Season 2 of the celebrated Yorkshire police drama Happy Valley starts as it means to go on: with Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) absolutely worn out. Over a cuppa with her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran), she recounts an escapade with a kidnapped sheep rampaging across town pursued by local dogs before she had to put it out of its misery with a heavy rock. If that wasn’t enough, all the dogs that bit the sheep died of poison in the sheep’s system, finishing off the anecdote with a nice little “you won’t believe this” bow.
If this anecdote seems to stretch credibility, a little bloated, or be tonally confused, you’ll be glad to know that Happy Valley Season 2 mostly manages to avoid the same descriptors. Still, compared to Season 1, it’s a bigger, messier, and more imperfect beast.
Many strands run throughout the sophomore outing’s six episodes. We kick off with Catherine discovering the body of Lynn Dewhurst, the mother of Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), in a council estate garage. She’s been badly mutilated, including in the genital area, and it doesn’t take long for the police to link the killing with two previous murders of sex workers in the area – launching the criminal investigation Operation Syracuse.
Catherine, unfortunately, is initially considered a suspect in Lynn’s murder – her venom for Tommy’s mother was no secret, and there are records of threatening phone messages after she tried to talk to Catherine’s grandson (and Tommy’s son) Ryan (Rhys Connah). Catherine clearly didn’t murder anybody, but it’s another sign of her police work getting pushback from authorities – this is no ace detective who always gets the job done in an acceptable manner.
It’s at this juncture we meet John Wadsworth (Kevin Doyle), a detective on Operation Syracuse, whose attempts to end a two-year affair with Vicky Fleming (Amelia Bullmore) go sideways when she drugs him, stages compromising photos, and blackmails him for money or she’ll ruin his marriage and career. His sharp shift in demeanor is noticed by new copper Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), whose traumatic experience at the hands of Tommy Lee Royce has set her up for a career in law enforcement.
In reality, the experience of sexual assault is likely to do anything but convince young women to join the British police force – but to Happy Valley’s credit, Catherine does confront two (female) officers for their poor, prejudiced handling of rape victims when they fail to protect sex workers later in the series.
We’re not even nearly done introducing plot threads! Catherine is key to uncovering a sex trafficking ring that peters on for a few episodes with no clear resolution – except for detailing how steeped in organized crime Calder Valley is. Catherine’s son Danny is kicked out of the house by his wife, landing him on Catherine’s sofa. Claire falls off the wagon but finds a close kinship with fellow alcoholic Neil Ackroyd (Con O’Neill), Nevison Gallagher has a troubled, tempestuous young employee in Sean (Matthew Lewis), and a young farmer Daryl (Robert Emms) causes trouble for him and his mother Alison (Susan Lynch) when he fights back against local bullies.
These three men each become suspects in Operation Syracuse: as newly introduced men with behavioral problems, they’re the only believable possible culprits for all the murders. Well, all but one – when Vicky Fleming’s body turns up mutilated in the same way as the other victims, we know she wasn’t killed by the same murderer because we saw Wadsworth kill her over the blackmailing and disguised her death as that of a serial killer. Doyle is a superior dramatic actor to last season’s Steve Pemberton and plays the panicked agitation of covering up his part in a crime to much more nuanced results.
But we’re still not done introducing plot threads! Season 2’s weakest efforts come from returning baddie Tommy Lee Royce, who has convinced a besotted hybristophiliac (someone who falls in love with convicts), Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson), to move to Calder Valley, to infiltrate Ryan’s school as a teacher, and fill his mind with sympathy for his father. The scenes where Ryan confronts his family with difficult, painful questions about his father and mother bring noteworthy performances from the whole cast, but it’s all let down by Henderson’s overly breathy, grating performance. If anything was to be cut from this season, it should be this.
Still, everything wraps up in satisfying and surprising ways. Some nifty detective work from Danny and Claire helps expose Frances’ deceit, and Catherine ends up feeling more compassion toward the fraudster than she expected. Sean is exonerated when Daryl confesses to murdering sex workers but is killed by Alison to save him from a life behind bars before he can face justice. Neil’s past experience being blackmailed by Vicky points Catherine towards Wadsworth as her killer, but a pursuit ends in him jumping off a bridge despite her efforts to talk him down.
We end on a more complicated note than the first season: a conflicted Catherine overlooking the moors, with a letter from Ryan reaching Tommy in prison. All in all, Happy Valley’s second season is a commendable and full-bodied effort to expand the scope of the police drama, even if it feels overstuffed – and the trials Catherine is put through feel relentless. With Season 3 about to drop, it’s exhilarating to imagine how the unresolved threads are tied up and whether Catherine will ever be allowed to put her pain to rest.
All six episodes of Happy Valley Season 2 are available to watch on Acorn TV, as well as AMC+, and airing on BBC America.