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Broadchurch: Lessons in perception

Gabe Griggs | Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Over the past few weeks, I have been following the BBC crime drama Broadchurch (spoiler alert!), and in following the series, I have been struck by the power of perception. This series follows the investigation of the murder of a young boy, Danny Latimer, in the small coastal town of Broadchurch. Broadchurch has never experienced a crime of this magnitude, so the investigation that follows the crime casts deep suspicion over the whole town and its people.

David Bradley’s character Jack Marshall exemplifies the destructive capacity of perception. Marshall is a gruff convenience shop owner and leader of a boys group called the Sea Brigade. As the series develops, it is revealed that Jack Marshall has a previous conviction for sex with a minor. This conviction leads the town to believe that Jack is the murderer. In one particularly moving scene, Jack Marshall is preparing for a Sea Brigade meeting when a mob of angry men comes to his door and surrounds his building.

One of the men leading this group is Mark Latimer, Danny’s father. Jack divulges to Mark the nature of his previous conviction: He had a relationship with an underage girl whom he later married, but the two are now separated because of the grief of losing their son in a car accident. Mark and Jack are linked, then, in two ways: They both lost a son and their wives were both underage when they met. “I’m just like you, Mark,” Jack tells him. Mark quickly realizes his mistake in accusing Jack and clears the mob.

There is a similar twist that occurs later in the show. Susan Wright, one of the primary suspects, reveals that her husband was sexually abusing one of their children without her knowledge. Susan then explains that upon this revelation, her son was taken away from her at birth and adopted by a woman in Broadchurch. She is in town to reconnect with her son, but a night on the beach where she sees a man who strikingly resembles her son leads her to believe that he is guilty of the crime. This makes sense in her mind, as her son “is the son of his father.”
The detective questioning Susan Wright, Ellie Miller, asks her, “How could you not know [that your husband was abusing your daughter]?” In the final turn of the series, Ellie’s husband is revealed to be the killer. This very question gets turned around in Ellie’s face, “How could you not know?”, by the mother of the murdered child. Ellie does not have a response and she simply stares back in silence.  

There are countless stories illustrating the power of perception. Yet we have to wonder, do we ever learn anything from these stories? Do we actually relate to people differently because of the lessons we learn from these stories? Perhaps most importantly, do we ourselves act differently because of what we learn from these stories? In what way would we act differently?
Broadchurch is layered with examples of the intricacy of human relations. Perhaps its most profound revelation is that if we look hard enough, we are all alike. Mark is similar to Jack. Ellie is similar to Susan. If we are to relate to each other differently as a result of this understanding, perhaps the takeaway is that we must realize how similar we are to one another.

I know a lot of people here whose company I enjoy and whose insights in the classroom I appreciate. But I have also seen many of these people at some of their worst moments, particularly on Friday nights or in moments of frustration on the athletic field. It is difficult to accept the complexity of the totality of their actions. What I see is only a snapshot of their life and therefore a biased perception of who they are. Had I seen snapshots of particular moments in my own life, I would be left wondering the same question: How can I reconcile the good with the bad? We see this even in the lives of the saints in their darkest moments. If we did not know the final story, would we have guessed that Peter, who denied Christ three times, would have become the rock of the church?

We cannot help but perceive and make judgments, and incomplete and incorrect perceptions are unavoidable. The key to our relationships, though, is realizing that we are all fallen, and in this regard, we are all the same. It is for this very reason, in fact, that our perceptions are necessarily incomplete. In recognizing our own fallenness, we are better equipped to overcome our incomplete perceptions, see people for who they really are and more properly treat our neighbors as ourselves.

Gabe Griggs is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies. He can be reached at ggriggs@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.