In its third and final season, the BBC crime drama Broadchurch is tackling the issue of sexual assault. and it is doing so in a way that hasn't been done before.
I've been a fan of the show for quite some time and was eagerly awaiting the next season. However, when I heard that the case this season was about a rape, I was a little concerned. Up until now, Broadchurch has been a show that revolved around the murders of three people in two different cases. I'm always hesitant to watch TV shows that involve sexual assault. I am a rape victim and while that comes with a lot of really big, life-altering consequences, it also comes with the irritating little caveat that crime dramas are really hard to watch. There are so may of them that involve graphic depictions of rape, or use sexual assault to set a dark and edgy mood, that navigating Netflix is a little like navigating a mine field.
So I was anxious going in. However, only about ten minutes into the first episode did it begin to dawn on me that this was different from anything else I'd seen. From the very beginning, the crime of rape is treated with just the same amount of seriousness as the murders of the children that had occurred in the first two seasons. In a world where rape in the media is so often treated as little more than an aside, this fact, in and of itself, is revolutionary. It is illustrated, not just in the way that the woman who has been assaulted behaves (Trish, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh), but also in the way that the detectives (Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy, played by Olivia Coleman and David Tennant) interact with her. From the moment we see Trish's face for the first time, every shot, every breath, every color on screen and looks shared by the characters, establishes that something devastating has happened.
As the show goes on, and we are walked through Trish's interview, her rape kit, the conversation between the detectives, it becomes increasingly obvious that though they have no intention of downplaying the seriousness of the crime, they definitely aren't going to sensationalize it either. The latter is probably the most marked difference between this and other shows that revolve around sexual assault. It is one thing to say that sexual offenses are heinous, it's another to look at the effects of one in a cold, unwavering light. Sure, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit set a really nice precedent, but TV shows like that generally garner views via a sort of aggrandizement that is perhaps better suited for the magazines near the checkout. Entertaining? Maybe. But they don't reflect reality.
The impact of the assault isn't just shown through the reactions of Trish, but also through the reactions of the people around her, particularly Ellie and Alec. The show is formatted so that the detectives function not only as intriguing and dynamic characters but also as instruments through which we can see the crime. There is one scene when the pair are driving away from Trish's house and Alec discovers that Ellie had given Trish her personal number. They argue with one another, and the argument ends with Ellie yelling "she's been RAPED." After which they fall into a silence where they, and we, sit with the reality of that statement. In another instance, they all go to revisit the crime scene. Remembering the party before the assault occurred, Trish says quietly "I was so happy that night." The camera immediately cuts to Coleman and then Tennant, both of whom look a little like they can literally feel their hearts breaking.
The way that the show looks at the politics of sexual assault is also shown through a detective. DC Katie Hartford (played by Georgina Campbell) is new to the team and hasn't received any training in how to handle this sort of case. Subsequently, she has the same reactions to the case that so many people do when they are standing on the outside. She blames the victim. While she never outright says anything like 'it was her fault' a series of microaggressions make it very obvious that she's more concerned with the behavior of the person who was assaulted, rather than the person who did the assaulting. Yet she seems surprised when she finds out how few resources are allocated to them to help solve the case. She obviously doesn't know the first thing about this investigation and it's shown that victim blaming isn't entirely malice, quite a bit of it is just abject ignorance.
Finally, Trish. This, to me, is the most important part. I have related to Trish in the first episode alone more than I have ever related to any other rape victim or survivor I've seen on screen. Of all the things that happened thus far in the show, and of all the things that Trish has said, I have related to nothing more than the scene in a cafe when she spoke aloud the thought that had echoed in my head for years.
'I wish he'd just killed me.'
I don't feel that way so much anymore. But the thought is dark enough to leave you feeling guilty for even having it. I thought, for a very long time, that that was the sort of thing that I would only ever be able to say in a quiet voice, in a therapy session. To watch Trish speak into existence one of what I believe is the biggest unspoken realities of people who have had their autonomy violated in such a way. One of the most shame-filled products of sexual assault, being said on an international screen, with seven point five million people watching. I even considered I'd see something quite like that.
Broadchurch has always been good at leaving us with the idea that healing is going to be achieved with time, while still not negating the fact that the lives of the people surrounding the crime will never be the same. And, for the first time, is reflective of my experience.
Broadchurch is on Mondays at nine on the BBC and seasons one and two are available to stream on Netflix.