Happy Valley

Happy Valley and the art of an ending

After BBC’s hugely popular Happy Valley concluded on Sunday, Sarah Kennedy explores how it all came together for the show’s masterful finale.

This article contains spoilers.

It’s been wonderful to see Happy Valley go out on a high, clearly so beloved by a devoted audience. 7.5 million people watched live on Sunday night as Sergeant Catherine Cawood finally rode off into the sunset, leaving behind her Peak District western and defying the odds by making it to retirement – something that never happens to TV cops.

For a traditionalist like me it’s been such a pleasure to see people enjoying linear TV. No one does this sort of thing better than the BBC and for once they didn’t cow to the streaming model by putting the whole series on iPlayer after the first episode aired. This let people enjoy an old-fashioned water cooler moment and genuine word-of-mouth excitement that the streamers can only envy. Anticipation is all part of the fun.

Happy Valley

Photo: James Stack/BBC

None of the social media theories proved true (“Neil is Tommy’s Dad”; “Ryan will be killed in the crossfire”; “The significance of Joanna’s daughter’s coat”) –  and thank God, because this was a programme that stuck fast to realism. Brutal devastating realism, undoubtedly, but I’d much prefer that to over-the-top Line of Duty histrionics.

Neil had no nefarious connections to Tommy, and the simplest explanation made the most sense: sometimes people are just a bit shit. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and Clare and Neil thought they were doing the right thing by allowing Ryan to visit his father in prison. Eventually even Catherine had to admit they had a point.

For a show synonymous with bleakness, the final episode showed the best of us. The older women who look after their communities and make us feel safe exposes the claim that audiences don’t want a woman over 40 in a lead role as a bare-faced lie. Ryan’s quest for a father figure wasn’t all-consuming. He proved himself worthy of Catherine’s begrudging trust. His moral compass has always been set right, but it took her years to notice. In tears, she finally realises he’s just a normal kid, and she needn’t have spent his whole life worrying about the negative influence of his father.

Even psychopaths can have a little character development, as a treat. I’d argue that the character who changed the most throughout the whole series was its villain, Tommy Lee Royce. James Norton’s outstanding performance made me sympathise with the devil despite knowing, and seeing in gory detail, all the awful crimes he’d committed.

Happy Valley James Norton

Photo: BBC

Deep down he was a frightened, unloved boy suffering the consequences of a terrible childhood. When comparing himself with Ryan he came to a personal revelation, that Catherine and her family had loved and cared for his son. Maybe his new-found respect was the booze, pills and heavy blood loss talking, but James Norton made me believe every word of it.

The twisted hate was still there though, close to the surface, as he hissed and spat at Catherine. He high-handedly spoke of forgiveness, and she hissed and spat right back at him. Neither were great orators, and their childish taunts (“You’re stupid!”) made it all the more believable. Their cordial kitchen catch-up ended in flames, with Tommy himself and Clare’s crochet blanket suffering the worst damage.

Fire was a call-back to a call-back; the narrowboat in series two where Tommy and Catherine faced off, and the very first time we meet Catherine in series one, memorably talking a man out of self-immolation on a children’s playground. I for one was glad the brightly painted kitchen cupboards were untouched, but I know I’m in the minority on that.

Social media reaction on Sunday night was broadly happy, declaring the ending satisfying and strong, managing to tie up a staggering number of loose ends, which was outstanding work given the 68-minute run time. Some on social media said the episode seemed a bit rushed, and I would have liked to spend longer in the Cawood’s company (and have seen a resolution between damaged Ann and poor Ryan).

Ryan Happy Valley

Photo: BBC

It was a ballsy move that the comeuppance of the male characters happened off-screen, and I think it really paid off. Sure, we didn’t see Faisal’s arrest but it sounds very much like, thanks to Alison’s tip-off, he will be charged with Joanna’s murder. And, satisfyingly, Rob Hepworth is getting punished too. Those little girls will live with grandparents who love them and want to keep them safe.

Tommy Lee Royce’s death was almost insignificant; he certainly didn’t go out in a blaze of glory like he had always imagined. As one viewer on Twitter eloquently put it, “No glory for bad men”. So we had time to see Clare and Catherine cuddle instead, and in doing so, mend our wounded hearts. And finally Catherine stood tall at her daughter’s graveside and looked to the future. Peace reigned supreme.

Sarah Lancashire, Siobhan Finneran, James Norton and Sally Wainwright will have to build new shelves for all the awards they are due. And young Rhys Connah is absolutely one to watch. Wainwright’s faith in retaining him as Ryan and waiting for him to age into the story she wanted to tell was justified. I can’t wait to see what he does next. “Television at its most brilliant,” another viewer tweeted. “A masterclass in all ways”.

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