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The final season of the hit BBC crime series 'Happy Valley' has come to the U.S.

Sarah Lancashire plays big-hearted police sergeant Catherine Cawood in <em>Happy Valley.</em>
BBC
Sarah Lancashire plays big-hearted police sergeant Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley.

It wasn't so long ago that a handful of shows were commonly offered as examples of how good television can be. In America, these touchstones tended to skew extremely male — The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. The exact opposite was true in Britain, where the defining titles of the 21st century — Fleabag, Killing Eve, I May Destroy You — are by and about women.

The most popular of this bunch is Happy Valley, the BBC crime series that became an instant sensation when it premiered in 2014. Created by Sally Wainwright, and centering on a woman police sergeant in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire, it set the gold standard for crime series anchored by complicated women. You find its DNA all over a show like Mare of Easttown.

When Happy Valley's third and final season aired in Britain earlier this year, it was a smash with both critics and viewers. It's now come to our screens on BBC America, Acorn TV and AMC+. The latter two services also offer the first two seasons, and I highly recommend you see them. With a grand arc unfolding over nearly a decade in real time, the 18 episodes of this series take viewers on a twisting, cliff-hanging, deeply satisfying emotional journey.

In the star turn of a lifetime, Sarah Lancashire plays Sgt. Catherine Cawood, a sharp, big-hearted divorcee who often sports a yellow police vest. Catherine is raising her grandson, Ryan, whose mother killed herself from the trauma of being kidnapped and raped by Ryan's father, a sociopath named Tommy Lee Royce. Tommy's played by James Norton, who you may know as the crime-solving vicar in Grantchester. While Season 1 focused on Catherine bringing Tommy to justice, Season 2 dealt with her trying to create a normal life for her family while her nemesis plots vengeance from prison.

Season 3 serves up funny police banter, stinging family arguments, elaborate jail breaks, casual murders, elaborate murders, dramatic showdowns and moments of profound personal betrayal. Through it all, her characters burst with humanity — even evil ones.

As Season 3 begins, it's seven years later, and Catherine is about to retire and take a trip to the Himalayas. Her world is overturned when she discovers that the 16-year-old Ryan has begun communicating with Tommy — he wants to know more about his dad. Even as Catherine wants Ryan to stop, she's still hard at work, looking into a murder that Tommy may have committed a decade ago, and dealing with a drug-addicted woman whom she fears is being abused by her husband.

Now, Wainwright — who also created Last Tango in Halifax and the gender-bending HBO series Gentleman Jack – knows how to reel you in. Season 3 serves up funny police banter, stinging family arguments, elaborate jail breaks, casual murders, elaborate murders, dramatic showdowns and moments of profound personal betrayal. Through it all, her characters burst with humanity — even evil ones, like the often sweet-faced Tommy, who Norton makes an unnervingly mercurial bad guy.

Catherine's police work lets Wainwright capture a Yorkshire she knows inside out. While Mare of Easttown was justly praised for its portrait of small town Pennsylvania, Happy Valley's detailed vision of its community is even richer, and not only because the local dialect is as thick as Yorkshire pudding. We get Catherine's world in all its gritty reality — the poverty, corruption, drug use, domestic violence, gangsterism and despair that stand in stark contrast to the area's tradition of working-class solidarity and its often beautiful landscape.

The show rotates around Lancashire's full-court-press of a performance in a role that asks her to do everything. Catherine is an honest, foul-mouthed cop. She's a nurturing mother who mourns her dead daughter, raises Ryan with boundless love and worries that her reporter ex-husband may get into trouble investigating a gang. She's a linebacker of a woman who, more than once, gets bloodied from knockdown-dragouts with male criminals. And she's a female avenger who, attuned to the weakness and violence of men, is especially protective of women.

Catherine's not a saint, of course. She jumps to conclusions, lashes out at her sister and, in her protectiveness toward Ryan, she doesn't let him know what Tommy is truly like. But her flaws only deepen our sense of her strengths. Indeed, she emerges as one of the genuine feminist heroes in television history. Happy Valley isn't a happy place, but I was always happy being in her company.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.