When we first meet Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), a uniformed police sergeant patrolling West Yorkshire in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley, she’s dashing into a convenience store to grab a fire extinguisher and a pair of cheap sunglasses. She’s on her way to a local playground where one of the town’s many unemployed, heroin-addicted youth has doused himself in petrol and is threatening to set himself on fire.
“He can send himself to paradise, that’s his choice,” she explains to a subordinate as they walk briskly toward the scene, “but he’s not taking my eyebrows with him.” In these first moments, Wainwright tells us a lot about the middle-aged Cawood as Cawood tells us a lot about herself, using her own story, sketched out in broadly downbeat strokes, to build a bridge to the suicidal young man:
Catherine: I’m Catherine, by the way. I’m 47, I’m divorced, I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroin addict. I have two grown-up children. One dead, one who doesn’t speak to me, and a grandson.
Man: So why? Why doesn’t he speak to you?
Catherine: It’s complicated.
Catherine: Let’s talk about you.
It’s an introduction that’s both sharp and endearing, which simultaneously hints at one of the show’s central, if somewhat buried, themes: Carwood’s sublimation of her lingering grief at the suicide of her daughter and her attempt to channel it into selfless service to her family and her community. Over the course of Happy Valley‘s six episodes, the Carwood we meet in the series’ opening moments—coolly competent, pragmatic, holding on to a touch of vanity—will be pushed to, and past, her breaking point.
Happy Valley is one of three series from Wainwright currently on-air in the U.K. (the others are Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey). It’s ostensibly the story of a failed kidnapping there’s a touch of the Coens’ Fargo in the set-up, in which a seemingly put-upon accountant arranges a kidnapping of his boss’s daughter—and it’s not until about half-way through that it becomes clear that it’s as much a case-study of grief and loss as it is a police procedural. Like its protagonist, however, Happy Valley acknowledges that the world doesn’t pause for our personal drama—there are teacher conferences, family crises, and jobs that continue to demand our attention—and so it dutifully trudges on with its narrative. As a result, although the first season (of six one-hour episodes) is available in its entirety on Netflix, it’s not a show that necessarily invites binge-watching. It digs too deeply into messy emotions, placing as much emphasis on its characters’ reactions to events as it does on the events themselves. In keeping with this, actual violence is rare—though when it occurs, it is almost vulgar in its brutality.
Although it is not without its dark humor, day-to-day suffering permeates this series—there’s terminal cancer and multiple sclerosis, alcoholism and drug abuse, high unemployment and abundant squalor. The focus nevertheless remains on Cawood herself. Her daughter killed herself after giving birth to her rapist’s son—a difficult boy named Ryan who Cawood is raising without any help from the rest of the family, save her sister. It’s the release of that rapist, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), from prison—she’s been warned about it by her ex-husband but it’s not until she sees Royce on the street that it hits her—that triggers the return of long-suppressed turmoil. But the stressors that feed that turmoil are everywhere, and often self-imposed. Cawood is raising her grandson, the product of that rape, and his volatility makes her fear that he’s inherited Royce’s violent streak; she is sheltering her sister, who is recovering from a long-term heroin addiction; and her position on the police force thrusts her into competing, contradictory, and occasionally impossible roles—uniformed police officer and investigator, maternal figure and authority figure, all at once. That she serves as a de facto mother to everyone but her children functions as a cruel, cosmic irony.
The mini-series form suits Happy Valley. It’s easy to imagine it collapsing under the weight of its bleakness and interiority at a longer length. And it could just as easily get lost in its granular focus on Cawood. At roughly six hours, Happy Valley is the same length as Top of the Lake and a few hours shy of Fargo, True Detective, and American Horror Story, and yet its ambitions couldn’t be more different—it doesn’t play to the crowd (or a critical culture built around recaps) with the attention-grabbing virtuosity of Cary Fukanaga’s direction in True Detective (a six-minute-tracking-shot!). Nor does it approach Steven Soderbergh’s nuanced direction of The Knick (which just this week Matt Zoller Seitz called “the greatest sustained display of directorial virtuosity in the history of American TV”). Happy Valley, on the other hand,is no-frills.
Because of this, perhaps, the West Yorkshire of Happy Valley is almost indistinguishable from the British police procedurals I fell in love with in the early-to-mid nineties—Prime Suspect, Cracker (and later, I confess, even lesser series like Blood on the Wire and Rebus) – when I studied and worked in London. Grey skies. Drab public housing. That general sense of physical and spiritual fatigue. What surprised me, however, is how pleasing I find its drabness.
Part of this is likely nostalgia. But part of it is the knowledge that—having tossed aside pyrotechnics – the show must succeed or fail on its writing and performances. In succeeding on those narrow terms, Happy Valley feels like an antidote to the high-art pretense, elaborate composition, and under-cooked philosophy of so many of its brethren.
I spent a lot of time thinking about Prime Suspect while watching Happy Valley. Revisiting Prime Suspect now (something I recommend), the sexism that Helen Mirren’s DCI Jane Tennison faces at every step—both viciously personal and blithely institutional—can feel a little heavy handed. It’s easy to forget just how radical Tennison was when Prime Suspect debuted in 1991.  It wasn’t Tennison’s intelligence that made Prime Suspect so different (though it was uncommon enough) but rather her appetites—for alcohol, for sex, and, especially, for recognition and promotion. They dwarfed those of the men around her, including her superiors (no small feat). Unlike Prime Suspect’s wildly popular contemporary, Cracker, which coated its main character’s (Robbie Coltrane) bad habits in a Romantic gloss, all part of his larger-than-life genius, Tennison’s appetites are more thorny. She pays the price for them just as often as they drive her forward.
By staying neutral, Prime Suspect ushered in an era in which women were not only viable protagonists in a police procedural, but were finally permitted (if not yet entitled) to make bad decisions, and even to be occasionally unlikeable. (It helped, of course, that Tennison’s abundant flaws were dramatized by Helen Mirren.) The best shows that followed in its wake—like Happy Valley—have found a way not only to acknowledge their protagonists’ flaws, but to capture the richness and complexity gained from living with bad habits and decisions. Wainright smartly capitalizes on Lancashire’s ability to carry Cawood through endless registers, from the coolly competent officer we meet in Episode 1 through periods of grief, depression, anger, and—yes—“unlikeability.” In doing so, she creates a believable, and complicated, Everywoman.
To be clear, Cawood does not share Tennison’s appetites, or her bad habits: she’s far more likely to have a cup of tea than a whiskey at the end of a long day. And yet she engages in an ill-advised affair with her married ex-husband. And there’s a fleeting awkwardness in some of her conversations with superiors and former colleagues that suggests the kind of personal history neither party wants to revisit. That these plot points are not central to the drama—and are often no more than implied—could be interpreted as a sign of progress, though Wainwright has taken some pains to distance Cawood from Tennison, explaining that “Prime Suspect was 20 years ago,” and that, in talking to current police officers, “None of them seemed to think it was a big deal they were women. The police have gone through a lot of reforms. There might be some hidden sexism, but now it’s really not that unusual for a woman to be the head of an investigation. To try and make an issue out of that would have felt rather old fashioned.”
Perhaps she’s right. Times change. The recent attempt to adapt Prime Suspect to US television never quite figured out how to translate the original’s tension into the 21st century. But how distant is it, really? I got the sense watching Happy Valley that the changes Wainwright cites aren’t, in spite of her optimism, necessarily all for the better. At least Tennison was generally left to do her investigative work. Cawood’s responsibilities, on the other hand, are endless—part Sherlock, part social worker, both manager and mother. And it’s not as if sexism has disappeared, either in or out of the station-house. It’s embodied by her superiors, who at times display a boys-club disregard for her concerns (though, as with Tennison, they’re quick to trot her out for public relations value.)
And it’s on display in one of the show’s best—and funniest—scenes, when Cawood’s ex-husband, a reporter who Cawood has repeatedly pushed to write about the Yorkshire drug trade, calls her to say that he’s followed her advice. As he goes on and on, explaining the workings of a local supply and demand that she deals with on a daily basis, Cawood feigns interest in what he’s telling her—to preserve his enthusiasm, or his pride, or just out of learned deference – as her expression simultaneously reveals a bemused frustration that he doesn’t realize she already knows all it with a level of detail he’ll never even comprehend. This isn’t the misogyny and sabotage that Tennison faced—her ex-husband loves and respects her—but it’s also clear that we’re a long way from out-growing our conditioned biases (including, apparently, mansplaining).
It’s true, however, that these issues aren’t the focus of Happy Valley—even if the series benefits from the heavy lifting of those that came before, it’s content to swap the personal for the political. But it’s not all Cawood, all the time. Underlying the kidnapping narrative is a somewhat half-formed argument regarding evil and its origins. As the focus narrows on Cawood, however, the peripheral stories and characters grow a little threadbare, including the kidnapping narrative (though both George Costigan, as the father of the kidnapped young woman, and Siobhan Finneran, as Cawood’s sister, are excellent in their roles). Problematically, the motives of the criminals are never entirely clear—not even their greed explains why they take on the risk of a kidnap and ransom—though they share a few traits: hubris, myopia, and selfishness, to start, but also an abject refusal to take responsibility for their actions and the damage they’ve caused.
The philosophical argument, on the other hand, begins and ends with Tommy Lee Royce, whose violent sadism over the course of the series confirms Cawood’s worst fears. At her low-point, exhausted, depressed, and likely suffering from PTSD after a beating at Royce’s hand, Cawood confesses to her ex-husband her fear that Ryan is destined to be like his father. In answering the age-old question of nature or nurture, however, Happy Valley comes down emphatically on the side of nurture and against the idea of ineluctable evil. As her ex-husband explains, Royce isn’t a sociopath, he’s a “little twisted thing[s] who grew up unloved . . . more than unloved, despised probably, treated like dirt on a daily basis in squalor and chaos.” And he’s right, at least to some extent—we’ve met the mother and she is, in technical terms, a nightmare. These abstract themes would be empty exposition if it weren’t for Wainwright’s and Lancashire’s work. In numerous scenes, when Cawood’s carefully cultivated patience and selflessness are peeled back to reveal a very real rage, she is legitimately frightening in her isolation and her instinct to lash out at those nearest to her. In those scenes, Happy Valley comes closest to making a political pitch, though it is fittingly rooted in psychology. The “little twisted thing” inside Tommy that drives him to violence exists in each of us, it suggests, and what holds it at bay is family, stability, and structure. And martyrs like Catherine Cawood. But given the unrelenting chaos and squalor that threatens Happy Valley, and the punishment Cawood endures (she half-jokes at one point that she should have “punching-bag” written on her forehead), it’s unclear if this is any reason for optimism.
Spencer Short is an attorney and author. His collection of poetry, Tremolo (Harper 2001), was awarded a 2000 National Poetry Series Prize. His poetry and non-fiction have been published in The Boston Review, Coldfront, the Columbia Review, Hyperallergic, Men’s Digest, Slate, and Verse. He lives in Brooklyn.
 Prime Suspect debuted in the U.K. just three years after the demise of Cagney & Lacey here in the U.S.– a show canceled early in its run over concerns the characters were too tough (and thus likely to be mistaken for lesbians) before being revamped, softened, and returned to the line-up. Wainwright’s Scott & Bailey bears more than a passing resemblance to Cagney & Lacey.