Have you watched Happy Valley yet? Its second season recently landed on Netflix, and it’s one of the finest, most engrossing British crime dramas of the last decade (and possibly more). It’s the story of police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) who works in West Yorkshire, ironically known as “happy valley.” She’s tough, but endlessly generous and exceptional at her job, though she becomes obsessed with the failure of the system to keep a dangerous rapist, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), in jail. The crusade is personal for her — Royce raped her teenaged daughter, and they had a son who Catherine has raised herself, since her daughter committed suicide after his birth.
As you can see, there are few happy things about Happy Valley. And yet, like any good drama, there are elements of lightness and of a humor that keep the series from ever becoming oppressive. Each season (of which there are now two) run at a quick clip through six episodes each, as Catherine investigates other crimes in the area while trying to bring Royce (who is also a murderer) to justice.
Happy Valley’s premise isn’t, at first, all that unique from the other sundry British crime series that focus on sleepy English hamlets where ordinary people end up doing extraordinarily bad things, and make it worse by covering it up. It is Lancashire, however, who makes Happy Valley something exceptional. She plays Catherine not just as a tough cop, but as someone who is barely holding it all together. Ten years after her daughter’s suicide, she’s still grieving terribly, reminded daily by the presence of her grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah) of the violence and heartache surrounding his conception and birth. She loves him endlessly, but is also haunted by Royce, and is desperate to protect Ryan from him.
At home, Catherine also lives with her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran), a recovering alcoholic and former heroin user, and has a strained relationship with her son Daniel (Karl Davies), who plays a larger role in Season 2. At the police force, she is a kind of school marm to her (often much younger) co-workers, and both a boon and an exasperation to her managing officers. But this setup doesn’t do the character of Catherine any justice. What does, perhaps, is a scene where she’s reviving a grieving woman from the brink of death from an overdose, getting a confession from her, and arresting her all in one fantastically tense six-minute sequence where she is — the entire time — holding her tightly in a bear hug of genuine concern.
But even that doesn’t really express Lancashire’s grandiose presence on the series. With piercing eyes and a defiant chin, she commands every scene she’s in, and yet, also fills the room with emotion and wonderfully dry humor. Catherine is practical, effective, and sharp, and even when she’s prickly, it’s easy to see it comes from the exhaustion of holding the world on her shoulders. There are not a lot of great roles for women of a certain age on TV, but Lancashire shines so incredibly brightly in this one, it gives hope that more might be written.
Happy Valley’s emotionally charged second season completely avoided a sophomore slump, and remained compelling not only in its new twists to the Royce case — and how it relates to Ryan — but also in its new crimes as well, and how they connect back to the police force as well as personally in Catherine’s life. In the second season finale, Catherine fairly shouts to her commanding officer, “what a shit week!” If you’ve seen the series up to that point, you’ll know that doesn’t even begin to cover it. And yet you feel secure because Catherine is on the job, and trying to make it all right.
As Catherine and her family walk the misty moors of Yorkshire later, she watches Ryan run ahead, swiping at the ground with a stick. She’s silently worried, it’s clear, about nature versus nurture, and whether his dark begins will inform his future. So much crosses over her face in that moment, too: love, fear, happiness, concern. Happy Valley itself is full of of those same conflicts. And though it’s also always tinged in misery, it’s Catherine — thanks to Lancashire — that makes us want to accompany it indefinitely.
Happy Valley Season 1 and 2 are available to stream on Netflix. You can read about previous TV Performers of the Week here.