Happy Valley season 3 revives British TV’s most badass grandma


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May 03, 2023

Happy Valley season 3 revives British TV’s most badass grandma

There’s a special pleasure to be had from watching a character who is just

There's a special pleasure to be had from watching a character who is just aggressively competent go about their job. It helps if they have a sharp tongue, a short fuse, and don't suffer fools gladly. Oh, the vicarious release of watching them Figure It Out and Get Shit Done — running rings around fatuous bosses and sloppy miscreants as they do it. They’re like a knife, cutting through the complications of life.

That's part of the appeal of Sgt. Catherine Cawood, a no-nonsense middle-aged policewoman in the Yorkshire Constabulary, and the star of the brilliant British police drama Happy Valley, the third and final season of which is currently airing on AMC Plus, BBC America, and Acorn TV. Cawood is not a hotshot detective, she's just a hardworking copper: a veteran of the street who knows every inch, every face, and every sob story in her beat in the bleakly picturesque hills of West Yorkshire in the north of England. The other part of her appeal is that she is the hardened matriarch of a family near broken by tragedy, trying to hold it together by sheer force of will, but not always managing. In the end, some of life's complications can't be cut through.

Cawood is the creation of writer Sally Wainwright and her frequent collaborator, the actor Sarah Lancashire. Happy Valley debuted in 2014, had a second season in 2016, and then vanished for seven years while Wainwright developed her queer historical romp Gentleman Jack and concluded her family dramedy Last Tango in Halifax. (Like nearly all Wainwright's work, these shows were both set in her native Yorkshire, too.) The long wait for the third season was excruciating. In the U.K., Happy Valley is essential, appointment viewing: When the series finale aired in the U.K. earlier this year, it was watched by 11 million people — a big deal in a country with a population of 67 million.

Sgt. Cawood hasn't been spared the passage of time. It's seven years later in the show, too, which means that Cawood is close to retirement, and her grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah) has grown from a scrappy urchin into a rangy 16-year-old. Ryan has secretly been keeping in touch with his father, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), a twisted criminal whom Cawood hates with a passion, blaming him for the death of her daughter, Ryan's mother. In season 1, she arrested Royce for his part in a grimy kidnap-and-murder plot, but not before he nearly killed her in a brutal hand-to-hand fight. In season 2, he manipulated a besotted woman (Shirley Henderson) from behind bars into stalking Ryan. He's still serving a life sentence, and still darkly obsessed with both his son and his son's grandmother.

If this sounds histrionic and soapy on paper, it kind of is — Wainwright learned her trade on the long-running British soap opera Coronation Street in the 1990s, and has maintained a talent for punchy, sensational, cliffhanging plotting in her more prestige-y work. But these stories are treated with deep humanism and rueful, salty, down-to-earth humor, among characters so warmly and realistically drawn you feel you know them. Happy Valley throws in a gritty, almost Western flavor — like a kind of kitchen-sink Justified, if the cool cowboy marshal was a tired, permanently cross grandma who's just sick of everyone's shit.

As the season opens, Cawood is called to the discovery of a corpse in a quarry which, it turns out, has ties to Royce and might open up a chance for him to reduce his sentence. It also pulls in the season's tangled knot of secondary plots, involving a violent gang of prescription drug dealers, a coercive football coach at Ryan's school, the coach's cowed wife who's addicted to the drugs, and the pharmacist who supplies her.

Wainwright casts a withering eye at the prescription drug epidemic, the same way season 2 tackled the trafficking of Eastern European women into sex slavery. But though Wainwright often has something to say, Happy Valley never really feels like an issue show; it's too focused on story, character, and community for that. And while she can write monsters like Royce, Wainwright is just as interested (if not more so) in a more banal kind of evil: weak, selfish family men who reverse themselves, through a mixture of incompetence and venality, into the most horrible acts against women. Season 1 had Steve Pemberton as a put-upon employee who orchestrates the kidnapping of his boss’ daughter; season 2 had Kevin Doyle as a philandering police detective trying to cover his tracks; season 3 has Amit Shah as the pharmacist who feeds a young woman's addiction.

Catherine Cawood is the perfect avenging angel to take these cowardly, self-deceiving everymen down. She is bitter and implacable, but also common-sense and caring. She's one of the great creations of Lancashire, a titan of TV acting who played a brassy barmaid on Coronation Street for 532 episodes before growing, in stately middle age, into one of the most magnetic leading actors on British screens. As Cawood, she makes the most of her powerful physical presence, piercing gaze, and deep wells of both compassion and fury. She is a force to be reckoned with.

Crucially, though, Cawood is only nearly always right. She's sometimes blinkered by her rage, particularly when it's aimed at those she loves, and her determination turns into blind single-mindedness. Season 3 boldly puts her at loggerheads with those closest to her — her grandson Ryan and her recovering alcoholic sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) — when she discovers Ryan's contact with Royce, which she views as a betrayal. Up to this point, the show has stuck close to its fiercely able and moral heroine, but now Wainwright and Lancashire dare to cut her loose enough to show how destructive the forces powering her crusade can be.

The season goes for the dramatic jugular, and if it doesn't quite tie its subplots together as satisfyingly as the two earlier seasons, that's balanced by the Shakespearean dimensions of the storyline that brings Cawood, her family, and Royce together one last time. Wainwright has reservations about the cost of Catherine's hatred, and even pity for her villain's misplaced need to connect. But as tough as Happy Valley is, it's neither bleak nor bleeding-heart in its outlook. Some forms of evil just need to be put down. And sometimes a hard grandma in a high-vis vest is who you need to do it.