Broadchurch (Season 1): Christianity, Male Affections, and What the Slug Said

And so did Christianity fall.   Detective Alec Hardy

I passed the word. Maybe the word was good.   Vicar Paul Coates

Christianity is a dirty word. Trying to find the Christian history of things, or the Christian basis of science, or information on Christian scientists, philosophers, etc., seems to be getting harder by the day. Christianity is being erased from history, and you’d be hard-pressed to find entertainment industry professionals who discuss their faith openly. There are some who do, like Denzel Washington, Sean Astin, Patricia Heaton, and John Rhys-Davies, and it was easier to find out Broadchurch AusDVDabout their faith than any direct information about the religious aspects of the BBC TV show Broadchurch. Considering that Broadchurch is chock full of things Christian, this lack of discussion still seems surprising.

Despite the (seeming) decline of Christianity in the United Kingdom,[1] or perhaps because of it, the 8-part murder mystery contains more on the Christian faith than many people no doubt experience in a year. Hearing actors quote bible passages was happily shocking. These days, when show business types are generally afraid to mention their faith, how did this show even get made? In an interview (Ng 2013) with one of the main actors, Arthur Darvill, he responded to a question with what may be a partial explanation:

It was written because [Chris] wanted to write it and he wrote it the way that he wanted to write it. It’s a real testament to people having ideas and people not interfering with those ideas. You can see it hasn’t been meddled with by people who are pulling purse strings, if that makes sense. I think a lot of TV you see is made in a way that’s quite cynical because it’s made to make money or made to be a hit, and this wasn’t.

There’s absolutely no reason to think Darvill was referring to the murder mystery part of the story, since that is a very ordinary, accepted, and desirable show genre. But besides Christianity, there are other meaningful issues, or themes, in Broadchurch that aren’t obviously discussed in mainstream media either. You’d think that the murder mystery was the only aspect of the 8-week long story, but my impression is that the story (which was interesting but not great)[2] was written solely to express these themes: Christianity; the supernatural; male affection vs. male perversion; grief; and, the question of how or why people closest to criminals don’t know about the criminal activity. Below is commentary on themes and subthemes, excepting that on grieving (the family slug shows up near the bottom, in “How could you now know?”).

Before moving on, however, a brief look at the show’s name is needed.  Broadchurch is the name of the Oceanside town where the story takes place, but this is barely mentioned in-show. The name appears to function as a reference to the meaning of the show only. “Broad Church” is a real term, if not an obscure one, referring to those Christians in historic Great Britain who were not of the Anglo-Catholic group (known as High Church) nor the Evangelical group (Low Church).  After doing some basic research on this term–or perhaps “label” is a better description–I’m not sure that there’s anything more to its use in the show than what it might intuitively mean: the Christianity presented in Broadchurch is broad, or wide, and not promoting of any specific doctrine, church, or denomination. (I’m not from the UK and so someone might differ with me, in which case I’ll gladly receive comments.) However, the Broad Church definitions vary, and one particular author’s view of Broad Church can differ much from another’s. Since Broad Church seems to be more of a label certain dissident individuals were given, rather than an organized group or movement, it’s a slippery thing.

Theme:  Christianity, with a supernatural subtheme

There are indeed some shows and movies that mention God and/or explore Christian themes, though it is rare—even unheard of—for Jesus himself to be brought up.  Characters might muse about God or maybe even the Bible, but Jesus?[3]  No, except as a swear word or exclamation (to be fair, some shows will use crosses instead of saying Jesus or Christ).   So, I was indeed shocked and warmed at the same time (warmly shocked?) when I heard the Vicar in Broadchurch end a prayer with: “in the name of Christ the King” (episode 4).  Jesus Christ said to pray to God in his name (John 14:13-14, 15:16, 16:23-26) and instead of hearing a general prayer that could have been to any deity, praying in Christ’s name was actually done in the series.

Overall, God and issues relating to faith are discussed by every major character in Broadchurch, except the killer.  However, Detective Miller,  the killer’s wife, speaks so little of faith that she is included within Detective Hardy’s entry below.

Vicar Paul Coates
Vicar Paul Coates

_______________

Paul the Vicar

There is of course the Vicar, Paul, as already mentioned. After the boy is killed, he asks in a church service, “Why did God allow this to happen? Are we abandoned?”  He laments that only 19 people, out of a town of 15,000, came to the service.  In a later sermon he answers the questions he asked earlier: we may be hunted and knocked down, but we are never abandoned by God so we are never destroyed.  At Jack’s funeral, Paul tells his flock that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, otherwise we’re nothing.  In response to the dead boy’s mom’s distress over carrying a new life in her when her life with Danny was cut short, he says that maybe God gave them not what they thought they wanted, but what they needed.  At Danny’s funeral, finally held in episode 8, Paul read Ephesians 4:31-32:

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (English Standard Version, UK).

He responds to God’s word here by saying he doesn’t know if they can, considering all that has happened, but that it’s their responsibility to both themselves and to God to try (responsibility to God?! Pretty amazing stuff).  After the funeral numerous bonfires and signal fires are lit, and, the last words of the series are uttered by Paul: “I passed the word. Maybe the word was good.”

Jack

Jack, an older single man and one-time major suspect in the killing, has at least some level of faith.  He is never shown talking with the Vicar or anyone else about it, but in one scene he recites the Lord’s Prayer out loud and semi-publicly.

Alec Hardy

Detective Hardy has an interesting role in relation to faith and the show’s Christianity.  He is scolded by the Vicar over his lack of faith in one scene, but the Vicar may have been somewhat off base.   From the outside the viewer can either take the Vicar’s assessment at face value or excuse Hardy for simply doing his job.

  • In a different scene the detective claims that he has faith, and, he says a one liner that to me sums up the whole point of the story: “And so did Christianity fall.” He said this in response to Detective Miller (Ellie), in episode 4, when she said she’d forget to go to church at Easter because of Easter Egg hunts and such. Obviously (I hope) “forget” is not the right word, but is used as an excuse by Ellie; she no doubt represents the secular population generally.
  • Hardy has a dream that might be considered spiritual, or supernatural. In it he sees the four suspects that he is aware of on the edge of the ocean tide, and he’s trying to get them to move away so that they won’t be swept away by it. Jack is not there because he had already committed suicide.  Jack had been ruined and swept away by the tide of this case, and Alec doesn’t want this to happen to the others. But he’s not really paying attention, since the actual killer wasn’t among this group of suspects. He rightfully feared for these innocent men, but didn’t seem to make the connection between the missing man and the killer he was looking for.
  • The detective tells his doctor that he moved to Broadchurch as an act of penance.
  • Near the end of the story, he says to Ellie, “God will put you in the right place, even if you don’t know it at the time.”  Since this is a bit contrived for the scene, it may be that Alec is referring to his own circumstances and how it benefits the town, not his manipulation of the events.

Beth

Beth is the killed boy’s mom.  Beth is agnostic, at least until the end of story.  She’s angry at God, not being able to understand why her son would be killed, why God would let it happen.  Is she being punished? The Vicar says he doesn’t know all the answers, but that we need to live with the conditions we’re given.  After the Vicar tells Beth that her son is with God, she asks for a sign that Danny is indeed OK.  At the end of the series, Danny appears to her at the beach; she is given her sign.

Mark

Mark is the killed boy’s dad.   He appears to be an atheist, but since he twice questions if God has punished him for his sin, he is probably more of an angry agnostic. He angrily tells the Vicar that “Your God left my son for dead!”  Later, at a counseling session, he doesn’t want to talk about God.

Steve

Steve is . . . the local psychic.  Steve’s psychic experiences are downplayed and his character insulted, as someone who takes advantage of victims in order to profit from their cases and his involvement in them.  However, his gift and his apparent sincerity are not completely swept under the rug.  Detective Hardy eventually comes to think there is something to this supernatural phenomenon, but he can’t explain it.

Theme:  Male Affection vs. Male Perversion

Two contrasting sets of male affection are presented in Broadchurch, one that was reasonable and within the bounds of normal human relations, even if some were uncomfortable with it. This involves Jack, a single older man. The other man is Joe, who is a 38-year-old husband and father who ends up killing the 11 year old boy, Danny.

Jack is very private about his past life. The town went pretty crazy when its townspeople found that he had a prior conviction (spending one year in prison) of having sex with a minor. The thing is, the person he had sex with was a female, a consenting female who had been only one month short of the legal age.  After he was released from prison, they married and had a son. Very sadly, the son died at age six in an auto accident and due to the stress of it all, he and his wife divorced.  He never remarried and dearly missed the son he loved.  He worked around the boys and showed them simple affection, relating to them as to a son. That’s all there was to his affection, but he didn’t like talking about his personal and emotional past and people assumed the worst.  When a story about all of it came out in the newspaper, it was finally too much for him to bear and he committed suicide.

Joe, on the other hand, had an 11 year old son and a toddler son.  He was a stay-at-home dad and seemed nice and normal.  For some reason, the love and affections he shared with his family members weren’t enough.  He started a relationship with one of his son’s friends, Danny, acting as a confidant at first, but then asking the boy to sit on his lap and let him hug him.  This went on for a while when the boy said he wanted to stop.  Nothing sexual had happened, but Danny thought that Joe was going to want more.  It was at this time that Joe got so upset that he strangled Danny.

When he was finally arrested, Joe told the police that he fell in love with Danny but that it wasn’t sexual.  A number of times he stated that “he’s not that man” (not that kind of man).  Since he ended up killing a boy, someone he claimed to love, his protestations seem to be hollow (the dead boy seemed to think so as well).  His wife and Detective Hardy discuss Joe after he’s put into custody, and they can’t conclude anything about him. They don’t know for sure if Joe is a nascent pedophile or if his love is more innocent.  Perhaps we will find out in season 2 of the show.

In any case, it’s not hard to see the difference in the mens’ reactions. The first man, Jack, loved in an innocent way.  He thought that the other people around him were perverted for thinking what they were.   He didn’t hurt anyone but out of sadness and exasperation, took his own life.  Joe, on the other hand, couldn’t even let the kid he professed to love go without killing him.  Danny said he just didn’t want to see him anymore, but Joe kept pressing him about not telling anyone about them.  He was thinking of himself.  He was selfish and fearful.  He killed.  Obviously, what he had been doing was not good and reasonable and he reacted in the same way, if fatally amplified.  Is it society’s fault for not being more accepting of a certain level of male affection?  Why should it be society’s fault when the man had his own sons, and his own wife, to express love and affection with?  No, good people don’t kill innocents, but bad ones do and there are clues to who bad ones might be.  Inappropriate affections, perverse affections, have been called so for a reason.

Ellie and slug, episode 2.
Ellie and slug, episode 2.

____________

Subtheme: “How could you not know?”

Have you ever been around someone, someone you’re close to, and find out later that they were up to something you had no idea about? Well, Broadchurch seems to want to make the point that what’s up around us can be known, that we can sense it and then choose to ignore or investigate it.

The first time “how could you not know?” is asked, it’s by Ellie, whose husband turns out to be the killer she’s been looking for.  She asked this of a key witness, a nutty smart-aleck woman named Susan, after finding out that Susan’s late husband had been sexually abusing their daughters, even killing the older one.  So you can perhaps imagine what happens.  When the truth is finally revealed, the mother of the murdered child asks Ellie the same thing, “how could you not know?”  We can’t answer that for Ellie based on what is shown in the film, but in the later episodes Ellie did indeed start to realize that at times her husband and son had not been open and honest with her.  We also know that her husband lied to her about where he was going when he went to meet the boy.  How was she to know?  How good can a person be at lying, or conversely, how bad can someone be at not noticing deception?

So, in comes the slug.  At the beginning of episode 2, Ellie looks curiously at a somewhat large slug (whether it seems large or small to you would depend on what part of the world you’re from) slithering on the living room floor.  Yes, it’s in her house.  The camera pans away to focus elsewhere and the slug doesn’t make another appearance until the last episode. Of course, if you missed its quick appearance in episode two, you’re a bit stunned at what happens in episode 8.  After her husband is arrested for the murder, Ellie returns home to get some things.   When she walks into the living room she steps on the poor slug. Yes, she squishes it (well, I don’t think any slugs were harmed in the making of Broadchurch), and we’re left wondering what the heck that slug was still doing there on the living room rug.

The slug was a foreshadowing device, of course.  As something wrong in her house that didn’t belong, Ellie saw it, but she didn’t do anything about it until it was too late. This ties in, too, with the conversation that Ellie had with the witness, Susan. The woman claimed that she saw her adult son dump the dead boy’s body on the beach, which led Ellie to ask (basically), “Why turn him in? If I were his mum, I’d want to do everything to protect him.”  So asks the woman who has a murderer in her family.  How could she not know? She seems to have not really wanted to know, most likely just as Susan didn’t really want to inquire into her own family’s dark affairs.

You’ve Reached the End

So is Broadchurch much more than a murder mystery?  Obviously.  It’s a brave show and story.  It presupposes a belief in God in the Judeo-Christian sense, and runs with that to explore faith and moral issues, or at least to bring up such discussion points. If the show were simply a murder mystery, the transparent manipulations in it would make it forgettable. However, all the added questions, answers or lack of answers, the acknowledgment of mystery and faith, make Broadchurch more than memorable.

Post Script Regarding Broadchurch Season 2

I didn’t do a review of Broadchurch Season 2 since there wasn’t enough in it of Christian interest to bother.  Season 2 is quite a bit different from Season 1.  Christian content has been replaced with sexual content, and its story involving Detective Hardy’s old case is pretty much nonsensical.  There’s really not that much to recommend about Broadchurch Season 2.

Sources

Bingham, John. “Christians now a minority in UK as half the population have no religion,” The Telegraph (online). September 10, 2013. Accessed January 10, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10297036/Christians-now-a-minority-in-UK-as-half-the-population-have-no-religion.html

Latourette, Kenneth Scott.  A History of Christianity (Vol II): Reformation to the Present.  Prince Press, Peabody (1975, 1999; pp 1160-1175)

Ng, Philiana. “‘Broadchurch’: Arthur Darvill on Working with David Tennant and ‘Heartbreaking’ End (Q&A),” The Hollywood Reporter (online). September 18, 2013. Accessed January 10, 2015. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/broadchurch-arthur-darvill-david-tennant-630915

Notes

[1] The last census in the UK (2011) found that those of the Christian faith decline by 13% from the last census, to 59% total.  I included “seeming” because, who knows, maybe there are more actual believers now and not just cultural Christians or those who identified as such based on family and tradition. In the United States, polls yield varying results.  A 2007 Pew study indicated that about 78% of Americans were Christian; a gallop poll from late 2012 gave a figure of 77%, while other polls go higher or lower.

[2] This story is full of false leads, including one glaring one that is never explained (the post man physically arguing with the boy victim).  Good mysteries will of course have false leads, or there’d be no mystery.  In Broadchurch, however, there is much false manipulation.

[3] Shows that come to mind that do so are Fringe and at least the earlier episodes of The X Files. Both show crosses and have episodes with Christian or spiritual themes, but Fringe much more so.

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