Happy Valley: The best new series that I almost missed in 2014

The first thing that happens in Happy Valley is an introduction of character (by said character) that throws the whole “show don’t tell” ethos out the window. Catharine Cawood (the tremendous Sarah Lancashire, who the entire show hinges around, the standout in a uniformly good cast), a police sergeant in Yorkshire, is called to the scene where a young man, down on his luck, has doused himself in gasoline in a playground and is threatening to light himself on fire. Catherine introduces herself to the man saying, “I’m Catherine, by the way. I’m forty-seven. I’m divorced. I live with my sister, who’s a recovering heroin addict. I’ve two grown-up children – one dead, one who don’t speak to me – and a grandson. So.” And we are off and running. But what is strange here is that Happy Valley, after Catherine’s speech and the promise of being a by the book, heart-on-sleeve cop show, is much more a show about the way that violence, grief and guilt can turn people inward, can shut them down and turn them off. Catherine’s openness to this man in the opening moments of the show is a bit of a red herring to the rest of the output, and the show is all the better for it.

Kevin is an accountant and is having trouble putting enough money together to get one of his daughters into a good school. He asks his boss, Nevison, for a raise. Nevison’s response is that he will think about it. This gets Kevin thinking, too. On a caravan trip with his family, Kevin accidentally notices that the owner of the caravan resort, Ashley, is shipping drugs. So, Kevin asks Ashley to do him this one small favour: kidnap Nevison’s daughter, Ann, and ask for ransom money. Just for a few days and just for a bit of money. Enough for all of them to make a quick buck and then Ann will be released. Fine and dandy if it works. What could possibly go wrong?

And things, as they do, go very, very wrong. Ashley’s henchmen, Lewis and Tommy, are a special breed of 1.) stupid and 2.) psychopathic. Lewis is not cut out for the kidnapping business, constantly feels sorry for Ann and is terrible at keeping secrets. Couple that with Tommy, who is cruel and nasty and violent without any hint of remorse and constantly wants to do things his way – he rapes and drugs Ann (though, thankfully this and much of the violence happens off-screen) and kills a police officer – and you have a recipe for disaster. Tommy is also strangely human, especially later on in the season when he’s on the run from police (more on this later). Ashley keeps demanding more money from Nevison who has been instructed not to tell the police if he knows what’s good for him and his daughter and Kevin is always on the verge of almost blabbing. And we go on like this for a few episodes and then someone else blabs. And Catherine gets involved, well, more involved – you see, she already has a connection to this Tommy character that won’t be spoiled here.

This all has the makings of a pretty generic cop show. Everything I’ve explained above, we’ve seen before. We know these characters, we know this plot. And Happy Valley isn’t a perfect series by any means. The final episode feels like both the end of and the beginning to a slightly different series. The neat wrap up and the sort of re-birth ending proper makes the intriguing messiness of what came before a little less exciting. Happy Valley has a number of similarities to another show that came out this year, Fargo. The show is about “normal” people in a small town turning to crime to solve their problems and how quickly things spiral out of control. In the case of Happy Valley, though, everything seems one notch below – fewer characters, less humour, less snark, just generally less – which has the effect of making the violence and criminal activity all the more breathlessly immediate.

And then there’s Tommy (played with exceptional, sometimes alien nuance by James Norton). The show takes great pains to give him humanity and it is sometimes difficult to reconcile, knowing what we know of the pain and hurt he’s caused others. He’s destroyed lives and brutalized others. He is in no way a good person and yet he has these moments where we see him in genuine pain, not just physical pain but emotional turmoil. Tommy begins the series as this capital B bad guy, the moustache twirling type – the kind we regularly see on a procedural like CSI or Law and Order – but becomes a real human character throughout the course of the show. Tommy has glimmers of empathy for specific people in his life and then has no problem killing and violating others. It’s truly strange. The time the show spends with Tommy in the latter part of the season is notable and admirable but I’m not clear exactly what it wants to say about him.

And yet there is something about Happy Valley – something about the unflinching way it looks at what this type of trauma can do to people that makes the clichés and the missteps easier to swallow. The way that these people are brutalized through the simple act of walking up every day, remembering what they know of what came the day before, is something rarely seen. Cops on TV are usually unshakable, stoic, so used to seeing violence that nothing can take a toll psychologically. And if something is bad enough to take a toll, well that’s the one thing that keeps them going and motivates them to get their man. But, here, Catherine has been brutalized to the point of inactivity. She still wants to get Tommy but sometimes it is easier for her to just stare off into space.

There is no moralizing when it comes to this inward looking. The show doesn’t seem to be suggesting anything other than this is the way some people deal with grief and that it can be destructive but it also just is. That people should deal with grief in any particular way is not the focus of the show. Instead, it’s about the way that this grief can alter us, can change us and make us into something slightly removed from our best selves – that it can destroy relationships, jobs, etc. That the hurt of grief continues to infect in the things we say and do and how it can be all-encompassing. There are reminders of grief for Catherine everywhere she looks – in her distant son, in her ex-husband that she still finds solace in from time to time, in the sister she lives with and most notably and obviously in her grandson – the product of her daughter’s rape. Many times throughout the course of the series the camera just trains itself on Catherine and we stare at her face, her eyes focused on something not present, her mind thinking of something surely awful. Just lying there, unable to do anything. The grief, the unjustness, the sadness of life weighing on her, paralyzing her. And then Catherine gets up and does keep moving. There is something beautiful in that. That people can succumb to grief so fully and then to one day decide that they’ve had enough.

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