Warning: contains spoilers for Happy Valley Series 3 Episode 1.
It’s as if it never went away. After a six year wait, Happy Valley is back and it’s as strong as ever. The characters, the dialogue, the plot and the stakes in this exceptional drama are just as vibrant and entertaining as they were when Sgt Cawood first introduced herself, fire extinguisher in hand, calmly summing up her life story to a petrol-soaked junkie threatening to set himself alight.
In fact, the stakes are even higher this time, because creator Sally Wainwright has been clear that Series 3 marks the definitive end of Catherine’s story. After this, there’s no coming back for Sarah Lancashire and co. That means the hope is that we’re heading towards a finale in which a newly retired Catherine drives her renovated Land Rover to the Himalayas, crunching over the bones of Tommy Lee Royce as she goes. But it also means the worry is that Catherine’s clapped-out Landy will never get further than Sowerby Bridge, because her job will kill her first. In the battle between Cawood and Royce, will either survive?
James Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce isn’t Catherine’s real adversary in Happy Valley. Though his vanity and arrogance would tell him otherwise, Tommy Lee Royce doesn’t have the stature to be Catherine’s true opponent; he’s just one face on the multi-headed monster of misogynistic violence and amoral greed she’s been swinging a sword at her whole career.
That monster’s other faces include Series 3’s newly introduced Rob Hepworth (Mark Stanley), a despicable, controlling domestic abuser who hides his violence behind a carefully staged role as a stand-up schoolteacher and put-upon father. And then there are the many heads of the Kneževićs, an organised crime gang of sex traffickers and drug dealers Catherine has been cleaning up after for decades.
There’s even pharmacist Faisal Bhatti (Amit Shah), the equivalent of previous series’ Kevin Weatherill, Ashley Cowgill and John Wadsworth – all cowards who selfishly grabbed at what looked like an easy win, and found themselves out of their depth with some extremely dangerous people.
Tommy Lee Royce may not be her equal in our eyes, but he is Catherine’s first priority, because once again, he’s coming for Ryan. After attempting to kill the eight-year-old in a murder-suicide in series one, and from prison, manipulating an unhinged woman to groom him in series two, Ryan’s biological dad (who fathered him when he brutally raped Catherine’s daughter Becky) has a plan. It appears to involve Ryan’s secret visits to his prison, a crash course in learning Spanish, an upcoming court date, and a deal he’s possibly made with the aforementioned Kneževićs.
This is all conjecture at this stage, of course, but let’s put the pieces together: the discovery of Gary Gaggoski’s body led to murderer Darius Knežević ordering the killing of Tommy Lee Royce in prison, to ensure that he didn’t tell the police what he knows (which is that Darius pulled the trigger and Tommy helped to dispose of the body, leaving his St Christopher pendant behind). Tommy, however, wasn’t killed but survived the attack. How? Perhaps he made a deal with Darius’ goons – to pin the murder on gang rival Chris Oxley from Oldham in exchange for his life? And perhaps he chucked in the means to manipulate a police sergeant by offering up his son Ryan to them for good measure?
What’s the worth in speculating while this series opener offered up so much of substance. We have a new enemy in the odious Rob (proof that Audi drivers and PE teachers are a Venn diagram of awfulness), new intrigue in Gary Gaggoski’s corpse potentially providing a route back to the Kneževićs, and the looming prospect of Catherine’s retirement and dinner with her new daughter-in-law’s millionaire dad, Nev.
One thing we can be sure about is that Tommy Lee Royce is driven entirely by self-regard. The likelihood that the smirking, recalcitrant manipulator we saw admiring himself in his cell mirror truthfully wants a relationship with his son is nil. That man, with his Jesus-meets-Charles-Manson new look, would throw anybody to the wolves if it got him one step further to where he wants to be. Ryan’s in danger.
And, to judge by Catherine’s reaction, so are the couple accompanying him on the prison visits. My money’s on hapless, well-meaning Clare and Neil (we know they keep things from Catherine to avoid her anger), but the seed was also sown that Ann and Daniel were taking Ryan to Sheffield for a birthday skydiving session, so perhaps in the six years since we last saw trainee police officer Ann Gallagher, something’s changed.
Something that hasn’t changed is writer-director Sally Wainwright’s talent for dialogue that delights (“what genre of twat does that?” Catherine asks Clare about Rob calling 999 on his wife in one of those brilliantly narrated-flashback scenes that give us the best of both worlds) and characters that get under your skin for reasons good and bad. The fate of no character on no TV show has me more worried than that of Ryan Cawood. The world needs him to end up nothing like his father, if only to show that the efforts of Sgt Cawood mean something in this often cruel world. Come on, Catherine.
Happy Valley continues on Sunday the 8th of January at 9pm on BBC One.