There’s a blissful moment right at the beginning of Happy Valley Season 3 when everybody actually seems happy.
It’s our first time seeing Sally Wainwright’s characters in seven years since Season 2, and as the extended family of Cawoods, Cartwrights, and Gallaghers sit around the table together laughing and making smalltalk there’s the sense that they may finally have managed to find some peace. That maybe the ghost of Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), still in prison serving a life sentence for the events of Season 1, has finally stopped haunting them.
Needless to say, it doesn’t last. This glimpse of happiness is only fleeting. It isn’t long before everyone is plunged headlong back into a familiar sea of misery, with hidden secrets and tensions creeping in as the group slowly but surely fractures. It’s the Happy Valley we know and love, and I’m pleased to report that it’s every bit as bleak and brilliant as the first two seasons.
What’s Happy valley Season 3 about?
The show’s final season follows a similar pattern to Season 2. On the one hand we have the core, ongoing story of Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), her troubled, now teenage grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah), and his biological father, Tommy Lee Royce, the man responsible for her daughter Becky’s death.
Ryan is that little bit older, and his questions about his father haven’t gone away. But Catherine, who finished Season 2 increasingly worried about the effect Tommy might have had on her grandson, is still just as desperate as ever to keep them apart.
In the background, meanwhile, is a new story concerning Ryan’s horribly abusive gym teacher, his wife who is addicted to pain medication, the dodgy pharmacist supplying her under-the-counter, and the drug dealers who threaten him after they find out he’s been dealing on their turf.
It sounds complicated, and there is a lot going on. But in Wainright’s hands, the disparate elements all connect and complement each other in the end.
The big time jump works well.
It’s not often you have a show that takes a seven-year break in between seasons. Having such a large time gap comes with its risks. Will the audience still care about or remember the characters after all that time? Does it make sense for the story? Fortunately, in Happy Valley, the time jump actually helps. If Season 3 had followed straight on from Season 2, the show’s underlying sense of gritty realism might have been stretched a bit — how many years in a row can things really go so wrong for these families? But the seven-year jump comes with its own tensions and mysteries. What has happened to Tommy in prison to make his appearance so different? What kind of teenager has Ryan grown into? What’s happened in the lives of all these characters since we last saw them?
It’s like seeing a group of people again that you came to care about, but haven’t had the chance to catch up with in years.
Happy Valley is not for everyone.
If you’ve seen the first two seasons, you’ll probably already know this. The combination of Wainright’s unflinching scripts, the raw emotion in the acting, and the dark themes being dealt with mean that Happy Valley can be a tough watch at the best of times. It’s a depressing and disturbing show, and Season 3 — with its themes of domestic violence — is no exception.
But, like the first two seasons, there is light in there too. Wainright does an impressive job of sprinkling in moments of humour and levity throughout her scripts, and the actors have no problem introducing a few laughs alongside the tears and the pain. Ultimately, despite how heavy it is overall, the show’s core message is one of durability.
No matter what gets thrown at these characters, and no matter how often they get beaten down, they somehow find a way to pick themselves — and each other — back up again.
Happy Valley Season 3 is available on Acorn TV, AMC+ and BBC America from May 22.