If American audiences have ever heard of, or watched, the acclaimed crime drama Broadchurch, chances are they were led to it one of three ways. They either 1) knew of lead actor David Tennant from his days as the 10th Doctor on the popular science fiction series Doctor Who, 2) were some of the few American viewers who watched the first two seasons when they aired on BBC America, or 3) put two and two together when they realized Fox’s Gracepoint was an adaptation of the original. (Complete with an American-accented Tennant in what is essentially the same role, and Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall at the helm, no less.)
As excited as you or I may be for the third and final season’s premiere, the show seems destined to attract little attention compared to BBC America’s more popular offerings, like Orphan Black. Yet low ratings haven’t deterred the British broadcaster’s American arm from pushing Broadchurch‘s June premiere (despite the fact it originally ran on ITV in March and April), and for good reason. Chibnall, who’s set to take over as Doctor Who‘s showrunner following Steven Moffat’s departure, paints an intimate portrait of a small, fictional town along southern England’s Jurassic Coast. The result is slow-burning television at its best, and its final eight episodes will surely please fans who fell in love with the first season.
Uproxx‘s Alan Sepinwall praised the latter for the “simple” story told by Chibnall’s “lean and spare” writing, which resulted in a mesmerizing mystery “as devastating as you can imagine.” Simply put, the story of young Danny Latimer’s murder — and the manner in which it rocks the small seaside town to its core — proved to be more than enough to carry the first eight episodes. Chibnall’s whodunit kept audiences and critics guessing while detectives Alec Hardy (Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) struggle to find the culprit amid growing tensions among the residents. When Broadchurch finally reveals who is responsible for killing Danny, however, it only promises more devastation for what remains of Chibnall’s planned trilogy.
Joe Miller (Matthew Gravelle), Ellie’s stay-at-home husband, confesses to murdering Danny after the boy calls off their affair. Yet when his trial kicks off season two, he shocks everyone by pleading not guilty. Along with a major subplot detailing Hardy’s previous case and his reasons for moving to Broadchurch, the middle chunk of Chibnall’s three-part series flails under too much complexity and insurmountable expectations. Thankfully, the final entry returns to its roots and focuses entirely on the overwhelming case of Trish Winterman (Julie Hesmondhalgh), a woman who reports her rape days after it happens. As the show adds more layers to this excruciating tale, it delivers on the first season’s promise of a simple, devastating story.
Following a wide shot of the area’s coastline in the evening, the episode slowly introduces viewers to Trish, an older woman sitting near a parking lot while a blurry figure wearing a reflection vest discusses what she knows with two characters off-screen. These turn out to be Hardy and Miller, who’ve now been working together for three years in Broadchurch, and Trish’s allegation of rape has now become their (and the show’s) number one priority. Yet instead of jumping right into the action, as many American viewers accustomed to Law & Order and its derivations may expect, Broadchurch slowly paces itself in what follows.
Trish, fidgety and unsure of what the detectives ask or tell her, responds with little more than a nod at times. Miller approaches the victim in a sweet, gentle fashion, as does Hardy — though the character’s penchant for “nosing around” (as his partner later puts it) isn’t abated for long. They drive Trish to a crisis center, where attendants collect evidence all while coaching their care through the process, hoping to provide as much comfort as possible. Tactful images of Miller and Hardy’s faces, while wearing hospital gowns, helps to restore Trish’s dignity while nonetheless revealing just how painful everything is for her in the moment.
It’s almost too unbearable to watch, yet Broadchurch manages to keep its audience invested in what is happening to Trish in the moment. It pulls viewers into what may or may not have happened two days prior, and what Hardy and Miller set about doing in order to discover the truth. Much of the credit here belongs to the performances and Chibnall’s writing, though the contributions of series newcomers Paul Andrew Williams (who directs this and four other episodes) and Carlos Catalan (the new cinematographer) should not be ignored. Broadchurch manages to transform the horrifying into the captivating with intimate depictions of moments like Trish’s exam. It’s an important muscle the show first flexed three years ago, and continues to do so here.
Stretching out the minutiae for eight 45-minute episodes, however, would be too much, so Broadchurch‘s final bow adds plenty of minor elements and subplots to keep viewers interested in Trish’s story and Miller and Hardy’s investigation. For example, the Latimer family remains a staple as they still struggle to cope with Danny’s murder and the resulting trial. The father, Mark (Andrew Buchan) has written a book about what happened, but cannot find closure. His wife Beth (Jodie Whittaker), also unable to cope with previous two seasons’ traumas, works for the sexual assault response group, where she is assigned Trish’s case.
The series finale ultimately reveals Trish’s rapist and the full context of what happened to her, just as the first season did with Danny Latimer’s killer. It also ties up several loose ends in Miller and Hardy’s personal and professional lives, and the lives of the town’s many other characters, but not in a way that closes the book on the series definitively. Chibnall will be pretty busy at his new Doctor Who gig, while Colman, Tennant and the other actors will continue working elsewhere. Even so, a future return to Broadchurch and its mysteries wouldn’t be surprising, and it would certainly be welcome.
The third and final season of Broadchurch premieres tonight at 10pm ET/PT on BBC America.