Happy Valley Season 3 Delivers a Gripping, Unmissable Final ChapterPhoto Courtesy of AMC TV Reviews happy valley
In 2014, the fruitful crime show trope of a good-hearted but taciturn cop (now on the brink of retirement) found its apex in the form of Happy Valley’s Sgt. Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire). In the first season of Sally Wainwright’s masterfully understated and emotionally gripping series, we meet Catherine almost a decade after her daughter, Becky, took her own life in the wake of an abusive relationship with a psychopathic local criminal, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton). Unbeknownst to Tommy at that time, Becky had given birth to their son, Ryan (Rhys Connah), who Catherine raised. But when Tommy is released from prison, the life Catherine worked to protect Ryan from becomes precarious, as Tommy comes after her seeking vengeance and a relationship with his child.
This throughline has been the beating heart of the elegantly brief crime series, which returned for a second set of six episodes in 2016 and with another confrontation between Tommy and Catherine. Those of us desperate for more of this dedicated, sardonic Yorkshire policewoman’s travails, breathed so fully to life by the excellent Lancashire, held out hope that the show could return for Season 3. And at last, seven years later, the final season of Happy Valley gives us six episodes of closure to the saga that has been one of the primary TV triumphs of the last decade.
In this third season (airing on AcornTV, AMC+, and BBC America in the U.S.), Catherine is ready to retire and hike the Himalayas (why not?) But, once again, Tommy Lee Royce is an ever-present shadow over her life and Ryan’s, especially once it’s revealed that he was transferred to a closer prison, and that Ryan has been secretly going to see him after Tommy made contact. This revelation, which is only the beginning of their troubles with Tommy this season, rocks Catherine’s world and causes her—and Ryan, along with her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) and the entire family—to come face to face with the past, and Tommy’s toxic presence throughout it.
This tension (and the horrors that follow) is cut, as in the previous seasons, with the show’s knowing wit, which allows it to also feel both hyper-localized and universal in its small-town themes and family dynamics. Lancashire remains the series’ shining star, with steely, piercing blue eyes peering out from under her shaggy blonde fringe. Throughout the six episodes, Catherine remains inscrutable and emotionally guarded, literally hiding under her layered uniform or her giant puffy jacket and big knit scarf. Yet, she’s not able to block out the overwhelming love she has for her daughter and for Ryan. It’s in those moments, when those feelings break through—and especially when Ryan begins to understand what Catherine has done for him—that the show is at its absolute finest.
While there is much good to be said about the economy of a short season, Happy Valley Season 3 could have easily been twice its length and not run out of things to say. (It was also, admittedly, difficult to remember who everyone was and how they all connected after so many years; a replay of Seasons 1 and 2 beforehand would not be a bad idea). There are a number of ancillary stories and subplots that are either dropped outright or that don’t connect satisfyingly enough to the main narrative; but then again it would be unlike the show to wrap things up too neatly. And in the end, the other (often viscerally brutal) crimes happening around the final showdown between Catherine and Tommy Lee Royce mostly serve to illustrate what an exceptional cop Catherine is. With a keen eye and world-weary expertise, her understanding of this place and its people plays out through tough love. One of the best lines of the series comes when it’s revealed that—in collecting money for her retirement party—even those she arrested in the past contributed to the fund.
But again, things ultimately come back to Catherine and Tommy. This time at least, Ryan, who has often been an unwitting pawn in this game, is finally given his own agency in the matter, and young Rhys Connah is a stand-out as a boy put in a series of impossible positions (one who also actually acts like a real 16-year-old). But it’s the devastating emotional undercurrent leading to the last confrontation between Catherine and Tommy that makes the series finale a triumphant cap to an exceptional series—and it doesn’t play out as one might predict. As hard as it is to say goodbye to this incredible show, Wainwright knows how to do a proper sendoff that speaks to the series’ many recurring themes, pays homage to its troubled locale, and honors its affecting stories. While there’s not much happiness to find in Happy Valley, there’s the right amount of satisfaction in the glimmer of hope that we get a peek of at the end.
…But I still wouldn’t mind a Christmas special with Catherine hiking the Himalayas.
Happy Valley Season 3 arrives on U.S. shores Monday, May 22nd on Acorn TV, AMC+, and BBC America.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV.
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