It would be inaccurate to say that it’s “comforting” to watch Sarah Lancashire in a high viz jacket, stomping through the Yorkshire drizzle and brusquely putting superiors and underlings alike in their place – Happy Valley’s record would suggest that image is only going to lead somewhere very bleak. But there is absolutely something that feels familiar and right about it all the same.
It has been a long seven-year wait for Sally Wainwright’s BBC drama, and Lancashire’s endlessly resilient Sergeant Catherine Cawood, to return and god, it is good to have them back on our screens.
Happy Valley’s expertly woven tapestry of crime thriller, family tragedy and dark humour made it one of the best homegrown shows of the 21st century and based on the opening of series three, it has retained everything that made it so brilliant – provocative storytelling with a genuine edge, lived-in relationships between characters that feel completely real and one of the most repellent villains in TV history.
For all its murder mysteries, Happy Valley is really about Catherine’s gnawing fear that nature might triumph over nurture and that her grandson Ryan could turn out like his disturbed father, the chilling Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton). Despite her best efforts, series two ended with the cliffhanger that Royce’s scheme to establish contact with Ryan (Rhys Connah) had been successful.
Series three picked up with the discovery of human remains in a drained reservoir, something that soon implicated Royce and appeared to connect both a murder from the finale of series one and the Polish mafia that loomed over series two. We found Royce still in prison, now ponytailed and learning Spanish, but as ever Norton imbues him with a constant unsettling sense of being too clever for those around him, always playing a game, and one that he might well win.God, it is good to have Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood back – even if her family’s period of calm will not last for long (Photo: BBC/Lookout Point/AMC/Matt Squire)
The Cawood family, meanwhile, have found some peace in the years since we last saw them, coming together for Ryan’s 16th birthday and with Catherine looking forward to her imminent retirement (she’s bought herself a Land Rover to do up). But as any seasoned Happy Valley viewer will know, this relative calm cannot be all it seems and confirmation came in the form of Royce’s possession of a recent photo of Ryan in his cell: clearly, they were still in touch.
Societal issues have always been a backdrop to Catherine’s story, as she spends her hours mopping up the dire consequences of organised crime and illegal drugs, and where heroin used to be the problem, prescription medications are now wreaking devastation on this rural community.
Happy Valley has also always leaned into the Fargo-esque premise of ordinary people getting in way over their heads. In this case, it was local pharmacist Faisal, at odds with the local dealers after dealing prescription meds on the side, and the diazepam-dependent Joanna, married to Ryan’s unpleasant PE teacher Mr Hepworth. The strength of Wainwright’s writing is that within seconds of meeting new characters, we understand them and this couple’s abusive relationship was established with horrifyingly believable authenticity.
Lancashire and Norton delivered powerhouse performances (and the extended ensemble also excelled), and Wainwright’s rich naturalistic dialogue didn’t miss a beat. Happy Valley understands how far-reaching the ripples of both trauma and crime can be and is unflinching about exploring both: the entwined strands already suggest it will build to another nail-biting climax. Magnificent stuff from a writer and actors operating at their peak.