Happy Valley Series 3 Episode 2 Review: Sarah Lancashire is in a Class of Her Own

Catherine keeps her powder dry in another brilliantly written and performed episode that piles on the tension. Spoilers.

Photo: BBC

Warning: this Happy Valley review contains spoilers.

Behold, the cold fury of Catherine Cawood. The hurt rage radiating off her in that final scene could power a warship. The next time we see Clare, she’ll just be a scarf floating in a puddle on the floor of that Sheffield cafe, Catherine having disintegrated her with a look.

Instead of Hulk-smashing her way out of the gaffer’s office and heading straight for Clare as expected when Catherine learned of her sister’s betrayal, she absorbed the shock and kept it all inside. It was an excellent dramatic choice that meant an episode of extra-flinty stares and heavyweight tension. Every domestic scene – Catherine and Clare, Catherine and Ryan – bore the heft of that unexpressed anger, turning each exchange into the split-second after a grenade’s pin has been pulled but before it’s thrown. The explosion’s coming, but when? 

It certainly gave that school meeting a bit of kick. Multiply Catherine’s contempt for the despicable Rob Hepworth by her tamped-down pain and complicated love for Ryan and it was a case of every man for himself. Catherine couldn’t just power a warship in that scene, she was one – gun turrets swivelling at every spineless utterance out of Hepworth’s mouth. The buzz you get from watching Sgt Cawood run rings around dickheads must be what it’s like to feel national pride. They should pump it into the water supply. Ryan’s little old granny dressed like Robocop? Issue a series of commemorative stamps.

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The supremacy of Sarah Lancashire’s performance is both Happy Valley’s trump card and ruin, because the scenes she’s not in miss her like mad. Stressed Eric the pharmacist, Rob’s desperate wife and the bullyboy gangsters just can’t match her presence. Even James Norton’s smirking and self-satisfied Tommy Lee Royce feels caricaturish next to Catherine. It’s a good job they’re all crucial to the plot, which in episode two, is slowly revealing itself.

Catherine’s ex Richard – a local journalist – is digging up dirt on crime gang the Kneževićs, whose fingers are in every pie in Halifax and who are making a Tommy Shelby-like move into local politics. Pharmacist/drug-dealer Faisal is being blackmailed by Knežević soldiers and by Jo Hepworth, who’s planning to kill her abusive, rapist husband (you’d say no court in the land would convict her, but that’s true only in the moral sense). Tommy Lee Royce has a plan involving Ryan and the world’s tiniest mobile phone (the Nokia Suppository3000). A woman fell to her death from an Elland flat that contained boxes of illegal Knežević cash. And Susan Lynch’s character Alison is back.

Like Series 1’s kidnap victim becoming Catherine’s soon-to-be colleague and daughter-in-law, Alison’s return is a coincidence that might injure a lesser drama. The mother of last series’ serial killer moved into a flat overlooking the workplace of this series’ blackmailed sap? As ever with Happy Valley, it’s all in the handling of the thing, not the thing itself. Alison’s story of a son born of incest warped by his ill-gotten genes, is of absolute relevance to Ryan’s. Her kinship with Catherine is based on shared intimacy, family shame and secrets. She’s woven into this drama’s fabric.

And so Alison slotted right in, putting yet another character we already care about into this dangerous mix, and giving Lancashire the chance to release the pressure valve and show a gentler side in an episode where she had little to feel gentle about. 

By the finale, we can expect to see Alison and her new job with Nev Gallagher tied up with everything else and perhaps even – this is a Sally Wainwright script after all – the phantom fridge flinger from episode one. Until then, we sit tight, take notes and toss around theories. What about Royce’s tiny text message mentioning the newsagent having “good presents for Ryan”? A code? From whom and meaning what? 

Rhys Connah’s scenes as Ryan this episode proved that Happy Valley was right to wait six years for him to keep this part rather than speed things up by recasting. It’s not just about continuity, Connah has raw quality on screen. Even when he’s being a little shit, you can’t help – like Clare – being entertained by him. Whether he’s casually destroying his grandmother with breezy lies, asking to come with her to the Himalayas, or kissing her goodnight, your heart goes out to him. And then it drops through the floorboards when he repeats that sick mantra about revenge being a dish best served cold, because we all know who taught him it. Come on, Ryan. Show us that nurture can win over nature. And Clare, love, brace for impact.

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Happy Valley Series 3 airs on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One.