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Thursday, May 30th, 2024  

Happy Valley (Season Three)

Acorn TV/AMC+/BBC America, May 22, 2023

May 30, 2023 Photography by Acorn TV/AMC+/BBC America Web Exclusive
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Murderer, rapist, master manipulator, and primary antagonist Tommy Lee Royce makes his most audacious ploy yet in the third and final season of the hit crime drama Happy Valley. The series debuted stateside four months after airing to rave reviews in its native UK. The series, which is set in West Yorkshire, has a huge fanbase of eight to nine million viewers per episode, which dwarfs most American prestige television shows.

James Norton returns as Tommy Lee, his British Academy Television Award-nominated role, and is more effective than ever. Happy Valley viewers will remember that Tommy Lee was put behind bars by the tough but tender small town cop, Sergeant Catherine Cawood, portrayed by the incomparable, BAFTA Television Award-winning Sarah Lancashire.

Back in Season One, Catherine hunted Tommy Lee down for reasons both personal and professional. Aside from his ongoing crimes, years prior he had raped Catherine’s daughter Becky, who died by suicide after birthing Tommy Lee’s son, Ryan (played by Rhys Connah), who Catherine raised as her own. In Season Two Tommy Lee used his bad boy image to woo women to visit him in jail, and manipulated one into stalking and harassing Ryan and Catherine. Having stymied that plan, Catherine begins Season Three believing she is safe from her vindictive nemesis, and sets about planning her retirement.

In contrast, Tommy Lee begins the season channeling Charles Manson. He uses his long braided hair like a prop, theatrically tossing it over his shoulder or gathering it together and resting his head on it like a pillow while leaning on unforgivingly hard prison walls.

Fans will no doubt be surprised, and perhaps skeptical, that Catherine will finally turn in her badge. After all, she was dedicated to the point of obsession in the first two seasons, as her incompetent supervisors lollygagged, and at times encouraged her to partake in their corrupt complacency. Creator and co-director Sally Wainwright handles this point deftly in the Season Three cold open. Wainwright’s and co-director Patrick Harkins’ shots of a mucky drained Yorkshire reservoir crime scene will keep you engrossed from the very start of the first episode. By placing the camera low and panning slowly, you’ll feel like you’re trudging beside Catherine, figuratively and literally, as she diplomatically explains to more senior (but far less adept) detectives why their assumptions about the murder victim they are investigating are wrong. Catherine calling them “twats” under her breath also brings the series’ sly British humor to bear from the get-go, in yet another brilliantly gruff turn from Lancashire.

Just when Catherine thinks it’s time to call it quits, Tommy Lee resurfaces. First, she finds out her blissfully ignorant sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) and even more befuddled boyfriend Neil (Con O’Neill) have been bringing Ryan to visit Tommy Lee. The father and son had been writing letters to each other for years and were planning visits. When Clare and Neil found out they thought it best to at least supervise him, without putting Catherine in a tailspin by telling her. It seems they forgot she was an ace investigator and would likely put the clues together. Seeing a high school-aged Ryan come face to face with his infamous father is sure to leave audiences even more aghast than Catherine, not only because of how it pushes the plot forward, but also because of both actors’ nuanced performances.

The next twist threatens to undermine the new season’s other successes. When Tommy Lee stages a farfetched escape, it stretches the believability of this otherwise gritty and relatable series. Thankfully, there’s plenty more to recommend this season. Connah’s transition from child actor to young adult is commendable. He gives an understated performance, letting his inner turmoil simmer just below the surface, as he contends with his father’s manipulation. Ryan’s persistent interest in his Dad, not to mention the clandestine visits, make Catherine worry once again that he’ll turn out as bad as Tommy Lee.

Ryan’s subplot in Season Three is also compelling because he bridges Catherine with a number of well-drawn secondary characters. His domineering PE teacher Rob Hepworth (Mark Stanley) is a murder suspect in one of Catherine and her colleagues’ investigations. Stanley steals countless scenes in this role, bounding about rooms to confront and bellow at other characters with distinctive, tightly coiled body language. Mollie Winnard plays Rob’s petrified wife Joanna, who shares a dark secret with their neighbor Faisal Bhatti, a corrupt pharmacist. Later in the series Bhatti is not only strongarmed by Joanna, but also by local mobsters linked with an underworld hinted at in Season One. This swiftly raises the stakes for all the characters before the season finale.

Wainwright strikes a delicate balance between intimate character study and increasingly complex crime drama. Plot layers give Happy Valley more scope and suspense, while remaining digestible. Fans will expect nothing less, given the precedence set by the first two seasons. Aside from Tommy Lee’s occasionally far-fetched superhero-esque feats, the final season of Happy Valley is all peaks, no valleys. (www.bbcamerica.com/shows/happy-valley)

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 9/10


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