Netflix and Kill: It's Not Too Late to Get In On 'Happy Valley', One of TV's Best Crime Dramas

The just-debuted Season 2 tells a compelling story about a serial killer in a small English town

The sophomore season of the BBC/Netflix crime drama Happy Valley begins with the funniest sequence I’ve ever seen about mercy-killing a sheep with a rock. As police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) holds a skull-size stone over the wheezing animal, steeling herself for the impact, the solicitous elderly woman whose yard she’s in pops outside. "Do you take milk and sugar?" she asks of Catherine’s tea, forcing the officer to hurriedly hide the unwieldy rock behind her back, as panicked as a man with a loose combover unprepared for the first gust of autumn wind. Catherine has to whack the sheep twice, but "it seemed all right after that," she recounts to her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran, better known as Miss O’Brien in Downton Abbey). Clare clarifies, "‘All right’ as in dead?"

Set in the naturally lush but economically decaying north of England, Happy Valley explores the violence and malaise of a town small enough for the theft of livestock and sparse enough for a body to rot for weeks before someone notices. Its nearly perfect six-hour debut season was savagely tense and narratively daring, distinguishing itself in the overcrowded procedural genre with its concise elegance and feminist revisionism. Featuring an all-too-rare middle-aged heroine, that season followed the hardy but emotionally exhausted Catherine as she searched for her daughter’s rapist — now involved in the kidnapping of a different young woman — while struggling to raise her grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah), the challenging young boy born of her daughter's assault after the latter commits suicide.

Season 1 earned its grimness, but creator Sally Wainwright seems to have realized that there’s little reason to plunge further into darkness. Even with a serial-killer plot, the second season is notably warmer and chattier. When the mutilated corpse that Catherine finds in the pilot turns out to be the mother of Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), her daughter’s attacker, the sergeant becomes a person of interest in the case and thus a temporary officer non grata in the department. But Catherine’s influence doesn’t come from her badge but from how well she commands the trust of so many people in the region. The first season adeptly detailed how drugs corroded a community from within. This season focuses on the invisible acts of violence, especially against girls and women, behind closed doors — and how those doors are sturdy enough to enable violations, but not big enough to shield victims from shame in claustrophobic villages.

In the new season’s most engaging storyline, Catherine battles against the incarcerated Tommy once again. His proxy outside is his prison girlfriend Frances (Shirley Henderson), who becomes a teaching assistant at Ryan’s school to persuade the little boy to forge a renewed connection with Tommy. (The last meeting between father and son ended in a murder-suicide attempt by the criminal.) The grade-school-age Ryan is getting too old to unquestioningly accept Catherine’s explanation that he has no father, but he’s still much too young to be told why he can’t have a relationship with the dad who’s trying so hard to reach him. It becomes heartbreakingly clear by the end of the season, though, that if Catherine won’t tell her grandson where he comes from, the boy will find out in the worst way possible.

Frances receives only a modest sketch of a personality, but Happy Valley is stingy with the motivations of all three culprits this season. (In addition to the serial killer terrorizing the town’s prostitutes, a detective, played by Kevin Doyle, attempts to frame his murder of his mistress on the suspect they’re already looking for.) That miserliness might be frustrating for some, but only because we’re so used to receiving simplistic cause-and-effect explanations about why bad people do bad things.

Wainwright, on the other hand, quietly remakes the crime drama by focusing on how an act of violence affects not just the victim but also their families, and how it can continue to affect their lives months and years down the line. That’s an obvious fact, but it’s something we don’t see nearly enough dramatized in procedurals, which tend to emphasize open-and-shut mysteries over character development. If Happy Valley’s Season 2 feels like a shaggier (if still marvelously suspenseful) sequel to a much tighter and more primal tale, that’s because it is one. But it’s also well worth tuning in to see, for instance, how criminals don’t cease to exist just because they’re locked away, and how Tommy’s abduction victim Ann (Charlie Murphy) deals with her trauma 18 months later.

But the best reason to watch remains Catherine herself. Lancashire plays her with a gruff compassion that juts uncomfortably often against an icy-cold rage. When Ann, now a rookie cop, immediately assumes that the serial killer with a broken-bottle fetish who killed Tommy’s mother is a man, Catherine immediately rejoins, “Rape isn’t about sex; it’s about power” — a familiar line that gains a frightening new dimension in light of the sergeant’s homicidal urges toward the Royce family. Battle-hardened from contending with sexism early in her career and now fending off ageism from her department, Catherine has a cop’s authoritarian streak that has her confiding to a friend in the department that she could have gotten away with killing Tommy last season. But Catherine also knows that being thwarted in her vengeance was the better way to go, and the satisfying way that her relationships in the community contribute to finding one of the killers becomes one of the season’s true joys. It’s not police work at its most thuggishly glamorous, but something much better: damn bloody effective.

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