In Its Final Season, ‘Happy Valley’ Grapples With Healing (2023)


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The BAFTA-winning crime drama returns with its characters seven years older and continuing to confront generational trauma and grief.

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In Its Final Season, ‘Happy Valley’ Grapples With Healing (1)

By Imogen West-Knights

Reporting from Hebden Bridge, England

At the end of Season 2 of “Happy Valley,” Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) watches her 9-year-old grandson Ryan running up a hill, thrashing at the grass with a stick. Her expression is grave, and Ryan’s father is in prison for murder.

The first time we see Ryan (Rhys Connah) in the show’s third and final season, which premieres Monday on AMC+, BBC America and Acorn TV, Catherine is watching him again. Now 16, he’s playing soccer, furiously yelling at his teammates from his position in goal. His grandmother, a police officer, has the same look of concern on her face.

“Happy Valley,” which first aired in Britain and in the U.S. in 2014, has been called one of the best television dramas of the past decade for its complex portrayal of family loyalties and police work intersecting in a rural community.

These issues are both personal and professional for Catherine: Haunted by the suicide of her daughter, Becky, she is raising Ryan, Becky’s son, who was the product of rape by Becky’s murderous ex-boyfriend, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), while desperately trying to keep Tommy and Ryan apart.

Tommy may be in prison serving a life sentence, but in the second season, one of his accomplices persuaded Ryan to start writing to his father. The seven-year break between seasons and Ryan’s approaching adulthood allow Sally Wainwright, the show’s creator, to deeply explore the question that has plagued Catherine since the very first episode: Given his parentage, what kind of man will Ryan grow up to be?

The fact that the BBC, which produced the show, agreed to such a long break between seasons is a testament to Wainwright’s stature as one of Britain’s best TV writers. Charlotte Moore, a BBC executive who commissioned the first season of “Happy Valley,” said in a phone interview that while it was easy to agree to the break, the decision did come with risks.

“You worry, God, are people going to have forgotten about it?” she said. “Are people going to care, is it going to live up to expectations?”



Seven years is a long time in television, but not so long in the life of a town. On a misty day in April 2022, during filming of the third season, Hebden Bridge looked unchanged from the last time “Happy Valley” was shooting, with lush green hillsides wrapped around houses of blackened bricks under a low cloud cover. The natural beauty of this location, the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, is a big part of the show’s appeal, according to Norton.

“It’s a very special but strange place,” he said in an interview between scenes at Hebden Bridge Town Hall. “There’s an edge to it.”

The show takes its title from the local police force’s nickname for the area, an ironic nod to the fact that away from the affluent residents on the sunny side of the valley, there is plenty of crime and deprivation.

A Yorkshire setting is a hallmark of work by Wainwright, who grew up in the area and also set her comedy drama “Last Tango in Halifax” nearby. In Hebden Bridge, “Happy Valley” filming is old news. When an elderly woman approached production staff to ask about the police cars gathered for a scene outside Catherine’s house, she knew why they were there but said with exasperation, “I thought this was all happening yesterday.”

For the actors, though, returning to “Happy Valley” after such a long break — and after Season 2 won a slew of British Academy Film Awards, or BAFTAs — has been unusual.

“It’s a really interesting thing to grapple with,” Norton said. “What on earth happened to the characters in those seven years?” There’s also a certain amount of pressure, he added, given how long audiences have waited for this final series.

This is perhaps most true for Connah, who plays Ryan. “One of the reasons they waited so long was for me to grow up,” the actor, who is now 18, said in a recent Zoom interview. “What if I went there and couldn’t act and messed up all the scenes?”

Connah’s own experience of being on the show has, in some ways, mirrored how Ryan pieces together details about his own life as he grows up. The actor was only 8 when he started filming “Happy Valley,” 10 when Season 2 aired. Much of what happens on the show isn’t suitable viewing for a child.


“I just watched my own bits, given the whole subject matter, so pretty much every story line that didn’t directly involve my scenes, I’d never seen,” he said. He only recently watched the full episodes, and learned exactly what happens in “Happy Valley.”

In Season 3, Ryan — and specifically whether he will grow up to share his father’s violent tendencies — becomes the show’s primary focus. “The feeling we were left with at the end of the second series was that he could have gone one of two ways,” Wainwright said in a recent video interview. “That’s what this series explores: which way he has gone. For me, it was always about what would happen when Ryan finds out more about his parents.”

Wainwright had always planned to have a long break before the final season so that an older Ryan could have more agency around this choice.

“There are things that he couldn’t have done when Ryan was a child,” Connah said. “But when he’s 16, it opens up more actions for the character to take.”

The show doesn’t just explore how terrible acts of violence traumatize victims but also how the perpetrators of these acts are often acting in response to their own struggles. Tommy is humanized as much as it is possible or desirable to humanize a rapist and murderer, Norton said: “Sally is very keen to acknowledge that he had a horrific childhood, and he grew up in an abusive family.”

In preparation for the first season, Wainwright and Norton met with criminal psychologists, in order to “establish a boy who had experienced extreme trauma as a young child,” Norton said, “and since becoming an adult and gaining control, he will never relinquish that control, and will do everything he can to hold on to it.”

The world has changed since the last series aired. There was the coronavirus, of course, but the pandemic is absent from the new season. (“They’ve got enough to deal with,” Norton joked of the “Happy Valley” characters.) More relevantly for the show, in recent years police forces in both the U.S. and Britain have been under new scrutiny, with some questioning whether the police always represent the best interests of the public they are supposed to serve.


Wainwright has worked closely with various female police officers in creating “Happy Valley” and “Scott and Bailey,” her Manchester-based cop drama that aired between 2011 and 2016 in Britain.

“They’re women who really care about their job, really exemplary police officers,” she said. But recent discussions about institutional sexism and a culture of violence in London’s police force, in particular, have given her pause. “It is only this present series where I’ve started to worry that I am not being critical enough of the culture within the police,” she said.

But while the hero of “Happy Valley” is a police officer, each character’s morality is appealingly ambiguous. No one is universally good, or universally evil.

“Catherine’s not perfect by any means; she can be horrible,” Wainwright said. “Tommy can do things that are quite nice, or appear to be quite nice. And it’s about exploring those qualities within both of them.”

Central to the popularity of “Happy Valley,” Norton said, is its depiction of how families manage to stick together despite the lingering impacts of trauma, and despite family members sometimes hurting one another.

“Everyone can identify with those scenes around the kitchen table with a cup or thousands of cups of tea,” he said. “Sally’s strength is capturing all of the complexities and contradictions of family, and I think that’s what people can really tap in to.”

The ending of this final ‌season, Wainwright said, will settle the question of whether “Happy Valley” is optimistic or pessimistic‌ about whether a family like the Cawoods can finally heal from its collective trauma, or whether the past will continue to hound them.

“It’s got a very, very clear and definite end,” she said. “It does come down on one side.”

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