‘Happy Valley’ Review: Sarah Lancashire’s Haunted Cop Returns for a Satisfying Season 3 of Cat-and-Mouse Games With a Killer
Thanks to COVID and the overall shifting TV marketplace, it has become increasingly common for shows to launch with an eight or 10-episode season and then vanish for 18 months or two years before returning.
Sometimes I’m pretty good at remembering where shows left off, at least sufficiently to resume a story I cared about. Then there are series like Netflix’s Sweet Tooth, which made me very happy when it premiered in 2021 but which I found impossible to emotionally reconnect to when the second season kicked off last month.
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The Sweet Tooth hiatus of 22 months is child’s play compared to the seven years between seasons of Happy Valley, the BBC One police drama that was available on Netflix in its first two seasons. Saying it “aired” on Netflix would have suggested something more active than the reality, because despite being wildly and deservedly acclaimed — the second season was in my Top 10 for 2016 — Netflix never really pushed the show. It was absolutely there, though, and then it wandered off into the streaming wilderness.
Several months after its British premiere, the third and final season of Happy Valley is finally set to make its domestic debut between BBC America, AMC+ and Acorn TV (with the first two seasons streaming on the latter two platforms) and I’ll just admit it: I remembered almost none of the secondary details and characters from two previous seasons I loved.
It doesn’t matter even an iota. Sally Wainwright’s locomotive of a series reminds you of the things you’ve forgotten when they’re relevant, and otherwise charges forward with trademark intensity, driven by an all-timer of a performance from Sarah Lancashire and her near-equal foil James Norton.
The new season is a step below the first two in its narrative momentum, but Lancashire and Norton are so good and the resolution between their characters is so satisfying that nothing else really matters.
The story picks up with Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood nearing retirement from the police force. With her grandson (Rhys Connah’s Ryan) well into his teens and no longer as dependent on the grandma who raised him after his mother’s suicide, Catherine has begun to think of a future without the murder, organized crime and general tumult of the beautifully photographed hills and valleys of West Yorkshire.
Then a body is dredged up from the bottom of the local reservoir and the evidence points in the direction of Tommy Lee Royce (Norton), Ryan’s biological father who’s incarcerated for life for two seasons of murder, rape and overall sociopathy. This seems like a strange moment for Ryan to begin to take a real interest in his dad, but he’s 16 and trying to understand himself, so what are you going to do?
Off to the side, but inevitably moving toward the forefront, is Ryan’s hostile soccer coach (Mark Stanley), abusive husband to Mollie Winnard’s Joanna and neighbor to Faisal (Amit Shah), a pharmacist being squeezed by the region’s drug syndicate.
Whatever your pantheon of conflicted TV cops happens to be — some combination of Sipowitz/Tennison/Mackey/McNulty/Pembelton would be a good starting point — Catherine Cawood is in that tier. She’s brilliant, but emotionally damaged to the point of myopia, but still wonderfully droll and sarcastic, but still caring and maternal. She makes smart decisions for the wrong reasons and stupid decisions for the right reasons. It’s no wonder that as Catherine’s retirement is approaching, nobody in her precinct knows if they’re supposed to throw her a party because it’s never completely clear if she’s the most loved or hated officer on the force. Every contradiction in the character is built into Lancashire’s performance; the flaws and heroism go hand-in-hand. She’s as good as any actor you’ll watch this year or any year.
If Lancashire is the heart and soul and brain of Happy Valley, Norton is some murkier organ, no less essential to the functioning of the body, but too drenched in viscera for the spotlight. Tommy Lee Royce is a nasty piece of business with boundless charisma. He’s driven by a brutish, preening narcissism rather than a refined brilliance, which keeps him from being one of those Hannibal Lecter or Alice Morgan (Luther) sorts of sociopathic savants.
But therein lies the minor problem. The second best part of Happy Valley is also its biggest flaw. Happy Valley needs Tommy Lee Royce. His atrocities reconfigured Catherine’s DNA. Her journey and destination require his presence, but keeping Tommy present requires a suspension of disbelief that can be a struggle. After the events of the first two seasons, it’s hard to imagine a Tommy Lee Royce not being kept in the darkest and most solitary box imaginable. But there he is in prison working the cafeteria line and receiving regular, fairly public visitors with no vetting. And it isn’t a spoiler that if he remained behind bars for the totality of the third season, the drama just wouldn’t work.
In order for her story to be believable, Tommy has to become something less-than-believable and, in his flirtation with powers that border on demonic, he absorbs the entirety of the series’ dramatic tension. The season’s secondary mystery, therefore, blurs into the background, with a rushed resolution that I missed and then slightly misunderstood.
Many of the supporting performers, even ones who played key roles in previous seasons, are left without any relevance to the story’s conclusion. Siobhan Finneran, so wonderful as Catherine’s recovering addict sister, continues to add a sympathetic gravity, but if that character had an arc in the first two seasons it’s mostly lost. Charlie Murphy’s Ann has a bracing monologue toward the end of the season, but if you previously thought she was crucial to the show’s bigger purpose, that momentum gets lost. I’m not saying I craved more time with George Costigan’s Nevison or Derek Riddell’s Richard or Con O’Neill’s Neil or Karl Davies’ Daniel or Shane Zaza’s Shah — just that they’re variably major characters reduced to the status of background extras here.
Yet there’s little I would change about where the show takes Catherine and Tommy by the end of the season. Their resolution is emotional and terrifying stuff, executed perfectly by both stars. The wait for the end of Happy Valley has been a long one, but it’s still totally worth it.
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