on the ending because I don’t want to spoil the show, but Broadchurch draws to a close with grace profoundly on display. Hope persists and light shines in the darkness.

It’s true that we can never really know what goes on in someone else’s heart. No matter how well we know a person, to some degree they remain a stranger to us. This fact drives many of the characters in Broadchurch to an internal hardening and bridled anguish, but it should not be so for Christians. Rather, it should point us to the One who has made Himself know to us, namely, Jesus Christ. We can choose to trust others not because they are trustworthy, but because Christ is trustworthy. We can forgive because we have been forgiven in Christ. We can extend grace not because it is deserved, but because we have been undeservedly extended grace in Christ.

In one way or another, we all carry the shadows of Broadchurch. Not one of us is innocent and, if we’re honest, we all know it. Yet, everyone longs to be fully known and loved. We weren’t made to carry secrets and we will find ourselves restless until we are free. For the small town of Broadchurch, it took a heartbreaking crime to dash the presumed safety of isolation.

Freedom is gained through forgiveness. It begins with the pardon received in Christ and flourishes when offered to others. All else is slavery. Grudges, bitterness, envy, slander, malice, wrath, revenge, these are prisons. That is not to say forgiveness isn’t costly. It cost God his only Son. But it is worthy. No matter how painful life becomes, we have not been abandoned and God is willing to press, cut, and even put to death whatever idol stands in the way. He is willing to subject us to severe mercies so that we might reach our end and find ourselves in His kind embrace.

“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

2 Peter 3:9

*The first season of Broadchurch can be viewed on Netflix.
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