Why ‘Happy Valley’ Is TV’s Most Brazenly Feminist Show

In the opening scene of the second season of Happy Valley, released on Netflix last Wednesday, Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) sits in the garden of her West Yorkshire home, smoking a cigarette and telling her sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran), about her latest misadventure. Three young men were caught stealing sheep — or, as Cawood puts it, “This is sheep rustling, North Halifax-style, so there’s just the one sheep and three lads off their ’eds on acid.”

When the sheep is found in a woman’s yard, mauled by dogs, it’s up to Catherine to put the poor thing out of its misery. We see her pick up a heavy rock and carry it warily over to the sheep. To her sister, Catherine describes the terrible sound the rock made when it hit the sheep’s head, and how it took more than one blow to kill the animal. But the camera mercifully breaks away before the rock makes contact.

Catherine’s mercy killing — and creator/director Sally Wainwright’s decision to cut away before it actually happens — is typical of Happy Valley’s consummate humanity. The BBC production has stayed under the radar stateside, which is a shame, because Happy Valley is TV’s most brazenly feminist show, its hero Catherine Cawood the patron saint of justice for women.

In the first season, a young woman named Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy) is kidnapped and held for ransom. The perpetrator is not an evil genius or twisted psychopath, but an accountant at a firm run by Ann’s father; the accountant wants a raise so he can send his daughters to private school, but Ann’s father refuses, setting in motion a chain of events that spins out of control.

One of the local townsmen hired to do the dirty work is Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), who’s recently been released from prison on drug charges, and who raped Catherine’s own daughter; in the show’s pilot, it’s revealed that her daughter committed suicide weeks after giving birth to Tommy’s child. Now, Catherine is raising her daughter’s school-age son, Ryan, whom her ex-husband refuses to acknowledge.

Like The Fall — another BBC thriller in which a steely female cop hunts down a depraved criminal — the man committing heinous crimes against his female victims is young and handsome. He’s not a hideous monster like Childress, the boogeyman from the first season of True Detective. And he doesn’t have any deep, psychological motive, like the mind-controlling villain of Jessica Jones, whose traumatic childhood is explored in detail and who has a twisted history with his foe, the hero of the show’s title.

No, the driving forces behind the terrible things that happen to young women on Happy Valley are more mundane than that. The series presents a truly harrowing, non-exploitative vision of what it might be like for a woman to be kidnapped and raped over nothing more than money, and what savage things perfectly nice people are capable of: even when the accountant’s wife finds out what’s happened to Ann, she’s hesitant to go to the police and implicate herself. Suddenly in possession of all that ransom money, she goes darty-eyed, suggesting they put it in different accounts, “use it to buy things with.”

By the end of the season (another merciful act: each consists of just six hour-long episodes), Ann is safely recovered and Tommy is back behind bars. In season two, Ann gets to be more than a victim duct-taped to a chair in a dank basement. She remakes herself in Catherine’s mold, newly invigorated as a result of her training with the police force. In fact, it’s Ann herself who connects the dots in the latest case, which involves a sergeant who commits a crime of passion.

Again, the reasons for the nebbishy officer’s horrible acts are completely ordinary. John Wadsworth (Kevin Doyle) is having an affair with a woman who threatens blackmail if he doesn’t leave his wife and children. They argue; it gets physical, and he snaps and punches her in the face. “You’ve had that coming!” he yells. They fall to the ground, and he strangles her with a telephone cord, yelping, “You shouldn’t have done it! You shouldn’t have done it!” Again, the camera cuts away before she dies.

Conveniently, a serial killer in the town has been targeting prostitutes. John tries to pass off his own murder as the work of that killer, but the cops notice that this victim is healthier, has better teeth, was wearing a nicer dress than the others. It’s only when this well-to-do woman turns up dead that they start to seriously devote resources to investigate the murders.

Catherine is the only one to take the safety of the town’s sex workers seriously in the first place. On her off time, she brings them sandwiches and warns them to watch their backs. None of them are in the least bit sexy; they’re skinny and pale and unkempt, and obviously drug addicts. In fact, there’s nothing sexy about this show — its hero is a grandmother, not a foxy femme fatale like The Fall’s Gillian Anderson. Unlike Jessica Jones, Happy Valley is not dark and gloomy. The town may be drug-addled but it’s pretty, all sun-dappled English hillsides and low stone walls. There are no tortured romance subplots; in fact, I can’t recall anything approaching a sex scene on this show.

In one incredible scene, Catherine listens as a 19-year-old prostitute describes a recent assault committed by a man who she suspects is the killer. It’s a remarkably respectful scene: the camera stays close on the woman’s face as she shakily explains what happened to her. We never see images of her brutal assault; we only hear it described in her words. She mentions two cops who dropped her off at the hospital but failed to take her assault seriously, and in the next scene, we find out that those two cops were themselves young women.

When Tommy Lee Royce was arrested in the season one finale, I remember thinking, where is the story going to go now? Tommy’s saga is surely over. But Happy Valley’s second season is a reminder that the story isn’t over when the bad guy’s arrested. Now, Tommy is in prison, but he’s manipulating a lonely, older woman into doing his bidding. She takes a job at Ryan’s school and starts to plant thoughts about his “dad” into his head. “I Googled your dad, and I can’t believe he’s responsible for half the things he’s in prison for,” she tells him. “Why?” Ryan asks. “Because he has such a kind face.”

Unlike so many crime shows, Happy Valley demonstrates the fallacy that only outwardly bad people do bad things. “People are weird,” Catherine says. “People are mad. And they don’t always have it tattooed across their forehead.” In the second season, Clare reconnects with an old friend, and the two hit it off. Eventually he confesses that he once had an affair with the woman whom John Wadsworth murdered; she also threatened to blackmail him, by drugging him and then taking photos of him passed out wearing women’s lingerie. Clare urges him to tell the police, but he’s afraid he’ll just be humiliated all over again. “You don’t know what that does to me, Clare,” he says. That he’s not really a bad person only emphasizes the fact that our society often privileges male ego over women’s safety. No matter that there’s a killer on the loose; it’s more important that this man not be humiliated.

If only every police force had a Catherine Cawood. Lancashire plays her like a woman down but not out: she speaks quietly, wearily, like she’s stoned or half asleep — like she’s very, very tired. At the end of the second season, Catherine describes hearing “another everyday story of country folk,” about a woman who gave birth to her father’s child, the product of rape. Although the woman suspects her son knows the truth, she never discussed it with him. “She said, ‘Because I never had the language,’” Catherine recalls, gazing at Ryan. “I thought, yeah. I know.” In creating Happy Valley, Sally Wainwright has done more than offer up thought-provoking, gripping drama. She’s provided a kind of language to express the terrible truths that we struggle to speak aloud.