‘Happy Valley’ Returns to Send Catherine Cawood Off Into the Sunset
It has been more than seven years since we last saw Catherine Cawood, the world-weary Yorkshire cop heroine of the excellent British drama Happy Valley, and our first new glimpse of her in forever seems about right. Catherine, still played by the great Sarah Lancashire, shows up at a construction site near a dirty pond, where a backhoe has inadvertently dug up old human remains. When a pair of veteran detectives arrive, they dismiss her attempts to offer advice on the case, then are stunned when she can identify the body because she recognizes its repaired collarbone from an old case. Here she is, one more time, her uniform splattered with mud, still underestimated by everyone, still smarter and tougher than the rest.
The first season of Happy Valley was a crime drama masterclass, pitting Catherine against the worst figure of her nightmares: Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), the man who raped and impregnated her daughter Becky, who committed suicide a week after giving birth to Catherine’s grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah). While Catherine is going about routine police business, we see that Tommy has abducted and serially raped the wealthy Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy) as part of a botched kidnap-and-ransom plot. In one of the most harrowing yet spine-tingling sequences I’ve ever seen in any television drama, Catherine stumbles upon Ann’s basement prison, does battle with Tommy, and ultimately has to be saved by the woman she has come to rescue.
The season expertly balanced Catherine’s work and personal concerns, making it all work because this was her first encounter with Tommy in a long time, and because Halifax is a relatively small community. The second season, where Ann joined the police force to cope with her trauma, Tommy’s creepy prison pen pal tried to befriend Ryan, and Catherine helped solve a pair of unrelated killings, wasn’t in quite as perfect harmony, but Lancashire, Norton, and their co-stars were ultimately so good that it was easy to forgive the contrivance of Tommy stirring up trouble yet again.
It’s been a long wait for this third season, which came out in the U.K. earlier this year and is being released today in the States on Acorn TV, AMC+, and BBC America. Part of this was that Lancashire’s incredibly busy, like in her very different role as Julia Child on HBO Max’s Julia. And part of it is that Happy Valley creator Sally Wainwright needed to let Rhys Connah grow into a young adult before telling the third and final chapter of the Cawood family’s story.
As the season begins, Catherine is close to retirement, able to recite the exact number of months, weeks, and days she has left to anyone who asks. Ryan is 16, playing goalie for a school team and letting his bad temper — which he seems to have inherited from his monster of a father — occasionally get him into trouble with coach Rob Hepworth (Mark Stanley). Ann is about to be promoted to detective, while Tommy Lee Royce re-enters the picture on work and family levels yet again, since he knew the murdered man from the opening scene, while Catherine’s sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) and Clare’s boyfriend Neil (Con O’Neill) have been going behind Catherine’s back to bring Ryan to the prison for get-to-know-you visits with his father.
It’s the latter that proves the heart of the season. There are other cases, involving Rob and his addict wife Joanna (Mollie Winnard), a sketchy pharmacist (Amit Shah), and a local crime syndicate, but they feel more obligatory than in previous years, and several of them get wrapped up in abrupt and somewhat confusing(*) fashion in the finale.
(*) I highly endorse watching with the captions on to penetrate some of the show’s more thickly-accented conversations that are necessary to decipher the subplots.
But my goodness, the material involving Catherine, Ryan, and Tommy is incredible, with Ryan’s age and growing awareness of who he and his father are justifying the existence of this belated follow-up season.
Among the best decisions Wainwright and Lancashire made in building this character is how matter-of-fact Catherine is, no matter how dire or unfair the situation. After all, the worst moment of her life happened years before we first met her. She is still capable of being hurt — as we see frequently throughout these six concluding episodes — but nothing will ever be as bad as what Tommy did to Becky, nor will Catherine ever let others see how much pain she is in anymore. When a colleague tells her that Ryan has been visiting Tommy, you can see that every fiber of her body wants to scream, even as she completely keeps it to herself. “Well, you’re not overreacting. That’s good,” acknowledges her friend. Later, when she confronts Clare about Ryan and Tommy, she plainly lays out everything this sociopath has done to their family, and it is the complete lack of histrionics, or even so much as a raised voice, that makes it hit as hard as it does. These are events she has had to mentally relive over and over since before Ryan was born, and if she is not numb to them, she has learned how to build a wall between her and them, just so she can survive talking about them.
When you have a character as dangerous as Tommy Lee Royce, who has done so much to harm this particular very small family, there is a risk of making him into the Joker, and/or making the other characters feel incredibly stupid, if he keeps being allowed into their lives in any way. But Happy Valley is smart in detailing how much of the story Catherine has told others versus keeping to herself, and in keeping things ambiguous for as long as possible about exactly what Ryan wants out of this relationship and what he thinks of Tommy. Rhys Connah hasn’t acted a lot outside of this role, and it’s unclear what kind of career he can have if he wants one. But the show benefits enormously from pairing Lancashire with a co-star who has known her since he was a kid, with the chemistry to match. Her performance — an inner circle Drama TV Hall of Fame piece of work — is so strong that it would lift up almost anyone working alongside her, but Connah’s older Ryan feels very much like her grandson, and also like someone who would have a lot of complicated feelings for his biological father.
The plotting overall is a bit shaggier, and I had to pay frequent visits to my friend Google to remind myself of events and relationships from seasons past. (Say, that investigative reporter Richard, played by Derek Riddell, is Catherine’s ex-husband and Ryan’s grandfather.) But the work by Lancashire and Norton brings everything into focus despite the long gap. And the final scene they share, along with its immediate aftermath, is everything you would want it to be.
What a performance. What a character. What a show.
The six episodes of Happy Valley Season Three will be released weekly on Acorn TV, AMC+, and BBC America. I’ve seen the whole season.
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