Happy Valley finale review: Sally Wainwright’s BBC One drama went out as the best version of itself

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Happy Valley has always been a family drama and a crime drama - and its finale made the right choice to emphasise the more compelling of the two

Happy Valley has always been two shows: a family drama, tracing the impact of Catherine Cawood’s decision to raise her grandson Ryan after the death of her daughter, and a crime drama, charting the influence of drugs and gangs in Halifax. One has always been more compelling than the other – it’s not that the crime drama is bad, as such, but that however well any given interrogation scene is written it’s never been as powerful as Sarah Lancashire frantically tearing up a Scalextric set.

At times, perhaps, it’s felt like Series 3 maybe got that balance wrong, devoting more space to criminal pharmacist Faisal Bhatti (Amit Shah) and abusive PE teacher Mr Hepworth (Mark Stanley). Again, a perfectly competently executed crime drama plot, but one that quickly felt like a distraction – or, even, an obligation, included because someone somewhere felt that ‘just’ focusing on Catherine, Ryan, and Tommy Lee Royce wasn’t enough. That Happy Valley’s finale eventually concluded that plotline with a few stray lines of epilogue felt like an admission that Faisal and Hepworth were always a secondary concern at best, an echo of something the show had already done better before and not really a demonstration of its unique strengths.

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Equally, though, it’s hard to complain too much – because firmly relegating that to a secondary concern allowed for more of an emphasis on Happy Valley’s real strengths. In the end, the show committed to that family drama, and went out as the best version of itself; the eventual confrontation between Catherine and Royce owed much more to the Scalextric scene than any big fight scene or grand shootout, opting for something pointedly understated and intimate rather than maximalist and excessive.

Siobhan Finneran as Claire and Sarah Lancashire as Catherine in Happy Valley S3 (Credit: BBC/Lookout Point/Matt Squire)Siobhan Finneran as Claire and Sarah Lancashire as Catherine in Happy Valley S3 (Credit: BBC/Lookout Point/Matt Squire)
Siobhan Finneran as Claire and Sarah Lancashire as Catherine in Happy Valley S3 (Credit: BBC/Lookout Point/Matt Squire) | BBC/Lookout Point/Matt Squire

It was a well-judged finale, precise in what it allowed for and what it didn’t. There was no hint of forgiveness for Tommy Lee Royce, and barely even pity – his overtures towards that only demonstrating, once and for all, how vapid and superficial he really was. (An aside: was the Knežević brother genuinely planning to help Royce? Was that impulsive violence his downfall?) That kitchen table confrontation, Royce’s myopic self-delusion colliding with Catherine, more sure of herself and Ryan than she’d been in some time, is an obvious contender for the best scene across the show as a whole.

As ever, Happy Valley is Sarah Lancashire’s show first and foremost; another benefit of that choice to go small and intimate with the finale is that Happy Valley simply gets out of its own way and lets Lancashire act. She gives a real tour-de-force performance, not just in that final confrontation but everything leading up to it – again, it speaks to an awareness of the show’s greatest strengths that the Happy Valley finale put as much emphasis as it did on scenes between Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran, between them always the heart of the series.

Ultimately, even if it wasn’t perfect – it still feels like a genuine and deep flaw that Happy Valley, which opened with three episodes of violence against Ann Gallagher, never really meaningfully centred her as a character going forward – the Happy Valley finale did still feel like the perfect summation of the show. It emphasised its most compelling attributes, moved away from its least, and turned one-time flaws into strengths. Hard to ask for more, really.

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Happy Valley is available on BBC iPlayer now. You can read more of our Happy Valley coverage here, and check out some of our other TV reviews here.

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