Happy Valley series 1 finale review

Sally Wainwright’s superlative crime drama concludes with a gripping, emotional finale…

This review contains spoilers.

Six weeks ago, we met Sgt Catherine Cawood talking down a would-be human fireball armed with nothing but a foam extinguisher, an unflappable stream of common sense patter and balls the size of West Yorkshire.

It was love at first sight.

Cawood’s reckoning with Tommy Lee Royce in tonight’s finale was an apt echo of that initial call-out: an unhinged man was threatening to set himself alight and it was up to Cawood to stop him. Stop him she did, in a victory that signified much more than a police officer doing their job. It was a symbolic triumph of strength over violence and of womanhood over misogyny.

Ad – content continues below

By the time Royce was carried away on that stretcher, he’d been stripped of his horrid power. Even before Cawood stuck the boot in, he was reduced to the status of a whimpering child, a spluttering, sweating mad-man no more lucid than that junkie hallucinating crocodiles in the play park.

What really disarmed the character though, was that Wainwright’s script and James Norton’s tremendous performance led us to the extraordinary position of pitying him. Richard’s causalist café speech last week about Royce being “a little twisted thing who grew up unloved, more than unloved, despised probably, treated like dirt on a daily basis in squalor and chaos” prepared the audience for the monster to transform into a wretch in their eyes.

Not that our pity made him any less dangerous. Norton’s red-lit scenes in the narrowboat with young Rhys Connah were terrifically tense, especially when his intentions for the “different sort of kind of journey” became clear. Putting Ryan – one of the TV year’s best acted and written child characters – in danger was exactly the peril Happy Valley needed for its climax and crucially, felt like a natural progression instead of a sensationalist ‘let’s stick the kid on the railway tracks’ hook.

Everything about Happy Valley’s final ten minutes, from Cawood capably radioing in her list of requirements (“I need people there and I need them fast”) to that beautifully timed pause before “I think he’s got our Ryan with him”, was well-played. Any crime drama, any drama worth its salt has to get its audience invested in the outcome, and with its heroic, complex lead and despicable villain, Happy Valley made absolutely certain we were.

A theme of the finale being that actions have consequences, Royce’s downfall was inevitable but extremely satisfying. Cawood’s years-long mission to stop him and avenge her daughter’s death was completed, and acknowledged by a typically laconic exchange between she and Clare: “You got him” “Yep”. There was no crowing, air-punching, or pat on the back from the boss, just a dressing down, a highlights reel to nudge BBC commissioners into a never-more deserved second series, and an enigmatic smile on the Yorkshire moors.

Tellingly, Cawood’s final memory stood on that moor wasn’t of the violence she’d experienced, but of her hugging Ryan. Happy Valley may be an ironic title, but there is solace in the bleakness, the drama tells us, and it’s to be found in building bridges with family, as Catherine and Daniel did in that penultimate scene. 

Ad – content continues below

Causality was a preoccupation of the finale’s characters. Blame, most of it misplaced, was being thrown around in all directions. Daniel blamed his mum for his parents’ divorce, Kevin blamed Nevison for Ann’s kidnap, Tommy Lee’s warped logic positioned himself as the wronged party, the one “in the most bother” for something he didn’t start, and blamed Catherine for everything that had happened… Putting the blame squarely where it belonged – with her attacker – was tough, smart Ann whose, “What happened says more about him than it’ll ever say about me” were the words of someone refusing victimhood and promising Catherine that Becky’s history wasn’t going to repeat itself with her.

Who was to blame for it all? For the unhappiness in Happy Valley’s troubled town? Catherine, or rather Sally Wainwright via Catherine, has an idea. As well as being a wish-fulfilment fantasy that culminated in a sadistic rapist literally trembling under the boot of a working class granny (there just aren’t enough hoorays in the world), Happy Valley was also an indictment of the illegal drug industry’s vampiric drain on impoverished communities.

With every arrest, with every encounter, Wainwright’s politically conscientious drama denounced the industry that floods broke towns with drugs for the cash, consequences be damned. Tommy Lee Royce was Happy Valley’s monster, but the ‘legitimate’ business people driving eighty-grand Range Rovers and leaving a trail of violence, insanity and human degradation behind them are the wider villains of this piece. “It never stops. It just never stops” Cawood told the Gallaghers in the finale. It might do Catherine, if only there were a few more like you.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.