Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Happy Valley’s first series was satisfyingly circular. It started with Catherine Cawood stopping a man set fire to himself and ended with the same. In between it told a grippingly tense story about a police sergeant grandmother taking due revenge on a sadistic misogynistic. Think Kill Bill, if The Bride had ticked all that sword business off her to-do list while banging up scrotes, making packed lunches and putting a hot pot on for tea.
The start and close of series two also had parallels. Alison Garrs shooting her serial-killer son recalled Catherine mercy-killing that dying sheep in episode one. “I don’t think you’d like prison”, Alison had told Daryl, a phrase typical of Happy Valley’s appealingly unshowy, truth-ringing dialogue.
Like Catherine staving in the skull of a dying animal, Alison killing Daryl was brutality for kindness’ sake. She was also putting a twisted creature out of its misery. What differed was the personal cost.
More than anyone in the series two finale, Catherine was preoccupied with that cost. “Shot her own kid’s head off. Her own kid, what’s it take to do that, eh?” she asked Clare in the glowing warmth of their colourful kitchen, glancing outside to the figure of grandson Ryan kicking a football.
The significance of that glance was made clear when it was discovered that Daryl was the product of abusive incest (“yet another everyday story of country folk”). That’s when Happy Valley pulled the thread that drew series two’s multiple plots together.
It meant the final scene of Catherine and family visiting Becky’s grave didn’t just hark back to six weeks, but two years ago, when we first met Catherine and understood what an ocean of conflict it was to be raising the son of her daughter’s rapist. By drawing a parallel between Catherine and Alison’s stories—both women bringing up “aberrations” that they love and hate because what else could they do?— Happy Valley came cleverly full circle.
At the centre of Alison and Catherine’s stories was an absence of communication. Alison and Daryl never talked about his granddad being his dad, though she thought he knew, because she “never had the language”. “I said yeah”, Catherine told Clare, looking at Ryan, “I know.”
Happy Valley’s pauses are powerful stuff. We’re used to Catherine as a motor-mouth who rattles off instructions and police codes with great fluency, so when she stops talking, it makes us listen harder. Sarah Lancashire’s performance is so detailed, each ellipsis and wrestled pronoun matters. “I realise everything you know about…this, us, him,” she starts to tell Frances later in the episode. “That a woman of your obvious intelligence and ability can allow herself to be fooled by this, this, this…”
“We don’t talk about my dad,” Ryan told Frances in episode three. The impossibility of explaining the horrors of Ryan’s parentage—that his murderer father brutally raped his mother and she killed herself aged eighteen—was demonstrated when Daniel attempted to pick his way through his nephew’s questions two episodes later. How do you explain something like that to a child? Who has the language?
How essential it is to find the language, however impossible, seemed to be Catherine’s final realisation in the finale. In the shadow of that “odd day” up at the farm, the last moments of this series focused on her fear that Ryan, like Daryl, would grow up in his dad’s image.
It was, like most things on Happy Valley, handled in a way utterly resistant to overstatement. A winsome chat about getting a family dog had Ryan list a series of powerful breeds associated with fierceness: Rottweiler, Alsatian, Doberman, Pitbull… Imagine bringing a creature like that into your home, Happy Valley says. Wouldn’t you always be on edge? Ryan playing at pretend guns with his uncle and absent-mindedly beating the ground with a stick reinforced his potential violence further still.
All of which wove in neatly with series two’s other central plots: Frances Drummond’s infatuation with Tommy Lee Royce and John Wadsworth’s murder of Vicky Fleming. Both asked us to consider where the seat of evil lies.
“There but for the grace of God,” said Catherine’s boss about the murder and suicide John committed. Given sufficient provocation, any one of us could be capable of killing, said Shackleton and Shepherd.
If that’s so, then John’s cowardly, selfish story showed that no matter what the crime, nobody wants to cast themselves as the villain. Like Tommy Lee Royce and series one kidnapping mastermind Kevin, John refused to see himself as anything but a wronged party. Of all series two’s horrific content, one of its most disturbing was him screaming in his car “What have I done? What have I done? Nothing!”
You stuck a broken bottle inside Vicky Fleming and prayed to God someone else would get caught for it, to paraphrase Sgt Cawood.
But then we’re only human, as Frances said. Her lessons of Christian forgiveness teach that nobody is born evil, and to condemn the sin not the sinner.
The scene between Catherine and Frances was the series’ biggest and most welcome twist. We’d been shown Frances lurking outside Catherine’s home, testing out petrol bombs and growing menacingly closer to Ryan. After series one’s dramatic denouement, who wasn’t expecting some kind of showdown between the two women?
Cleverly, that showdown never came, at least not in the way we expected. Instead, Catherine demonstrated that she’d learned the lessons taught her this series. That her fearsome reputation isn’t always a plus. That making threats, no matter how deserved, can bring about trouble. She approached Frances with gritted-teeth patience. God knows how she managed it, but she treated her as another one of Tommy Lee’s victims, not his accomplice.
Which, of course, is what she really was. Shirley Henderson was smart casting here. Had tough, capable Catherine gone round to stick the boot in, Henderson’s tiny frame would have made a monster of her. And our Catherine isn’t that. God no.
Are there really monsters, Happy Valley asks? Showing us quiet, sensitive Neil (a great turn by Con O’Neill) and supporting, caring Clare (the ever brilliant Siobhan Finneran) rage and rage while under the influence of drink suggests not. There are just people. Greedy, selfish, insecure, vulnerable people, each with their own slants on the truth.
And then there’s Catherine. And there’s Tommy Lee Royce. And there’s the ominous question of in whose footsteps Ryan will follow. It’s a sensational place to leave series two. And this was a sensationally strong series.