Broadchurch series three was about toxic masculinity – so why did it end by saying “not all men”?

Alex Moreland

The central focus of Broadchurch’s third series was rape.

Episode one opened with Trish Winterman contacting the police, the morning after her assault; the next seven episodes, leading up to the finale, covered the investigation to find Trish’s attacker. Over the course of the series it transpired that Trish wasn’t the only victim, and that at least two other women had been assaulted previously.

The series, then, was about toxic masculinity. That was the overarching theme, evident from the start and continued (almost) to the closing moments of the series. More specifically, though, it was about men controlling women – exerting influence over them, disregarding their boundaries and autonomy, and attempting to control them.

You can see this reflected in every character. On one level, that’s simply a function of the ‘whodunnit’ genre; an attempt to keep every character a possible suspect. But then, at the same time, it was more than that – it was subtler than that. There was an effort to depict everyone as a suspect not just because of the structure of the show – after all, this series kept the possibilities open much longer than its predecessors – but as part of a wider thematic point.

All of the men on Broadchurch disregarded autonomy of the women around them, and imposed their will accordingly.

There’s Ed Burnett, who stalks Trish without her knowledge. There’s Clive Lucas, who keeps women’s house keys, maintaining the possibility of an implicit violation. Jim Atwood had no respect for his wife at all, and regularly reduced women to sexual conquests. Ian Winterman spied on his wife and trespassed in her home. Aaron Mayford believed his victim deserved it. A group of students shared private photos of Daisy; Tom Miller grew increasingly obsessed with porn. Each character a reflection of toxic masculinity.

None of the characters exist outside of this dynamic, though – you can see it extending to Mark Latimer as he makes his suicide attempt, ignoring the wants and needs of his wife and daughters. That this idea was so proliferated within the series is why there were so many popular yet wholly left field theories as to the attacker. Even though people like Paul Coates, Mark Latimer or even DI Hardy wouldn’t be the perpetrator by virtue of the conventions of the story, a lot of the audience thought they could be – because, repeatedly, Broadchurch was emphasising the point that any man could be a rapist.

It was one of the more sensitive depictions of rape culture on television. The drama started strongly, emphasising the nature of toxic masculinity, but still remembering the most important thing. Trish’s story was always the primary concern. That was a meaningful and significant detail, particularly in a television landscape that handles rape and sexual assault so poorly.

It all falls apart in the end, though. The Broadchurch finale sidelines Trish entirely. Up till now, it had been a sensitive depiction of a difficult topic, one that succeeded by placing Trish’s story right at the forefront. Here, though, Trish is almost an afterthought in her own story; the first time she appears outside of a flashback is at 54 minutes in. The scene lasts less than a minute. Trish gets barely a full sixty seconds to react to the identity of her attacker. Compare this to the end of Broadchurch series one, and all the time devoted to Beth and Mark Latimer finding out about Joe Miller. Indeed, the time devoted to Ellie Miller finding out about her husband Joe.

Trish doesn’t get that opportunity. The final episode of Broadchurch is no longer about her – it’s about her rapists. It’s telling that when Broadchurch makes the already questionable decision to depict Trish’s rape, that isn’t about her either. She’s largely hidden in the scene; literally reduced to an object. The camera focuses on the face of her rapist – it’s all about his anguish, and his pain.

Further, it’s telling that at the end of it all, we get a “not all men” scene. DI Hardy decries the rapist as an “aberration”, insisting that “not every man is like that”. Which is odd, really – quite apart from all the problems inherent with that phrase, it seemed like every episode up until now had been about saying yes, actually. All men.

And so, the final episode flips everything on its head.  Though it had been clear up till now that each man was guilty of a crime no matter what, even if it wasn’t Trish’s rape, they were each redeemed in the end. Ed Burnett is instead a tragic failed protector, shouldering a weight of his own that we’re supposed to sympathise with. Ian Winterman’s stalking is forgotten, and his controlling impulses ignored – he’s invited back to his family once more for Chinese takeaway, and gets his happy ending. Clive Lucas’ stolen keys and forgotten, and much like Ed he’s allowed to be a noble yet tragic failure that the audience is invited to feel bad for.

Even Trish’s rapist. After all, we saw that he was just lead astray, and actually was quite sad about it all in the end anyway.

The obvious thing to do now would be launch into a critique. It would be a well-deserved critique, to be honest; it’s a struggle to view the Broadchurch failure as anything other than a total failure. The sort of failure where, frankly, things probably would have been better had they not been attempted at all in the first place. Hopefully there will be a lot of criticism to come. It’s worth articulating this, deconstructing the episode, and driving the point home.

But for now, let’s take a different approach. The critique is implicit; a different question has been raised. If Broadchurch series three was so promising at the beginning, why did it all fall apart at the end? If the message was at first about how damaging toxic masculinity is, how proliferated that patriarchal impulse to control is – what was the message at the end, when everyone was redeemed?

In that sense, the question almost answers itself: Much as every character had the potential to be a rapist, they all had the potential for redemption as well. The potential to be more, and rise above and beyond the strictures of toxic masculinity. Broadchurch is therefore not a depiction of rape culture, but rather a rejection and dismissal of it. The narrative critiques the structural faults in society that lead to it; it presents an answer through Reverend Coates’ homily.

Hebrews 10:24. “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”

Let us consider how we may break the cycle and move beyond toxic masculinity. Broadchurch’s answer? Family. Unity. People coming together and finding forgiveness. In that sense, it’s an apt way of tying together the show’s end and it’s beginning, returning to that original idea of family that motivated the first series run.

Is it the right answer? That’s debatable. But also, it’s unconvincing. It doesn’t feel the right note for the series to end on.

Particularly when Trish was so excluded from the narrative that the act of reconciliation doesn’t seem like her choice. That the implied forgiveness between Jim and Cath is skirted around entirely. That Lindsay Lucas is left out almost entirely.

In the end, the female characters are left out of this act of unity that was supposedly so important – meaning that, actually, Broadchurch didn’t have an answer at all. The insistence that “not all men are like that” wasn’t, as intended, a final reassurance – it was the same exclusionary note that it always is, leaving Broadchurch defined by the same toxic masculinity it tried so hard to reject.

Related:

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