Having wrapped up the investigation into the murder of Danny Latimer in Season Two, the broody Detective Hardy (David Tennant) and compassionate Detective Miller (Olivia Colman) join forces once again this season, Broadchurchs’ last, when local woman Trish Winterman (Julie Hesmondhalgh) calls in to report a sexual assault. They find her sitting alone at the pier dressed in nothing but a nightshirt, with wounds apparent on the front and back of her head. Gently leading her to the car, Hardy informs her of the paper sheet he has placed on the car seat in case any evidence falls from her clothing. They ride to the police station in loaded silence. Hardy and Miller are acutely aware of the emotional and physical pain Trish is feeling, and the fact that there are no words that could possibly be spoken to ease it.
Arriving at the station, Trish’s long walk through the corridors suggests a feeling of utter detachment: She is walking through the winding halls of a most personal nightmare, the ugly surrealism of the situation becoming more evident with every broken step she takes. She’s met by Anna (Andrea Hall), a crisis worker for the dedicated sexual assault referral center, who is there to ensure Trish understands the procedures surrounding the administration of a rape kit. Niceties are kept to a minimum, the terms “unsafe”, “uncomfortable” and “sexual violence” are used, relayed with the robotic tact of a Humans-style synth. The somber atmosphere and Trish’s excruciating vulnerability weighed on me heavily. But that was nothing compared to the incredulous silence once she stepped into the “forensically secure” room for further DNA samples. Once seated, Miller opens a box of cotton swabs; Trish looks from Miller to Anna, frightened and desperately seeking reassurance. It is only at this point that Miller kindly informs Trish of the first task on their list: “Now I’m going to do a mouth swab, and the reason we do this first is basically so you can have a cup of tea.”
The line floored me. It’s the first time Trish receives a small gesture of kindness that strays from the standard police and crisis-worker protocol, and even though such procedures are necessary, up to this point her emotional landscape appears forgotten in the face of the preliminary investigation. A cup of tea is a ridiculous offer; the mere suggestion of a warming beverage being remotely soothing to a petrified body is infuriating. And yet, what else could Miller or Hardy possibly offer, other than a time machine, to undo Trish’s horrific experience?
As the first round of routine procedures comes to an end, the crisis worker informs Trish that the morning-after pill can be arranged. Trish stares at her in a near-catatonic state, unable to make sense of what’s happening to her, let alone process the information. Before Miller and Hardy drive her home, she looks up at them and asks them the one question no woman in this situation should ever have to ask:
“Do you believe me?”
To think that a woman who’s gone through such trauma is left doubting whether officials believe her is absolutely devastating. Though there’s no explicit indication in the season premiere that Miller and Hardy don’t believe her story, as the investigation continues in the second episode, we come to realize that Trish’s concern is the by-product of a misogynist society that often pins the blame on sexual assault victims. When Trish finally musters the nerves to give her statement, the very first question on the detectives’ list is, “Can you tell us exactly what you wore that night to the party?” closely followed by, “And what underwear did you have on?”
A victim of rape is only going to hear one thing in such a implicative question—Were you asking for it?. Trish had changed her clothes after the attack and was unable to immediately remember the full details of that night. So, as livid as these questions make me, I can see why they had to be asked. But that doesn’t change the fact that these questions feel accusatory and in most cases are. They enhance feelings of shame and culpability. Like many other women, Trish is aware of the rape myths yet to be uncovered as such by (a predominantly) male population still confused about the concept of consent. And as the investigation wears on, it is clear that this season of Broadchurch aims to confront rape culture through the eyes of the victim, her immediate social circle, and authorities.
This becomes even more apparent when Trish is asked about her last sexual encounter prior to the rape. Realizing that her answer is bound to put her credibility in jeopardy, she is reluctant to admit to having had sex the morning of her attack. She doesn’t need to look into the faces of Miller and Hardy to know they are concerned—not in terms of her credibility, but in terms of how her statement will play in court. She has been a woman on this planet for long enough to know that a patriarchal society will do little to side with her, and everything to excuse violent men who have yet to learn that women are not objects on which to unleash their rage.
Had Trish known at this point that the men interviewed as suspects described her as flirtatious and as a woman who “sleeps around,” she might have abandoned taking the investigation any further, knowing that she would have to undergo blatant shaming and accusations should her case go to court. Because that’s the way it is, isn’t it? If a woman likes to party and flirt—well, she’s asking for it. If a woman likes to dress up, however (un)provocatively—she’s asking for it. And if a woman repeatedly says “no,” if a woman starts kicking and screaming “no,” if a woman is unconscious—apparently, she’s still asking for it.
In its first two episodes, Broadchurch opens an important conversation not only about the official approach to sexual attacks, and how they’ve resulted in a frightening number of cases going unreported, but about all the subliminal messaging we receive on a daily basis suggesting that women are intended to be objectified. Miller and Hardy may be handling Trish’s case with all the patience, sensitivity and support their regulations allow, but as they dig deeper into the investigation, they come to realize that their system has failed, and continues to fail, victims of rape due to prevailing misogynist attitudes.
Broadchurch’s writers and producers worked closely with the Dorset Rape Crisis Support Centre to ensure the storyline was treated with utmost sensitivity. Additionally, they supported the crisis center during the show’s original eight-week run so that emergency lines could be kept open until midnight, offering extra support to survivors who may have felt triggered by its content. Cautious not to depict the actual rape, and refusing to show women as mere, sexualized objects like so many other TV series, Broadchurch instead focuses on the victim’s experience and her understandable mistrust in a male-dominated system. Examining the question of consent beyond physical harassment, and straying from the usual plotline of the anonymous attacker and the young, sexualized woman, the series offers a jarring depiction of rape culture that is only intensified by Hesmondhalgh’s performance, and the realization that this is our persisting social climate, and with a “grab them by the pussy” President in power, it looks as though little is subject to change.