Happy Valley: Is this grim British cop show the best crime drama of the year?

Television: The much-hyped season finale packs a punch, even as it descends into silliness

Happy Valley S3,05-02-2023, episode 6,
Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley. Photograph: BBC/Lookout Point,

The dark, if obvious joke, with Happy Valley (BBC One, Sunday, 9pm) is that it’s the most miserable thing on TV. That hasn’t stopped the Sally Wainwright thriller from becoming acclaimed in the UK. It has even dethroned Line Of Duty as the nation’s most adored police procedural.

Much of that appeal seems bound up in the “Yorkshireness” of this grim fandango – the charm of which may be lost on Irish viewers. But a much-hyped finale packs a punch, even as it descends into histrionics that veer into silliness.

The crunch moment comes when Sarah Lancashire’s long-suffering Sgt Catherine Cawood faces off against her nemesis – James Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce. Norton has put himself into the conversation as a potential next James Bond with his portrayal of Royce – a monster who can flip, on a devilish dime, from charming to pathological.

Alas, in the concluding episode, this potential 007 has been sent on Her Majesty’s Snivelling Service. After an action-packed sequence in which he offs a group of mobsters planning to kill him, Royce spends the rest of his screen time stewing in self pity.


He makes the time, along the way, to break into Catherine’s house. Here, he leafs through a photo album of his son Ryan (a product of his abusive relationship with Cawood’s late daughter). There is also a chilling – almost David Lynch-esque – sequence in which Tommy peers through a window into the room where Cawood is sitting.

But their face-off is postponed as he decides to sneak in through the basement. It is here that Catherine comes up to him in the final 10 minutes of this feature-length instalment. Tommy has overdosed on painkillers and is swigging whiskey. He then douses himself in petrol and sets himself ablaze – a bad man seeking atonement at the death.

He doesn’t get any satisfaction from Cawood. “You’re just a f***ed-up, frightened, damaged, deluded, nasty little toddler-brain in a big man’s body,” she says. It is a prognosis that viewers may have reached some time ago.

Norton and Lancashire are both riveting – either would make for an excellent Bond. Happy Valley is at its most compelling when orbiting their tangle of slow-burning hatred. Nor can we overlook the importance of television that puts the experiences of a middle-aged woman front and centre (an occurrence that is still far too rare).

Happy Valley is also to be credited for avoiding the lurid leaps of logic that were such a distraction with Line of Duty in its later years. But otherwise, it’s another grim British cop show – not unworthy of your attention but one which can be happily ignored too.