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Review: ‘Happy Valley’ season 2 follows up a tough first act incredibly well

Senior Television Writer
03.22.16 33 Comments

Netflix

(This column discusses the new season of Happy Valley in general terms at first; spoilers come towards the end, and will have a warning when you get there.)

Catherine Cawood is too tired for your bullshit.

Of the many traits that define Catherine, the heroine of the great British cop drama Happy Valley, her implacable world-weariness stands out the most. Catherine (played wonderfully by Sarah Lancashire) checks many familiar cop hero boxes, particularly in the way she's constantly being reined in by bosses who know less about the streets than she does, but where that usually manifests itself in some mix of rage and self-righteousness, with Catherine, it's always quiet exasperation. She has been through every situation, witnessed – and, in some cases, endured – every potential tragedy, and if she's short with you, it's because she can't believe you won't just take her advice when she so generously offers it.

At one point in the second season, which Netflix added last week, Catherine confronts someone who has caused her no end of heartbreak. In almost any other cop drama, the encounter would at a minimum involve screaming and profanity, and more likely end in blood. Catherine, though, just wants to get through to this person, explaining in plain, blunt English why they are better off never interacting again.

Throughout the series, Happy Valley creator Sally Wainwright finds a way to flip crime drama cliches over and over until she's found some honest humanity underneath them. The fantastic first season involved the kidnapping and rape of daughter of privilege Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), and while much of the imagery was familiar from exploitation shows like Criminal Minds, Wainwright always made sure that Ann existed as a character first, a victim second. (In the heart-stopping sequence where Catherine discovers Ann in her captor's basement, Wainwright smartly flips the script halfway through so that Ann winds up having to rescue both herself and Catherine.) To further the point that we are all far more than our worst moments, season 2 finds Ann as a rookie cop, apprenticing under Catherine and continuing to bond over the ways both of their lives have been blighted by her rapist, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), who previously assaulted Catherine's daughter and drove her to suicide after she gave birth to their son Ryan (Rhys Connah).

Because of the personal, primal connection between Catherine and Royce, it seemed almost a  fool's errand for Wainwright to bring Happy Valley back for another season(*). But the new episodes manage to keep the imprisoned Royce a part of the story in a way that mostly feels natural(**), and replaces the original kidnapping plot with a pair of killers: one a profoundly damaged serial killer, the other a copycat who takes advantage of this public series of murders to eliminate a problem of his own.

(*) The closest historical comp may be The Sopranos, which after the first season was never able to give Tony an enemy who cut him as deeply as his own mother, but was still great enough that it was worth continuing. 

(**) Once again, there are some enormous coincidences and strokes of good fortune – for instance, Catherine's sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) dates a man who winds up offering a crucial piece of information about the season's big case – which you just have to accept as dramatic contrivance, but also as a reminder that Catherine works in a relatively small community in Yorkshire, rather than on a big city police force.

As with the first season, the stories keep tiptoeing up to cliché before shuffling into more interesting and complicated emotional territory. One of Royce's lovestruck pen pals (played in very creepy fashion by Shirley Henderson) finds a way to get close to Ryan, but rather than attempt to physically take him away from Catherine, her goal is simply to convince the boy to think of his father in a kinder light. The season suggests that approach could ultimately be more damaging than if Ryan were once again in physical jeopardy. And both killers are presented not as glamorized, fetishized figures to be feared like on so many other cop shows (including fellow UK import Luther, which has an equally great lead performance from Idris Elba, but not nearly as much nuance around him), but as desperate, pathetic figures who can't stop themselves from doing monstrous things. And, once again, the six-episode length plays to the show's advantage, never forcing Wainwright to drag out any plot twists in a way that insults the intelligence of her characters' and/or her audience: when Catherine learns an important piece of information, she acts on it straight away, rather than letting a bad guy spend two more episodes operating in the shadows because she's otherwise occupied.

Over the past few days, there's been some confusion about the series' future, with some Sarah Lancashire quotes suggesting she understandably wants to quit while they're ahead, followed by other statements insisting everyone, Lancashire included, is on board for a third season. Because both seasons have been so deeply personal for Catherine, there remains a threat of diminishing returns if Wainwright keeps the series going for years on end. But there's also a scene at the end of the season that serves as an unnerving reminder that, for Catherine and her family, certain traumas are always going to be present in their lives and hearts, and if Wainwright has more interesting cases for this wise, tough old copper to close while she keeps sorting through that wreckage, by all means.

Now for some specific spoilers for Happy Valley season 2:

* I stopped watching Downton Abbey years ago, but I still flinch every time I think of poor Mr. Molesley (aka actor Kevin Doyle) being the craven, loathsome, opportunistic killer John Wadsworth in this. Doyle was great throughout, and Catherine's failed attempt to talk Wadsworth down off that ledge was powerful because he literally understood the situation (and what to say to a would-be suicide) even better than she did. No lies, no posturing, no big gestures: just two cops talking about what to do after one of them has gone horribly to the other side of things.

* We got a double dose of Harry Potter alums, not only with Henderson (Moaning Myrtle) as Frances Drummond, but a largely unrecognizable Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom) as the man briefly arrested for the killings.

* Thank goodness for closed captioning. While I could mostly follow the story through the characters' thick accents, there were a couple of spots where I'd have been utterly lost without turning on the subtitles, and particularly in the closing scene where Catherine explains to Clare about the true nature of the relationship between the killer and his mother.

* The scene where Catherine has to deal with a drunken and disorderly Neil doesn't factor much into the plot (Neil would have likely allowed Clare to tell Catherine about the blackmail plot either way), but it's another great example of the series just showing us Catherine patiently going about the unglamorous but necessary parts of her job.

What did everybody else think? Would you rather Happy Valley call it a day, or did season 2 persuade you that there's still a lot of life in the show?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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