This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This review contains spoilers.
In this week’s episode of Jimmy McGovern’s Broken, Father Michael urges a suicidal woman to turn her tale of woe into something productive. Don’t just give up, he tells her, use your story to make things better. If you’re terrified of being found out for stealing from your employer to feed a gambling addiction, own up and atone. Use your experience to campaign against the real villain, he says – the gambling outfits deliberately targeting the poor to suck them dry.
Unsurprisingly, McGovern and Father Michael share the same idea. In Broken, McGovern is telling sad stories as a form of protest. Each encounter Sean Bean’s character has with his parishioners is a parable on modern villainy. Employers who don’t pay fair wages, a social security system that makes people anything but secure, underfunded mental health care, vampiric gambling companies… the series is a compendium of warnings about what can happen when profits are privileged over people’s lives.
This week, McGovern told the story of Vernon – a young man with serious mental health problems sent prematurely away from the professional care home that can no longer afford to keep him, to his mother, a loving woman ill-equipped to cope with her son’s illness. Tragedy ensued, and a scene from Broken’s opening credits – blood dripping down a window pane next to a photograph of a smiling young boy – was explained. It’s Vernon’s blood and that was his tale of woe. Telling it was McGovern’s protest against austerity cuts to mental health services.
Each entry in this anthology of wretchedness takes a story you might glance at in headline form on the front page of a daily national and fills in the gaps around it. Last week was ‘Benefits thief steals dead mum’s pension’, this week’s was ‘Gambling addict nicks £200,000 from boss’. That became the story of Roz (played by Ray Donovan and Deadwood’s Paula Malcomson), the desperate woman who confessed to Father Michael that she’s planning to kill herself.
It goes without saying that none of the above makes for easy viewing. There’s scant cheer or brightness to be found in Broken, which is more a polemic against various targets than it is strictly entertainment. What could be entertaining about Vernon’s terrible story? It was bleak and inevitable and left us feeling, like Father Michael, hopeless and angry.
It also left Father Michael feeling guilty. Had he picked up the phone, perhaps he could have saved Vernon’s life. A rare instance of him choosing selfishness over selflessness meant he didn’t answer the call, and now he has to add Vernon to the burden of guilt he’s already suffering about his past.
A little of that was encouraged out of him this week by Roz, whose interest in Father Michael made them more equals than confessor and confessee. We learned that before becoming a priest, Michael treated women disrespectfully, using them for sex and mistreating them afterwards. The flashback scenes of him approaching a door behind which a woman is screaming appeared to show, perhaps, an abortion. Seeing as these scenes are playing out in his mind, were both the little boy and the young man smoking down the corridor Michael at different ages? Just as we saw his fifty-year old hand become that of a small child when holding his mother’s, are those flashbacks conflating various instances of shame in his past?
That kind of symbolism combined with the delicateness of Sean Bean’s performance, is what elevates Broken beyond a collection of (justifiably) angry political complaints. The image of Michael being called to the priesthood after his experience with the returning hawk was transcendent storytelling. It offered poetry, not just protest. You need the one in order to sell the other.