Last week saw Netflix drop the second season of a brilliant, critically acclaimed crime drama. Nope, not Daredevil. I’m talking about the outstanding Happy Valley. Adored by critics here and across the pond, the show has failed to catch on with American audiences the way programs like Broadchurch or The Fall have. If those titles mean nothing to you, punch yourself for missing out on two series that put True Detective to shame (even season one). If you’ve seen Broadchurch and The Fall but have yet to give Happy Valley a look, punch yourself for missing out on the best crime drama on TV. Don’t let the title deceive you. This is a grim, suspenseful, violent series filled with tortured, complex heroes and absolutely vile villains. I wrote about season one last year and am happy to report that season two is even stronger. So here I am once again to try and convince you that this show is more than worthy of your time.
On the off chance that you failed to watch the first season, here’s a quick refresher: Happy Valley takes place in a small West Yorksire village and focuses on Sgt. Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire). Cawood is an intelligent, resourceful police officer whose been through more than her fair share of trauma. She lives with her sister, Claire (Siobhan Finneran), a recovering alcoholic who seems slightly dim but conceals great wells of wisdom. The first season found Cawood involved in a kidnapping plot that shared similarities to the one from Fargo. One of the kidnappers was Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), a disturbed young man who raped Catherine’s daughter years ago. She later committed suicide, leaving Catherine to raise her daughter’s child on her own while making sure that Royce never comes into contact with the boy. Season two finds her dealing with similar issues while tracking a serial killer and dealing with unfounded accusations about her work ethic and state of mind.
Sound like a soap opera? It isn’t. Creator Sally Wainwright has a natural ear for realistic dialogue and an uncanny ability to raise tension with a few carefully measured exchanges between characters. She’s a masterful writer, wise and clever. Scenes shift their tone at the drop of a dime but in a manner that feels like an accurate depiction of daily life in this village rather than a melodramatic attempt to raise the stakes. Take the first scene of season two. Catherine and Claire sit on their porch smoking. Catherine’s had a hell of a day dealing with a gang of hoodlums who stole a sheep from a local farm. Probably a funny story right? For a while it is. Wainwright jump cuts back and forth between Catherine’s telling of it and the event itself. The story gets wilder as it goes on before ending at a shocking revelation. This is a scene we’ve witnessed before but rarely with such care. Listen to the questions Claire asks, to the casual way Catherine describes the incredible events, to the quiet way the two sisters chuckle at the absurdity. It’s so perfectly written, timed, directed, and played that I felt like applauding after it was over.
Most scenes have that quality. There’s another masterful one where two prostitutes tell Catherine about a particularly vicious client who could be the serial killer she’s hunting for. What’s so interesting about this scene is the way Wainwright paints the two young women as fully formed characters through actions (the way one places a calming hand on the other’s arm, the way the one telling the story looks down and twitches during the painful parts) rather than expository dialogue. The most horrifying aspect of their tale comes not from their interaction with the potential killer but from the way they were handled by two young uniforms all too eager to dismiss their claims. Catherine doesn’t dismiss them though. She listens, calmly nods, but if you look closely, you can see the rage behind her eyes. It comes out in the very next scene where she confronts the two careless officers and gives them the righteous thrashing they deserve. Does she simply berate them though? Of course not. Wainwright is too smart a writer and Catherine too caring a person for the scene to end on a cheap note like that. It’s not as if she gives the idiot cops a ‘teachable’ moment but she makes sure to let them know she’s looking out for their best interests as well.
Adding to the tension of season two is Kevin Doyle as Detective Sgt. John Wadsworth, a seemingly meek man who commits a terrible crime and becomes profoundly unhinged as a result. Once again, it’s a testament to Wainwright that she takes the time to write Wadsworth as a fully-fledged human being rather than a one-note monster. We understand some of his reasoning and can even empathize with him a touch while still being repulsed. Doyle is as strong as the rest of the cast and a welcome addition to the series. Of course though, the star of the show is Lancashire, a marvelous actor able to reflect the full gamut of emotions with a shift of the head or a slight change in body language. The trauma her character has been through is staggering but the show deals with it in an honest manner more accurate and empathetic than anything in Jessica Jones.
The danger that comes when talking about Happy Valley is to be careful to not sound like a sexist idiot. This is a program written and directed by a woman, starring two women, that deals with universal issues faced by women every day all over the world. It’d be easy for some neck-bearded fanboy to be annoyed at the show for having a ‘feminist bent’ (which it does of course, as it fucking should) or for some chauvinistic pig to say something along the lines of, ‘hey, that Wainwright is a good writer for a chick.’ Incorrect. Wainwright is simply a great writer. I can think of no other showrunner with her ear for dialogue or command of pacing. Lancashire and Finneran give awards worthy performances in every scene they’re in. And they’re not playing ‘strong women’; they’re playing strong characters, completely fleshed out and fully realized. So please, do yourself a favor and watch Happy Valley. It’s tremendous. At the very least, it’ll save me the trouble of having to write another post like this when the third season drops next year. I’ll probably write it anyway though cuz the show is just that damn good.