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‘Broadchurch’ Review: Final Season Redeems the Series With a Devastating Examination of Rape and Rape Culture

In the BBC America series, David Tennant and Olivia Colman return as the irascible Dorset detective duo on Wednesday.

David Tennant and Olivia Colman, "Broadchurch"

Patrick Redmond/BBC America

Broadchurch” wraps up a three-season arc by pulling off an ambitious storyline about rape that is as devastating as it is instructive.

It’s a fitting capper to a series that uses the sleepy Dorset town of Broadchurch as a microcosm to examine society’s ills. On the show, it’s been five years since the killing of local boy Danny Latimer, a devastating storyline that consumed “Broadchurch’s” excellent Season 1. [The less cohesive Season 2, which took place three years later, went off the rails a bit with Danny’s subsequent murder trial.]

Creator and writer Chris Chibnall guides “Broadchurch” steadily back home to finish off the trilogy with the help of his detective duo Alex Hardy (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), who provide the only humor on the show through their comfortable and mutually irascible personalities. We’re going to miss their banter.

READ MORE: David Tennant on Why ‘Broadchurch’ Is Like Nothing Else on TV, and Why He’s Glad It Has an Ending

In a letter to journalists, Chibnall explained that he wanted the story to deal with a victim of sexual assault because “these crimes are increasing.” He also noted that representations of sex are often problematic and that “the gender divide often feels more polarized than it has in decades.” In order to properly tell the story of a rape victim, the show did its research by speaking to support workers for victims of sexual assault, advisors to victims, police who work on the cases and the survivors of the attacks themselves.

Jodie Whittaker and Julie Hesmondhalgh, "Broadchurch"

Jodie Whittaker and Julie Hesmondhalgh, “Broadchurch”

Colin Hutton/BBC America

What results is an unhurried and unflinching look into what rape victims must endure once they report the crime. In this case, we follow local farm shop worker Trish Winterman (Julie Hesmondhalgh) every step of the way from her initial report to the police where she can barely speak, the gathering of evidence for a rape kit, her irrational shame, the ever-present fears, the harassment and harsh treatment from people she knows. It’s as honest and thorough a depiction of the aftermath of rape that we’ve seen yet on TV.

While Trish’s assault is reviewed multiple times over the course of the season as Miller and Hardy attempt to find the attacker, the series never stoops to fetishizing the event in any way. There is no nudity and no recreation of the act itself. Most of it is told using Trish’s own voice, with her words. That is not to say that the mere discussion of the topic couldn’t be triggering; there is plenty of disturbing content. One scene in Episode 4 is particularly hard to watch, not for its graphic qualities but for the crushing emotional force of Hesmondhalgh at her most raw and vulnerable.

“Broadchurch” is not subtle in its mission to shine a light on rape, and necessarily so. It emphasizes how victims understand immediately that with reporting, they risk blame, shame or even disbelief. It also takes shots at society’s skewed perception of what constitutes manhood and how commonly held but erroneous beliefs can easily be passed from one person to the next. While most of these sexist comments or incidents come from the men, some of the female characters reinforce this mindset either through word or deed. One could almost take a list of every horrifying response to rape possible and check them off one by one.

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Woven through Trish’s story is Danny’s, whose ghost still haunts his family. His father Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan) is still struggling with feelings of helplessness and the injustice of last season’s acquittal. This has caused estrangement with his wife Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker), who is finding purpose as a counselor to Trish. Despite the passage of time for the characters and viewers alike, their loss is still playing out with a heartbreaking inevitability. Healing isn’t guaranteed, but goddammit, one must try. At times it feels that “Broadchurch” is attempting too many stories at once, but the conclusion of the Latimers’ story feels right, although shoehorned into the bigger Trish story this season.

Andrew Buchan and Jodie Whittaker, "Broadchurch"

Andrew Buchan and Jodie Whittaker, “Broadchurch”

Colin Hutton/BBC America

It’s almost a relief to get to the criminal procedural elements, which are every bit as engrossing and well-orchestrated as in the first season. A new cast of characters include an annoying upstart detective who lacks sense, the massive list of male suspects who are connected to Trish, and schoolmates for Hardy’s daughter Daisy (Hannah Rae), who has moved to Broadchurch with her father.

The series paints a fairly grim view of humanity, but Colman and Tennant save the series from being completely and utterly depressing. Not only do they bring the aforementioned levity, but for every frustration and setback in the case, their determination to never rest until the attacker is brought to justice reaffirms our faith that good people exist.

It’s also a relief to see Tennant wearing the white hat after his charismatic but frightening turn as the vicious Kilgrave in “Marvel’s Jessica Jones.” Hardy’s attempts to overcome habit and break through societal training to become a communicative and effective father are heartening. Colman’s Miller has become a no-nonsense parent after what she’s been through, and this is the one plot that felt like it was given short shrift by the show’s conclusion.

On the other side of tragedy can be more pain, but also, if one sticks with it, maybe healing eventually. Seeing how the people and families of Broadchurch are able to endure and even fight back against some of the most tragic events is in its way inspiring. Through the show’s victims, we experience our own catharsis.

Leaving “Broadchurch” for the final time is bittersweet. Its denizens, much like its gorgeous scenery, are a mix of dangerous realities, as seen in the cliffs, but also endless beauty, as seen in the crashing waves of the sea. They make up an indelible world that we imagine going on long after the final credits.

Grade: A-

“Broadchurch” premieres on Wednesday, June 28, at 10 p.m. on BBC America.

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