Broadchurch: can the finale live up to the hype?

As the nation prepares to come to a standstill at 9pm tonight, is the identity of Danny Latimer's killer too obvious?

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The writers, commissioners, producers and stars of Broadchurch can’t possibly have imagined the impact their series would have. The eight-part whodunnit’s final episode will, when the consolidated figures including time-shift viewing come in, be seen by nine or ten million people, all of them desperate to know who killed 11-year-old Danny Latimer in the fictional Dorset coastal town of Broadchurch.

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This is the most hotly anticipated final episode of a series on British TV since… what? It’s bigger than the series one climaxes of Homeland, Life on Mars or The Killing. Perhaps you have to go back to Twin Peaks or the 1980 episode of Dallas in which JR was shot.

And it’s been kept top-secret. Press previews haven’t been available – a tactic that worked perfectly for ITV when they wouldn’t let us see the “Lady Sybil dies” episode of Downton Abbey – and tabloid reports suggest there are fewer than 30 people on Earth who know who killed Danny.

ITV took a big risk with Broadchurch, allowing it eight hour-long episodes. That’s at least two more than is conventional. Some would say it was two too many, since the early episodes were pretty slow, and a lot of time’s been given over to narrative dead ends. All that will be forgotten, however, if the finale delivers.

In his interview with Alison Graham, writer Chris Chibnall talks about how carefully plotted the show was, how extensively the characters were given back stories, and how the ending isn’t going to be simply an is-that-it reveal. Clearly Chibnall has been precise in which clues are dropped and when. What he doesn’t explicitly discuss is to what extent he anticipated that the series being a hit would mean viewers going back and forth over every single scene – or whether he knew that they would pick their killer based not on clues, but on the conventions of TV detective drama.

RadioTimes.com readers have made up their mind. They think it has to be Joe Miller (Matthew Gravelle), the more or less mild-mannered husband of Ellie, the investigating policewoman played by Olivia Colman, one of the series’ two headline stars. Since we started our weekly who-did-it vote and suspects list, he’s been there or thereabouts, only losing first place when Nige’s crossbow-waving threats were at their peak. Readers of everything from Digital Spy to This Is Somerset agree.

This superb graph illustrates how Joe’s dominated our readers’ thoughts, with more than half of them now thinking he’s the one:

Their reasoning is, it must be said, strong. First of all, you’d think a big-name actor must have some weighty scenes tonight. When the twist drops, one or more of David Tennant, Olivia Colman and Arthur Darvill have to be right in the firing line and, for Tennant and Colman, merely being the police officers chasing the killer won’t feel sufficient. If it’s Ellie’s son or husband, it’s time for Colman to clinch that Bafta. (Darvill’s shaky vicar Paul Coates, who has drifted in and out of suspicion nicely, would fit this bill too.)

Joe is a classic person you least suspect – present in every episode but doing almost nothing to attract attention. Which is precisely why most people think it will turn out to be him! One of the few clues given out by someone who knows was when Vicky McClure, who plays reporter Karen White, said: “When we did find out it was a big surprise. I think people are going to be shocked when it is revealed.” If McClure hadn’t considered that viewers automatically look for those big shocks – and if she wasn’t simply messing with us – Joe Miller ticks that box.

In its early stages, Broadchurch went down the route of making all the town’s residents incredibly suspicious. Everything anyone did was accompanied by that spooky music, to the extent that you wondered if we were in a Murder on the Orient Express scenario.

For a while it seemed that this show was just a very long and drawn-out whodunnit, with some terribly worthy and sensitive drama thrown on about the effect on a family of losing a child: Poirot with balsamic dressing on. There were so many suspects, all of them having been so heavily signposted as potential killers, it was hard to see any resolution that wouldn’t feel annoyingly random. It could have been anyone.

In the past three episodes, though, Chibnall has elegantly focused the action. Some suspects – Becca Fisher, Steve Connelly – have simply melted away. Others have had their own sad stories play out and have left the show. That means it would now be a huge – and probably unacceptable – surprise if the killer isn’t Joe, Paul, Nige or perhaps Dean, the boyfriend of Danny’s sister Chloe. Everyone else either doesn’t have enough invested in them, or has a scene in a past episode that would now make no sense.

More importantly, the way Chibnall handled the stories of Jack Marshall (David Bradley), Susan Wright (Pauline Quirke) and, in a slightly different way, Alec Hardy (Tennant) suggest that the how and why of the killing will be what’s satisfying about the ending – that there’ll be more to it than just the murderer’s identity. If that’s the case, even if everyone’s right and Joe Miller did do it, it won’t be a problem. There have been rumours that the killer will be unmasked halfway through tonight’s instalment, rather than in the last ten minutes, which would make a lot of sense. Then again, today Broadchurch producer Richard Stokes has hinted that the very start and the very end are key as well

Has Chris Chibnall wrong-footed nine million people by playing on their expectations of the genre and setting up Joe Miller as the prime suspect, only to reveal a better explanation as his final flourish? Did he even foresee that so many people would latch onto Joe? How about that line last week when Ellie asked Susan Wright how she could possibly not know about criminality in her own home? A too-heavy clue, or a perfectly judged red herring?

There’s still plenty of scope for Broadchurch to blow it but, if Chibnall has put everything in place, it’ll be one of the biggest TV drama triumphs in recent years. Only one way to find out…

Broadchurch concludes tonight at 9pm on ITV

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