'Happy Valley' Returns to Send Catherine Cawood Off Into the Sunset

'Happy Valley' Returns to Send Catherine Cawood Off Into the Sunset

It has been more than seven years since we last saw Catherine Cawood, the world-weary Yorkshire cop heroine of the excellent British drama Happy Valley, and our first new glimpse of her in forever seems about right. Catherine, still played by the great Sarah Lancashire, shows up at a construction site near a dirty pond, where a backhoe has inadvertently dug up old human remains. When a pair of veteran detectives arrive, they dismiss her attempts to offer advice on the case, then are stunned when she can identify the body because she recognizes its repaired collarbone from an old case. Here she is, one more time, her uniform splattered with mud, still underestimated by everyone, still smarter and tougher than the rest.

The season expertly balanced Catherine's work and personal concerns, making it all work because this was her first encounter with Tommy in a long time, and because Halifax is a relatively small community. The second season, where Ann joined the police force to cope with her trauma, Tommy's creepy prison pen pal tried to befriend Ryan, and Catherine helped solve a pair of unrelated killings, wasn't in quite as perfect harmony, but Lancashire, Norton, and their co-stars were ultimately so good that it was easy to forgive the contrivance of Tommy stirring up trouble yet again.

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It's been a long wait for this third season, which came out in the U.K. earlier this year and is being released today in the States on Acorn TV, AMC+, and BBC America. Part of this was that Lancashire's incredibly busy, like in her very different role as Julia Child on HBO Max's Julia. And part of it is that Happy Valley creator Sally Wainwright needed to let Rhys Connah grow into a young adult before telling the third and final chapter of the Cawood family's story.

As the season begins, Catherine is close to retirement, able to recite the exact number of months, weeks, and days she has left to anyone who asks. Ryan is 16, playing goalie for a school team and letting his bad temper -- which he seems to have inherited from his monster of a father -- occasionally get him into trouble with coach Rob Hepworth (Mark Stanley). Ann is about to be promoted to detective, while Tommy Lee Royce re-enters the picture on work and family levels yet again, since he knew the murdered man from the opening scene, while Catherine's sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) and Clare's boyfriend Neil (Con O'Neill) have been going behind Catherine's back to bring Ryan to the prison for get-to-know-you visits with his father.

(*) I highly endorse watching with the captions on to penetrate some of the show's more thickly-accented conversations that are necessary to decipher the subplots.

But my goodness, the material involving Catherine, Ryan, and Tommy is incredible, with Ryan's age and growing awareness of who he and his father are justifying the existence of this belated follow-up season.


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Among the best decisions Wainwright and Lancashire made in building this character is how matter-of-fact Catherine is, no matter how dire or unfair the situation. After all, the worst moment of her life happened years before we first met her. She is still capable of being hurt -- as we see frequently throughout these six concluding episodes -- but nothing will ever be as bad as what Tommy did to Becky, nor will Catherine ever let others see how much pain she is in anymore. When a colleague tells her that Ryan has been visiting Tommy, you can see that every fiber of her body wants to scream, even as she completely keeps it to herself. "Well, you're not overreacting. That's good," acknowledges her friend. Later, when she confronts Clare about Ryan and Tommy, she plainly lays out everything this sociopath has done to their family, and it is the complete lack of histrionics, or even so much as a raised voice, that makes it hit as hard as it does. These are events she has had to mentally relive over and over since before Ryan was born, and if she is not numb to them, she has learned how to build a wall between her and them, just so she can survive talking about them.

The plotting overall is a bit shaggier, and I had to pay frequent visits to my friend Google to remind myself of events and relationships from seasons past. (Say, that investigative reporter Richard, played by Derek Riddell, is Catherine's ex-husband and Ryan's grandfather.) But the work by Lancashire and Norton brings everything into focus despite the long gap. And the final scene they share, along with its immediate aftermath, is everything you would want it to be.



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What a performance. What a character. What a show.

The six episodes of Happy Valley Season Three will be released weekly on Acorn TV, AMC+, and BBC America. I've seen the whole season.