Leaving Happy Valley: how to – and how not to – end a great TV drama

Sarah Lancashire in the final episode of Happy Valley
Sarah Lancashire in the final episode of Happy Valley

When you love a TV series, you don’t want it to stop. Yet a good story (the legendary TV critic Aristotle once said) should have a beginning, a middle and an end. It means that the excitement of a finale must come with a whiff of disappointment. It’s like a holiday or a party – you’re having so much fun you don’t want to go home.

Last night, Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley, one of the finest modern police dramas (and surely right up there with the best TV dramas of all time) reached its conclusion. Released weekly, rejecting the modern binge method, over six episodes it has reeled in more than 11m people. Everyone wanted to see the finale. The battle royale between police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) and her nemesis, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), played out against the backdrop of a grey, gritty West Yorkshire, crosshatched with Wainwright’s wonderful ear for the vernacular and bone-dry humour, has been a brutal, gripping delight.

Which means the success or otherwise of the Happy Valley finale, “sticking the landing” to use the modern phrase, will have meant a lot to many. And to these eyes, at least, it was a triumph.

This was no easy landing to stick. Happy Valley left itself plenty of questions to answer in its final episode, and it ticked every box. Not only did we find out the fate of Catherine and Tommy (one happy, retired, on her way, presumably, to the Himalayas in her Land Rover; the other chargrilled), but it’s hard to think of a loose thread that wasn’t tied up. Rob Hepworth (Mark Stanley) and Faisal Bhatti (Amit Shah) are both going to prison.

Ryan (the wonderful Rhys Connah in literally the role of his lifetime) wasn’t fooled by his dad (James Norton) and did the right thing by helping to bring him down. The Kreepy Knesevics are both finished. And even the Hepworth children were tended to by writer Sally Wainwright – they’re going to live with their grandparents. Which, as Catherine wryly acknowledged, is not the worst thing that can happen – it’s worked out alright for Ryan.

It all meant that in the final scenes Catherine could retire in peace, a job well done, a TV legend secure in IMDB Valhalla. Yet typically, even at the close Wainwright was making quiet points, as Catherine’s work colleagues enjoyed her retirement party without even noticing she was leaving the room.

Indeed, what marked out this finale was the economy with which Wainwright dealt with loose ends (for example, Clare and Catherine’s reconciliation being shown in a simple hug rather than a drawn-out two-hander). It left plenty of room for a superb final scene with Catherine and Tommy as they examined both of their intertwining lives and the regrets they’d sown along the way. They didn’t physically fight, but crucially, Catherine didn’t allow Tommy to die thinking he’d somehow been ill-treated. She reminded him of some of the awful things he’d said, both to her daughter and to Ann Gallagher. “But I didn’t mean it,” he said. “But you said it,” she insisted. You can’t deny who you are, what you’ve said or what you’ve done.

Where does this finale stand in the pantheon? American series have bigger budgets and tend to get bigger worldwide audiences, which is why the finale of The Sopranos (the famed cut to black), The Wire and Six Feet Under are all justly renowned, while the ending of Lost and Game of Thrones are widely decried.

The ending of Game of Thrones was a fiery disaster - HBO
The ending of Game of Thrones was a fiery disaster - HBO

In the UK, series tend to run to fewer episodes and fewer years. This tends to lead to less opportunities for the writers to tie themselves up in plot knots and therefore more satisfied customers with short, sweet memories at the end. The Office, The Young Ones, Catastrophe, Sherlock, Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes and Blackadder are all examples of British series that ended at the right time, and ended well. Look back through all of those and you’ll see that a bit of elegiac weeping and fades to black (both metaphorical and literal) go a long way.

Matthew Graham was one of the creators of Life on Mars alongside Ashley Pharoah. It was a high-concept cop drama about a policeman (John Simm) who is hit by a car in 2006 and finds himself waking up in the 1970s. It ran for two series with a sequel, Ashes to Ashes, finishing in 2010, by which point it was one of the biggest British hits of the decade. So when it was time to shut it down, Graham knew they had a task on their hands.

“You do feel huge pressure,” he says. “I really felt for the guys who wrote Game of Thrones, because I think they just knew what was coming. They went off Twitter and said they couldn’t be contacted, either through humility or genuine terror.”

When the finale of Ashes to Ashes was finished, in which it was revealed that the entire world of the two shows was a form of metaphysical limbo for police who had died violent deaths, Graham showed it to a couple of friends. “They were enthusiastic… ish, with caveats. They said, ‘Er, yeah, it's good… I feel a bit let down.’ In the end I said, ‘I think you're just disappointed because it's ended’.”

Even if valedictory grumbling is inevitable, knowing when to sign off is part of the trick. Karen Thrussell was the producer on Poldark, which ran for five series from 2015 to 2019. “For me a series has to be brave enough to end before the audience has had enough. It needs to bring satisfaction in the form of story tie-ups and character journeys. It should also have a sense of nostalgia for what has gone before, so find the essence of the show and give the audience a bucket load of it to bathe in. And also give the characters that we love and have emotionally invested in some hope for the future, so we can say goodbye to them and know that their journey into the unknown without us will be okay.”

A good finale, in other words, should look to a future for the characters, even if that future won’t take place on screen.

Happy Valley gave Catherine the perfect retirement – not sun-kissed but credible and fully deserved. It didn’t leave Tommy alive, which snuffs out any thought of a daft resurrection. And most importantly, it gave Ryan a future — he chose the right path, he’s a good kid, and there was even a whiff of a possible police career.

The ending of puzzle-box drama Lost enraged loyal viewers
The ending of puzzle-box drama Lost enraged loyal viewers

“The final scene of Poldark,” says Thrussell, “has Ross turning to Demelza before boarding a ship to France where he will begin his new career as a spy, and saying (almost to camera) ‘I swear to you my love, I will return.’ You really want the audience to be yelling at the screen - ‘Don’t go, come back!’”

So it was with Happy Valley, except that we felt like Catherine had more than earned a life away from the cameras. Might Ryan join up? What will become of Ann Gallagher? It felt okay that we could wonder those things without feeling short-sold.

“Look at the Sopranos, where it doesn’t end,” says Matthew Graham. “The camera just looks away. You've lived with these guys for so long and then suddenly the filmmaker says, ‘No, you're done’. Viewers like a few questions.”

In Happy Valley’s finale Wainwright gave us the redemption arc we demanded but left us a world that we feel will live on, just without the cameras – and Sgt Catherine Cawood, now retired.

What do you think of the final episode? Let us know in the comments below