“Yet another everyday story of country folk”
And so Series 2 of Happy Valley winds to a close and you have to hope that the people who acclaim Scandi-noir as the high point of today’s television recognise that this slice of Yorkshire-bleak is just as good, if not better. Sally Wainwright might have thrown some people for a loop by moving (even further) away from straight police procedural to something much more intimate and emotionally complex, placing Sarah Lancashire’s utterly magnificent portrayal of Sgt Catherine Cawood at its very heart. (My thoughts on episode 1 are here.)
“Omnipotent and ubiquitous, God I’m good” she wryly notes as a younger colleague drunkenly praises her at the end of a boozy evening and as the multiple strands of this series slowly began to converge, it was her presence that knitted the whole thing together. Wainwright’s closer hand on the tiller (directing four of the six episodes, all of which she wrote) allowed for some of the bolder moment to really shine, notably the two-handers that opened so many of the shows, a scorching stillness and quietude that underscored much of the horror of policing the Dales.
From people-trafficking to the serial killing of prostitutes to being stalked to the trials of parenting her grandson, it could easily have been a one-woman show, but the genius of Happy Valley has been to fully stock its supporting cast with real quality for Lancashire to work with. The rumpled reliability of Siobhan Finneran’s sister, even with her hiccup, the wry warmth of Ishia Bennison’s front desk worker at the station, Charlie Murphy’s upcoming PCSO working through her own trauma from Series 1, and what was particularly marvellous was the way in which none of them were spared the full whack of Catherine’s abrasive nature at one point or another, as stress occasionally threatened to understandably completely overwhelm her.
If any criticism can be wielded it’s that the breadth of the storytelling meant that some strands felt a little neglected, some characters under-explored and when we’re talking of the likes of Julie Hesmondhalgh (maybe having two future Dames in the same scene might implode the universe…), it does seem a shame, and I would have liked more of the farmer Garrs, Susan Lynch and Robert Emms, both powerfully moving as it was though.
But elsewhere the limited exposure heightened some of the fiercer characterisations – Shirley Henderson’s exceptional creepiness eventually curdling into real tragedy, James Norton’s explosive anger more frightening the less we saw of it, Katherine Kelly’s intelligent DI, Amelia Bullmore’s manipulative blackmailer, Rhys Connah’s inquisitive Ryan giving us nothing childlike in the frustrations of being part of such a fucked-up family. And Kevin Doyle’s masterly take on increasingly impotent DS John Wadsworth should be praised, leading up as it did to an amazing scene with Lancashire in the final episode.
This second series of Happy Valley had a lot to live up to and for me, it absolutely delivered. Full of perfectly observed moments and perfectly researched insight, balancing mundane horror with mordant humour, this is the BBC firing on all cylinders and long may it continue.