Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Trying Again on "Oh Broadchurch"

I keep thinking about this show--which is a win for the show, obviously, if you believe that any publicity is good publicity.

But here's the problem. The whole thing looks like it's a sensitive and nuanced look at the effect of murder on a small town. The talented cast acts like it's a sensitive and nuanced look at the effect of murder on a small town. It's the script that isn't on the same page.

Because the script only goes to the first level of secrets. There's a murder. To solve the murder, people have to give up information they would rather keep to themselves. But under the concentrated questioning of the police and in their own self-interest (because they don't want to be convicted of a murder they didn't commit, or because they want to sleep safe in their own beds and want the murderer to be caught) they reveal their secrets, their darker sides.

That's the bargain, right? There is a desire for privacy, to not be judged for things they are already ashamed of--otherwise they wouldn't be keeping them secret. But there is a strong countervailing need for safety. So in the course of the investigation, we learn things about people, their true faces.


Except not everybody is fully and totally honest. Not at first. Maybe not ever.

There are lots of reasons for this, right? Let's look at some of the candidates for lying.

  • Obviously, the actual perpetrator might lie repeatedly in order to not be punished. S/he doesn't want to get caught, so s/he lies. It's the job of the police to break through this defensive scrim of lies to get at the truth. "You murdered him." "No, I didn't." "Yes, you did, and here's our proof." You can't expect the murderer to just confess at that point. The problem is that--despite DI Hardy's repeated insistence that "anybody could have done this"--the police don't seem to consider that the suspect they question might be lying at a more sophisticated level than simple denial. Which a murderer who doesn't want to get caught will certainly do.
  • Deliberate lies. Even when not covering up murder, people are frequently engaged in other illegalities they don't want to admit to, or just things they are embarrassed about. Especially when they believe these things aren't related to the murder. For example, Mark Latimer (the victim's father) was having an affair. He didn't want to make that public, and he knows that he didn't kill his son to cover up the affair, so why do the police need to know about it? So he stalls, he evades, he makes up stories about where he was, he enlists his pal Nige to cover for him. The cops track down Nige, explode his story, get the truth from Mark. This is about the only time they do any decent police work. But once they get the fact of the affair out of Mark--they drop him as a suspect. The problem is that a man who is having an affair could also have other secrets. He could be involved in getting drugs for the hotel guests--his daughter was, his mistress was, why not him? Could having an affair plus illegal drug activity be motive for murder? 
  • Misleading facts. Jack Marshall, the local Sea Scouts leader, is found dead, apparently having committed suicide. He had been the lead suspect at the time, his past as a sex offender leading to persecution and dredging up his sorrowful backstory of losing his son and wife to his wife's drunk driving accident. He was technically a sex offender, in that he fell in love with a girl just shy of her 18th birthday (16th? Whichever is the age of consent in the UK), and married her after he served his time for statutory rape. This is not the assumption that the town jumped to, concluding that he molested all the Sea Scouts, and killed Danny Latimer to keep his pedophilia secret. But--was he an innocent victim and did he commit suicide? The mob of men who confronted him and tried to run him out of town--might have come back. They might have murdered him. He might have murdered Danny. What proof do the police have that he didn't? Not any kind of forensic proof, that's for sure. Instead, it's a sort of "narrative necessity." He couldn't be the murderer, because he died only halfway through the series. Far too early for him to be the solution. Which isn't very satisfying.
  • Mistaken but sincerely held beliefs. Susan Wright is kind of a creepy lady, and she's got a lot of proximity to the murder--she has the keys to the hut where the murder took place, she had Danny's skateboard, she trolls for Tom Miller with her dog and lures him to her caravan. When she's broght in for questioning, she tells a sad story about her abusive husband, the murder of her own daughter, the loss of her remaining two children, and her search for the baby that was taken away from her--who she has identified as Nige. Maybe she believes this to be true. Maybe it is true--but maybe she is mistaken. Maybe she is lying. Maybe she has a longer con in mind, is using the purported filial relationship to get Nige into some scheme. We can't know, because DS Miller buys the story, hook, line and sinker.
The thing about detective work--real detective work--is that a confession can't always be taken a face value. First a detective has to figure out what questions to ask, and then has to take the answers skeptically. Hardy and Miller hardly ever seem to take that second step, and that's what makes the whole of Broadchurch seem flimsy. It's the sense that you haven't really looked very deeply at all.

No comments: