[It should go without saying that there are spoilers ahead.]
Broadchurch seemed rather inauspicious when it was announced. I assumed – and correctly – that it would be ITV’s attempt to recreate some of the tension found in The Killing. A town, a murder, a family torn apart: it all looked fairly rote, on paper. And you know what? It was. But that’s not a criticism. It was pretty well written, well acted, well made. I saw some people mocking the slow-motion shots used, but I loved them. It made excellent use of the stunning scenery, and had some quite incredible use of light in it. Incredibly well made. No idea what the budget was, but it looked expensive, and what was there was put to good use. I really enjoyed it.
There is a however. There’s always a however.
The killer of the kid in the show was Joe, the husband of Olivia Colman’s detective character. (And she was, as has been shouted from every rooftop, excellent. Really, a superb performance.) I knew that it was Joe from early on in the show’s episode count. Most people did. My mother did, after two episodes. The narrative threw red herrings at us, and it tried to lead us down dark alleys, but it always kept coming back to Joe.
But why did that happen? What made it so obvious? The actual reveal – and this was disappointing, I won’t lie – came from nowhere, a reveal that we couldn’t have worked out, zero evidence presented until the final episode. (Spoiler for The Killing: the same thing happened there. We went around a ridiculous but enjoyable series of suspects before ending up with the killer being somebody we could never have ascertained. It’s like a detective story with no detection required, and is quite annoying. Regardless.) So we didn’t have any hints regarding Joe’s true personality. Instead, we had nothing at all. My mother said to me that she felt it was him because he was empty, like there was nothing there. Nail on the head. It was Joe because he was utterly underwritten. He had no personality, serving to only be in scenes with Olivia Colman where he did nice, good-husband things. He cooked a meal or looked after the baby or took his kid skateboarding. He had lots of screentime but no personality, or story. Everybody else was given motives and motivations – affairs or drugs or parent issues or trapping dogs in vans and pointing crossbows at them – but Joe stayed a void, smiling and just being there. Sometimes he got angry or defensive, but for no reason. Empty void, ergo killer.
So it wasn’t a surprise when he was revealed to be the killer, because that was his character. All along, that was, I suspect, deemed to be enough: that at the end we would see that he harboured secret tendencies, and that he was in love with a teenage boy, and that he killed said boy. That’s character! It comes out in monologue in the last episode – surely that’s enough? But it’s not enough. Because come the end of the show, there was a slight and gentle collapse of the narrative. Here’s the killer, and you could never have called it, because you – the viewer – had no evidence; but you all called it, because it was obvious. Evidence was given to other characters for no reason. So, Pauline Quirke took the skateboard from the beach. Why? It made no sense, but it suddenly put her in the picture and gave us a reason for her story. It wasn’t neat, but it was something. And it’s something that Joe didn’t have.
We want to be able to solve mysteries. Not to actually solve them, I should stress; but to be able to. The chance to essentially reveal how clever the creator has been, and how clever we could have been; that’s been a must in detective fiction since year dot. You couldn’t do that in Broadchurch, as you couldn’t in The Killing. When something’s sold as a murder mystery, I want that, I think.
It sounds as if I’m being hard on it, and I likely am. I really enjoyed it. I think it’s one of the best things that ITV have made in years, and Chris Chibnall did a great job writing and plotting it. It was hugely enjoyable, and I anticipate season 2. But it’s worth remembering, I think, that a final reveal isn’t a replacement for good character development; and that we, as an audience, like to feel clever. It’s great when we work something out; even better when we think we have, and are blindsided. But it’s deflating to work something out based on no evidence than a lack of character; it feels, at every stage, like an accident.