It’s been seven years since audiences last saw police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), but not much has changed in the West Yorkshire town the now-retirement-age officer calls home. Locals still get embroiled in blackmail plots, drug-related schemes, and dark acts of violence that make the show’s title jarringly ironic. Catherine is still hyper-competent at work and dysfunctional in her family relationships. And most importantly, killer Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) still lingers around the edges of her life like some invincible boogeyman.
Happy Valley’s third season is set to be its last, and Sally Wainwright’s award-winning series is both better and worse for the ways it stays the same in its final outing. On the one hand, the show’s stubborn failure to interrogate its cozy copaganda underpinnings makes for a sometimes frustrating watch in a post-2020 world. On the other, its final six episodes do interrogate its central premise in a few key ways, turning Catherine and Tommy’s epic, seemingly endless battle into something deeper and more profound than the first two seasons’ ethically predictable crime drama.
Mostly, though, Lancashire and Norton keep the whole enterprise afloat, selling both the cleverest parts of Wainwright’s scripts and the silliest. Lancashire’s Catherine has always been a uniquely flawed protagonist, but as she contends with her now-teen grandson Ryan’s (Rhys Connah) urge to connect with his murderous dad, her worst and best traits collide in an inextricable, fascinating way. She’s, in turn, sweet and cruel, dismissive and detail-oriented, funny and bleak, and she is almost always better able to care for strangers than the people under her roof. Lancashire plays each and every note with rare authenticity.
Watching the show, one gets the sense that Catherine is meant to be viewed largely as a hero and that we should see her darkest moments – like when she belittles her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) or, in what’s become an unofficial tradition at this point, says something unforgivable to her grandson – as understandable. They aren’t, but her hardened anger towards the show’s villain makes her engrossing nonetheless. At the most emotionally miserable parts of Happy Valley season 3, it feels like maybe this has always been a show about clinging tight to one’s hate and rage until it’s all you have left.
Or it would be if not for the other half of the series’ combustible equation. As Tommy Lee Royce (a man with the type of serial killer name you just have to say in full), Norton puts in his best work yet here in a plot that offers a satisfying and surprisingly poetic conclusion to the convicted murderer and rapist’s story. The show’s early seasons pulled from the Nancy Grace school of psychology when it came to Tommy, as every good character branded him as pure, psychopathic evil. He may or may not be all of that, and he’s certainly reprehensible, but the new season benefits greatly from Wainwright’s willingness to finally reckon with the flickers of humanity that exist inside even the worst of people.
Nearly a decade into its run, Happy Valley has its own tropes by now, and one of the best is the ways in which the camera shoots Norton. Sure, the final scripts give Tommy more interiority, but the show’s direction still views him as an almost hilariously menacing figure; a shark on the hunt, a lion on the prowl. Shots of Tommy stewing in his jail cell or studying his reflection in the mirror have an edge to them, but there’s also a sense of self-aware melodrama by this point. Happy Valley is great as a moody UK crime drama and good as a meditation on the perpetually open wound that is grief, but it might be best when it lets itself cross over into seedy, nearly-campy pulp territory.
The season’s B-plots walk this line as well, as Catherine ends up sniffing around the edges of a bizarrely intricate story involving an abused wife, an explosive husband (who, of course, has personal ties to a member of Catherine’s husband), an anxious pharmacist, and some lackeys from a locally organized crime syndicate. When Happy Valley gets into these plots, which are silly and disturbing all at once, it’s easy to see how the series could keep going forever. But Catherine’s set to retire, and the show eventually does too, bowing out after six episodes that mostly wrap up Happy Valley in a satisfying way.
That “mostly” comes with a caveat; the show’s denouement is rushed and abrupt, leaving major emotional chasms between characters un-crossed and relegating the conclusion of a major plot point to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. It’s a truly weird choice for a show that has spent so long perfecting this story, but then again, Catherine doesn’t seem like one for goodbyes. Happy Valley itself, though, is ready to go, and it bows out with a conclusion that’s alternately frustrating and fantastic but never anything less than compelling.
Happy Valley season 3 debuts May 22 on AcornTV. Watch the season trailer here.