Happy Valley: Why Catherine Cawood Joins The Pantheon Of TV’s Greatest Characters

Happy Valley

by Boyd Hilton |
Updated on

After three series and 18 episodes of the most intense drama imaginable, police sergeant Catherine Cawood came face to face with her nemesis, aka “delinquent fuck” Tommy Lee Royce one last time, audaciously, offensively sitting at her own kitchen table. The gargantuan confrontation we’d been waiting for throughout this whole final season then began with a casual, “Hiya”. As if she was one of his dodgy mates with whom he was about to have a little chat, rather than the deeply traumatised mother of the woman he raped, who then went on to take her own life.

That offhand greeting is a classic bit of Sally Wainwright magic. She is constantly defying our expectations, keeping her characters real, setting us up for an epic final tête-à-tête, which happens to take place across Catherine’s kitchen table. It’s the perfect setting for Catherin’s last bow on the day of her retirement. It’s also a fitting denouement for a series unlike any other cop show or crime drama. The big action sequence, for example, occurs early on in the final episode, when Tommy mercilessly slaughters the small-time gangsters he’s got embroiled with, in a sequence of gruelling, grimy violence. It’s about as un-Hollywood as such a scene could be. The rest of this magnificent finale is built around a series of conversations: first between Catherine and grandson Ryan, then Catherine and sister Claire, building up to that stunning one on one in the kitchen with Tommy. These are enthralling, intimate, emotional conversations but hardly the stuff of a typical crime thriller or police procedural. And that’s because Happy Valley isn’t really any of those things. It is an exploration of a woman grappling with the psychological havoc violent men can wreak, a character study of a police officer trying to halt the cycle of trauma and abuse.

Wainwright wrote the role of Catherine for Sarah Lancashire, having worked with her on the BBC1 series Last Tango In Halifax, another drama that defies genre classification. She crafted Cawood’s distinctly northern, deceptively off-hand yet razor-sharp dialogue, knowing her star would deliver it with the panache and unforced naturalism it needed. Lancashire sells Cawood’s no-bullshit way of expressing herself so well, it’s like they were always meant to create this character together. This collaboration of writer and actor is up there with David Chase and James Gandolfini creating Tony Soprano, or Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston giving us Walter White. Wainwright herself singles out US show Nurse Jackie, with Edie Falco excelling in the title role of an ER nurse with major issues, as a big influence on Happy Valley and its deliciously gnarly heroine. Wainwright describes Catherine as having, “a very strong streak of irony and comedy. She is a good person to whom something very tragic has happened”.

This final series has shown more than ever how this good person uses her acerbic intelligence, her ferocious, biting wit as her primary weapon (and isn’t above cruelly tasering her own sister with it, to truly upsetting effect). The show’s stunning, never to be forgotten final moments sum up the abiding genius of Wainwright and Lancashire’s creation. One minute Cawood is operatically destroying Tommy Lee Royce with her furiously withering, acid eloquence (“You’re just a fucked up, frightened, damaged, deluded, nasty little toddler-brain in a big man’s body”). Then a few seconds later she’s back in the arms of her sister, sobbing with relief, telling her, “I think I might have singed one of your crocheted blankets”.

This brilliant, stubborn, funny woman, with a vein of fury running through her, should surely now stand alongside the giants of TV drama, the protagonists at the centre of the shows routinely regarded as the greatest of all, from Walter White and Don Draper, to Omar Little and Tony Soprano. Yet unlike those wonderfully complex male anti-heroes, Catherine Cawood is a total hero. Not perfect, of course, but fundamentally and uncompromisingly decent; a vanquisher of abusive, moronic men, and brilliant company at the same time. Sally Wainwright and Sarah Lancashire have given us a character to love and treasure. Millions of us are already missing her profoundly, because she might just be the best of them all.

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