This review contains spoilers.
Give me the child and I’ll give you the man, says an old Jesuit adage I’m paraphrasing and probably misattributing, but nonetheless the wisdom stands: what we learn in childhood forms us as adults. Of Broken’s many messages, that’s the loudest.
In childhood, Michael Kerrigan learned there was something wrong with him. He learned to keep quiet. He learned the sexual abuse he suffered was his fault. None of that’s exclusive to Catholicism – those are the lessons all abused children learn and they’re the fastest to sink in. Unlearning them can be the job of a lifetime.
It’s a job that Father Michael, now in his fifties, is still working on. As he struggles to support his bruised community and atone for his past wrongs, he’s also trying to make sense of the abuse he suffered. Why him? Why was it allowed to continue? And why didn’t he speak out about it? Episode three shows him still reeling from the trauma, and, in its most powerful scene, finally confronting his painfully indifferent abuser.
Father Michael’s story is Broken’s most affecting strand. Not because it’s the saddest—you can hardly rank these desperate stories by weight of wretchedness, they’re dreadful to a one—but because it has the most complexity. As a child, Sean Bean’s character suffered physical and sexual abuse by priests and then became a priest, a vocation in which he clearly believes. Michael was terribly wronged by the adults in his life, later went on to wrong others—women, and now lives a life of atonement. He gets angry. He can be selfish. He could have, but didn’t, save a boy’s life for want of picking up the telephone. He struggles to square his anger and pain with his faith’s aspirations to forgiveness and mercy. Put simply, he’s not perfect.
Being not perfect (and being played by an actor able to convey all of the above as naturally as breathing) makes Father Michael compelling. Watching a complex character try to be good, it turns out, is just as captivating as watching one try on being bad—a route well-trodden in modern TV drama.
The complexity is key. Much less compelling than Father Michael’s is the story of Helen Oyenusi (Muna Otaru), whose saintly composure following the murder of her son doesn’t feel grounded in reality. She displays no anger, only gratitude and benevolence. She responds to platitudes from the police service that killed her son with humble thanks. Heartbroken, she doles out forgiveness rather than blame. Put simply, Helen is perfect, which makes her hard to believe in.
Broken has a habit of painting its supporting characters in primary colours that challenge credulity. In pursuit of Jimmy McGovern’s message of social responsibility, they’re either pure victims like Helen or pure villains like PC Andrew Powell’s commanding officer. The latter exists as an avatar for closed-ranks corruption in the police service, i.e. a baddie. That’s why he doesn’t only put pressure on Mark Stanley’s conflicted character, he also callously tramples over his infant daughter’s birthday party in the process.
That sort of manipulative touch weakens Broken’s argument. Even if McGovern’s perennial theme of social injustice is close to your own heart—and why on earth wouldn’t it be?—it risks overegging the pudding. For all this series’ power, with no ironic edge or leavening comedy, Broken may prove too bleak and too earnest for some. Audiences are happy to be moved; they balk at being overburdened or patronised.
Audiences, however, always have time for terrific performances such as the one Mark Stanley (Dickensian, Game Of Thrones) gave as PC Andrew Powell, an officer wrestling with his conscience when his colleagues form a conspiracy to cover up misconduct in the killing of Helen’s son. Pulling focus from Sean Bean at his best is no small achievement, and Stanley did just that in the emotional church scene.
Drew’s story was another important tale about how challenging it can be to do the right thing. His final speech about the impossibility of being a coward with a conscience was moving and truthful. Like Father Michael, he was traumatised, not by historical events but by those of the recent past.
A drama you watch with a heavy heart, Broken is still at its best as an emotional biography of a man struggling to emerge from his past. “Do this in memory of me,” said Father Michael in mass, while suffering flashbacks to his childhood abuse, and it’s a cruel irony that he can’t deliver the sacrament in memory of his saviour, only in memory of his abuser.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.