The hit BBC series comes to an end in an unexpected, but ultimately satisfying fashion.
While there are a lot of moving parts on the series finale of Happy Valley, the conclusion of the main storyline involving retiring Sgt Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) and escaped convict/arch nemesis Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), is absolutely stellar.
After fleeing from the court house in episode three and laying low last episode, the finale repeatedly flirts with a dramatic confrontation between adversaries before opting for an extremely intimate encounter and a fiery finish.
Happy Valley has always excelled at delivering jarring, upsetting violence in a matter of fact way and the finale is no different. From Royce’s stab-happy car ride to bashing in Zeljko Knezevic (Greg Kolpakchi)’s head with a rock to his suicide in Catherine’s kitchen, this last episode is filled with extremely brutal and affective violence.
As a connoisseur of horror films, what’s most exciting about Happy Valley‘s take on bloody fare is how uncontrolled and desperate it is. It’s exciting, certainly, but these aren’t beautifully staged sequences that celebrate death and violence. Rather, violence on the show and these particular examples feel desperate, uncontrolled and imperfect; the results are awful and tragic. More than anything, it’s messy and sad. Sure Royce survives his encounter to try and wreak revenge on Catherine, but he’s a bloody disaster, barely able to look his adversary in the face. In a word, he’s rendered pathetic (which, he admittedly always has been, but the finale truly confirms it).
There’s also a fascinating suggestion in the finale that the stories, or at least the fates, of Royce and Catherine are intertwined. When Catherine goes to the cemetery, she hears the voice of her dead daughter Becky telling her to go home, where she and Royce juuuuust miss each other repeatedly before their final, fateful encounter in the kitchen.
What follows is arguably the biggest surprise of the episode. Rather than go for a big, bombastic shoot-out, their much-anticipated climactic encounter is filled with tears and confessions. This make sense: in an ironic way the two of them know each other better than anyone else; they’ve been through it together, despite being on opposite sides and blaming the other for most, if not all, of their ails.
It’s truly fascinating and dynamic.
Of course the finale always had to address the rift between Catherine and her sister, Clare Cartwright (Siobhan Finneran). With Royce still on the loose, Clare, Neil (Con O’Neill) and Ryan Cawood (Rhys Connah) stay with Nev (George Costigan). Credit Clare for making another half-hearted attempt at reconciliation, though Catherine’s barb when she suggests Clare was “just trying to stay on the wagon” is just…so cruel.
Thankfully there’s plenty of good stuff between Catherine and Ryan, who refuses to let Catherine fight with her sister over him. He importantly reminds his grandmother that Clare was as present as her in his upbringing (Catherine sometimes plays the martyr in pretending that she alone raised Ryan, an idea that was reinforced last week by son Daniel).
Once Royce sets himself ablaze and Catherine stumbles from the crime scene, Clare comes rushing to her sister’s side. It turns out it’s not Royce’s escape that reunites them, but rather surviving him. Catherine finally allows herself a moment of vulnerability, crying desperately as her sister comforts her, suggesting that she is finally allowing herself to grieve and begin to process what she’s been there.
The fact that this sequence is mostly silent and Catherine and Clare’s reunion is communicated exclusively by body language and facial expression is just so smart and trusting of the audience. The scene doesn’t need a verbal explanation. It’s incredibly effective.
- One of the moments that lands the best is Royce’s exploration of Ryan’s life within Catherine’s house. He inspects his son’s room, cries over his baby pictures, and even insists during his climactic talk with Catherine that he never lied about his feelings for Ryan. However despicable this character is, and despite all of the harm that he’s done, Norton does such an expert job of making Royce’s realization that he’s missed his son’s life sad and a little relatable.
- Jesus, though, his death is *a lot.* It’s evident from the moment we see Royce’s stab wound that he’s likely going to die, and that he would likely try to kill Catherine or die by suicide at her hand. Instead he opts for one of the most horrific (and painful presumably!) exits audiences have seen on screen in quite some time. It’s deeply upsetting and incredibly effective.
- Shout out to the acting between Lancashire and Norton in that kitchen sequence. It’s been said repeatedly over the three season run, but when these two get to act opposite each other, the results are electrifying. Easily two of the best performances of the year, and a huge reason for the show’s legacy as a top tier prestige drama.
- The feeling that walls are closing in like a tightening vice around Royce is excellent. From the swift, expeditious capture of low level criminals Matija Jankovic (Jack Bandeira) and Ivan Sertic (Oliver Huntingdon) to the police’s infiltration of Royce’s safehouse, his end feels not only inevitable, but immediate. It’s very well done.
- I’ll confess that after spending so much time on the sad saga of poor murdered Joanna (Mollie Winnard), the conclusion of this storyline is underwhelming. Yes, Amit Shah‘s Faisal is caught because Catherine ties him to diazepam, but everything happens offscreen. It’s unclear how we’re meant to feel about Rob Hepworth (Mark Stanley): he will still be ruined after it’s confirmed that Joanna suffered fifteen years of domestic abuse, though Rob won’t go to prison for a murder he didn’t commit. It’s slightly bemusing how uneventful the case’s resolution is: it’s something of a punchline that Catherine solve one final case before she retires, but this is still a murder and a storyline that Happy Valley dedicated a significant amount of screen time to.
- One final, unusual observation: there’s a brief suggestion that Rob is queer as he’s briefly seen checking out Ryan’s butt earlier in the season. Has Happy Valley been slyly queer-coding this character all season (his interest in dressing better than Joanna; a rumour earlier from Ryan’s friend or from the girls at the school that he’s secretly gay)? If so, this seems like an undercooked or underdeveloped subplot that doesn’t entirely pay off.
Season 03 Grade: A-
Overall Series Grade: A
Happy Valley has finished airing its three seasons