How Happy Valley found God: redemption, forgiveness and the Devil


Happy Valley’s final ever episode left us in a churchyard, with Catherine Cawood standing next to her daughter’s gravestone, contemplating the epitaph: “In God is My Hope.” By choosing this as the final image of the series, what was Sally Wainwright trying to tell us?

The underlying theme of all three series of Happy Valley has been a battle between good and evil: Sergeant Cawood (played by the extraordinary Sarah Lancashire), who stands for all that is not only lawful but moral, versus Tommy Lee Royce, a brutal killer without a conscience, portrayed with a chilling menace by the equally accomplished James Norton.

You could, of course, argue that most stories have about them an element of right versus wrong, good versus bad, but Happy Valley took it to new heights. Cawood took on the appearance of a living saint, carrying her yellow hi-vis jacket like St George in his armour.

Meanwhile Royce, a rapist, a brutal killer, someone who unleashed terrifying violence without even a flicker of anything crossing his cold eyes, became the epitome of evil. It was a word Cawood used repeatedly to describe him, after she has exhausted all the other worst words human beings conjure up to condemn those they hate.

There has been plenty of the parable about Happy Valley, though perhaps not in the same way that Call the Midwife makes the connection between organised religion – with its nun midwives – and social justice. This was on a subtler level.

In a parable, good emerges victorious and in that electrifying final exchange in Catherine’s kitchen, it was she who emerged on top. “We’ve had a bit of a tussle,” she told her sister Clare afterwards in the street with an almost prophetic flourish. “I won, obviously.”


Then there was the fire that swallowed Royce whole. In the Middle Ages, Christianity consigned those it deemed in league with the devil to the flames. Every medieval church would have had in a prominent place an image of the “Harrowing of Hell”, that time between Jesus’s death on the cross and his resurrection when he descended into the Devil’s lair and saw human beings being engulfed in flames as punishment. Royce’s end sat firmly in this tradition.

In such wall paintings – certainly in those that survive – the Devil is immediately recognisable because he had a fixed set of characteristics: horns, a tail, the cloven hoof, scaly skin and sulphur breath. But with the decline of organised religion, a falling away of church-going, and with it of a widespread public understanding of religious symbolism, the face of “evil” has become hard to know and harder to spot. In recent times, we have become accustomed to seeing it staring out at us in the photographs of those who commit the most notorious crimes. Evil deeds equals an evil individual with an evil face.

The best example is that black-and-white image of Myra Hindley, the Moors murderer, taken when she was arrested in October 1965. She stares into the camera, blank-faced, defiant, menacing and without a trace of remorse. She was, headline writers said at the time and long after, the devil incarnate. The makers of Happy Valley have gone to a lot of trouble - and clever camerawork - to make Norton’s otherwise blandly handsome face appear as evil as possible, adding scars in this last series as outward signs of the threat he poses.

But that good versus evil narrative, the thread that had held all three series together, became suddenly much more complex in the final episode. Part of the genius of  Wainwright – whose CV and public remarks contain nothing to suggest she has any particular interest in religion (unlike Norton, who was educated by Benedictine monks and possesses a first-class degree in theology from Cambridge) – is that she can also be challenging to read.

Her characters are complex and Cawood more than most. She is no plaster saint. Wainwright told BBC Radio recently that during the filming of series one, Lancashire had completed a scene and said to the scriptwriter, “God, I hope people understand that”.


To understand the conclusion of Happy Valley, the choice of a churchyard for the final scene, and Royce’s death by fire, like a medieval heretic found wanting by the Inquisition, one must consider the context of an episode that seemed to discard the black-and-white/good-versus-evil narrative. The devil incarnate suddenly felt so much less menacing when he told Catherine he didn’t hate her anymore. The Devil even said “I’m sorry”.

Not that Cawood gave that much truck. Forgiveness, as a distinctive virtue in all religions but one in short supply in secular society, is so much harder than saying sorry. “Sorry I raped your daughter and caused her suicide” doesn’t make it all right.

Wainwright offered us another version of an apology in the finale, when Cawood apologised to her sister, recovering drug addict Clare, whom she had verbally crushed the previous week for taking her grandson, Ryan, to meet his father in prison. Yet this week she couldn’t meet Clare’s eyes as she told her that it may have been good for Ryan to meet his father and “see through him”. In other words, Clare had been right.

Evil, too, comes in many forms, the climax suggested, each one terrible and corrosive but all different. As well as Royce’s casual disregard for all human life except his own, there were the Knezevic brothers, on the surface respectable businessmen, one a budding local councillor, but in reality corrupting society at every turn.

And what of Rob Hepworth, wife beater, bully, blackmailer and abuser of his pupils. Here evil was made to look so ordinary, even pathetic. “She’d try the patience of a saint,” he whined to the police of his dead wife, seeking to excuse what he had done. Meanwhile it was Faisal Bhatti, the apparently mild, meek family man and pharmacist, who had been the one ruthless and selfish enough to kill Hepworth’s fragile wife to save his own skin.

However, what the time-honoured good-versus-evil storyline misses is nuance. Wainwright is too human to make that mistake. The showdown between Cawood and Royce was also about him revealing some of the factors that had led him to becoming what he had become. If this final episode did go out with any big moral theme, then it was about reckoning and not the need to put ourselves in God’s hands, as the gravestone suggested. There was Tommy’s tearful reckoning with what he had done as he looked through Cawood’s family photo albums and Ryan’s reckoning with what his dad was really like, something that caused him to betray Royce to police.

And Catherine Cawood? There was a reckoning with her sister, but most of all, in that cemetery, there was a reckoning with the memory of her dead daughter.