Image: © ITV

Editor’s note: This piece contains discussion of sexual assault.

It seems that on television these days you can’t change a channel or flick through a Netflix queue without encountering a story of a woman being victimised or assaulted. These storylines are most likely attractive to writers and filmmakers for two reasons: on the one hand, the safety of women is finally entering the public consciousness as a cause for genuine concern; but also because the horrific trauma that real women frequently endure at the hands of men makes for a shocking and ‘eye-catching’ storyline to disturb (and thus, entertain) viewers. Are we so masochistic as audiences that these stories will still pique our interest every time? Apparently yes – because the rape narratives in series like Downton Abbey, Scandal, Reign, Jessica Jones, Game of Thrones and many, many (so many) more are served alongside a slew of hot takes (just like this one) around the ethics of addressing sexual assault on TV. Each new TV rape/abuse storyline gets its share of attention from the media, and presumably results in more eyeballs and higher ratings for the show. But in the third and final season of crime thriller Broadchurch, something a little different has played out.

One of the first questions Trish Winterman (Julie Hesmondhalgh), the victim of a horrific sexual assault, asks detectives Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) is: ‘Do you believe me?’ There’s a dramatic pause from the usually priggish Hardy, before he replies with a heartfelt ‘Yes’. This small, excruciating moment encapsulates Chris Chibnall and the Broadchurch team’s different approach to a distressingly popular TV trope: the sexual assault and trauma of women.

I’ve made no secret of my distaste for this sort of storyline in the past. My disappointment in this plot trope is twofold: first, the relentless attention to the trauma of women, largely by male showrunners, feels like a method for these men to keep their female characters (and by extension their female audiences) in line with the ‘glimmer of sexual peril’, as Roxane Gay calls it; and second, because these storylines are rarely done with any attention to or respect for the fictional (or real-life) victims of this heinous crime. In Downton Abbey, for example, Anna’s rape becomes a crusade on which all the male members of the household can release their testosterone-fuelled outrage. In Game of Thrones, it appears that any female character who shows strength or resistance is raped, as some kind of cautionary tale against standing up for yourself as a woman. Often these stories are not even told from the victim’s perspective, nor do we visit the victim again post-assault to tackle the aftermath of trauma. In Game of Thrones, for example, when Sansa is raped by her husband, Ramsay Bolton, we view the assault through the perspective of her childhood friend Theon, and his horror at being forced to watch, rather than the pain Sansa feels at being assaulted. The right of this woman – fictional or not – to respond to her own rape is taken away from her. These stories are not told to draw attention to the vile epidemic of rape and assault – they are merely ways to develop a character, or move a plot forward, or to shock a stagnant plot back into action.

With all this in mind, I was reluctant to return to those stunning Dorset cliffs when I read the words ‘serious sexual assault’ in the season description. But I’ve found myself increasingly impressed by the difficult and nuanced work the series is doing in service to the female trauma victim trope. My question when approaching these stories, however clumsily or elegantly they are handled on TV, is always: Do we really need to see this? This final season of Broadchurch has me convinced that, yes, perhaps sometimes we do.

I’ve found myself increasingly impressed by the difficult and nuanced work the series is doing in service to the female trauma victim trope.

We open on, as ever, on a shot of Broadchurch’s signature yellow cliffs. It seems rather like the same old Broadchurch, which began in 2013 with the intimate, haunting mystery of the murder of Danny Latimer and its effect on a prickly and suspicious seaside town. However, the next shot is something we’ve not seen before: a piercing blue eye, surrounded by fresh bruises, in extreme close-up. The eye belongs to Trish Winterman, the victim of this season’s dreadful crime, and the shot is a signal: this story is about Trish – her trauma, her experiences. Though the stellar duo of Tennant and Colman are still undoubtedly the show’s stars (Colman in particular is an absolute stand-out, bristling yet tender), the show pays unprecedented attention to Trish in the aftermath of her assault, giving the show an invigorating new purpose. It’s interesting that the series is helmed by a man, Chibnall, because arguably this story, of the trauma and assault visited on women regularly, is not his to tell. But I appreciate his perspective – a kind of horrified guilt by association at the state of the male sexual temperament – and it’s clear he’s striving to do justice to the perspective of female assault survivors here. Already he has avoided the initial pitfalls many TV rape storylines fall into: not prioritising the victim’s perspective.

Perhaps, at some level, the showrunners chose to centre Broadchurch’s third season on the story of a middle-aged woman’s brutal rape at a friend’s birthday party to draw viewers – viewers dropped after Broadchurch’s lauded first season, and critics turned on its maudlin and drawn-out second. But Chibnall cleverly opts for specificity in his approach to this tricky topic. From the abovementioned scene when Trish asks Miller and Hardy if they believe her, the series reveals its critical eye. Not only does the show examine the disturbing way in which violence against women is so common as to be almost ‘normal’ (or at least expected), but it also considers the ramifications and reactions for the victim when reporting and enduring the subsequent scrutiny from police, the community and a society that rushes to judgement. The story is not so much about the devastating act itself, but about the enduring trauma a victim like Trish is forced to face. And it doesn’t shy away from the tough questions: Why did the assault happen? Why do some women choose not to report their assaults? And who on earth would want to do something this abhorrent to another human?

The story is not so much about the devastating act itself, but about the enduring trauma a victim is forced to face.

Through Trish’s eyes we see the clinical and frankly degrading process a victim of assault must go through to report the crime. This element Broadchurch handles with deftness and an unflinching pragmatism that is admirable but admittedly hard to witness. After reporting the attack, Trish is transferred to a Sexual Assault Response Centre, where she is stripped down and tested using a rape kit. Swabs in her mouth (done first so she can ‘have a cup of tea’), an excruciating pelvic examination and clinical photographs of her cuts and bruises. Despite a doctor’s insistence that Trish is ‘in control’ of the process, it all feels justifiably invasive and uncomfortable. Miller and Hardy obsessively catalogue every piece of evidence; even Trish’s first move, from the police station to the SARC, must take place atop a plastic evidence sheet to collect any DNA that might fall from her body in the short car ride. It’s frightfully invasive-looking, but throughout the process Chibnall and co. are keen to show victims treated with respect and dignity by the police and their allies. When one of Trish’s friends implores Hardy and Miller, ‘I hope someone told you that she wouldn’t have done anything to provoke this. She’s not that sort of woman’, Miller replies coldly: ‘And what sort of woman is that?’ Whenever the unsympathetic new detective in Broadchurch, Constable Harford, makes a disparaging comment about Trish, she is quickly admonished by Hardy and Miller. While Broadchurch acknowledges that those attitudes are still present in police stations, its seeks to assure viewers that those opinions are the minority. Of course, this does not make reporting and enduring the ensuing traumas of processing any easier for victims. But, as Dorset Rape Crisis service manager Helen Stevens told the Mirror, ‘We hope that the series will enable victims of sexual violence to come forward to receive the help and specialist support that is available to them.’ In this way, Broadchurch is proving the value of addressing this taboo storyline – to increase awareness around changing attitudes toward victims reporting sexual violence to police.

Mostly the camera sticks uncomfortably close to Trish, who is played with excruciating delicacy by Julie Hesmondhalgh. Hesmondhalgh is wonderfully expressive, with a tragic hollow face and wide, fearful eyes – we feel every bruise and barb that Trish endures in the aftermath of the assault. When we’re not with Trish, Chibnall returns to the Broadchurch police station with Hardy and Miller; to series 1 characters Beth, Mark and Chloe Latimer at their house (Beth serves as Trish’s trauma support advisor); and to the underserved church run by vicar Paul, who is engaged to dole out some Old-Testament punishment when Miller’s son, Tom, is caught distributing pornography at school. More than in any other season (or, indeed, in many other TV shows) we’re prompted to note how badly behaved the men of Broadchurch are. If they’re not an incredibly dodgy suspect in Trish’s rape case, they’re dealing in brutish revenge fantasies (like Mark Latimer), or objectifying women among their friends (like Tom Miller). As Miller and Hardy leave a suspect’s house after an uncomfortable interview, Hardy says, ‘You know what’s bothering me about this case? It makes me ashamed to be a man.’ In this way, where the focus of the violence is on the male capacity (or culturally sanctioned freedom) to degrade, overpower and abuse women, Broadchurch doesn’t pull any punches.

[Broadchurch] does the most important thing that any TV show tackling an assault storyline can do: it refuses to show the attack on screen.

The series also does the most important thing that any TV show tackling an assault storyline can do: it refuses to show the attack on screen. Though Trish describes the attack in chilling detail to Hardy and Miller, there are no tacky, trauma-inducing flashbacks to the attack; we do not watch Trish being violated. This is important, because it speaks to Chibnall’s sensitive consideration of the traumatised viewer: there is no need to shock or titillate an audience by ambushing them with a brutally rendered attack. What’s important isn’t how Trish was attacked, it’s what happens after that matters when encouraging reflection and discourse.

As this brilliant but tricky season of Broadchurch draws to a close, there’s no telling whether it will stumble at the finishing line. However illuminating the mystery of who attacked Trish can be in highlighting male privilege and attitudes around male violence, there are times when the whodunit factor begins to stray into tacky titillation territory. But then the series will return its razor focus to its primary goal: to illuminate the unenviable plight of sexual assault survivors. So I still have faith that the show will pull it off at series end, proving that sometimes women’s trauma can be handled with intelligence and sensitivity by television creators – and for more than just petty shock value.

The series finale of Broadchurch airs at 8:30pm, Friday 21 April on ABC TV.