The big secret of Happy Valley? It’s really a western

Wanted – Dead or Alive: James Norton in Happy Valley - Matt Squire/BBC
Wanted – Dead or Alive: James Norton in Happy Valley - Matt Squire/BBC

As we all know, Tommy Lee Royce, convicted triple murderer, drug dealer, and unrepentant rapist, is currently at large in season three of Happy Valley, after his daredevil escape from the clutches of the law. Short of stapling “Wanted – Dead or Alive” posters all over town, the imminent manhunt – and a brewing showdown with Sarah Lancashire’s flinty marshal – could hardly be more archetypal.

This season began with a corpse washing up in Baitings Dam, near Ripponden. Presuming we’re not bound for the OK Corral by the finale, it’ll be whatever West Yorkshire’s answer to that is. A music venue called The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge, that old packhorse river crossing and frontier town where parts of the series were shot, has even taken the precaution of barring Royce from the premises. Per a tweet from the manager: “We've had reports that Thomas Royce may be back in the area. A reminder that he is barred from the club.”

Something about that wording suggests a saloon on high alert, perhaps a whole Main Street with anxious shop-owners peeking through their shutters. If Happy Valley truly were a western – which it essentially is – a grizzled coffin maker would obviously be preparing to whittle like crazy at this point.

As the show’s creator, Sally Wainwright, has tended to argue in interviews, it both is and is not about contemporary policing. It’s much more about Catherine Cawood – there’s a name rather suited to the Old West, really – and her undying enmity with Royce, whose true nature no one else perceives or despises as deeply as she does. The support system around her – all the deputies and family members meant to have her back – often proves precarious, and certainly in this season, deeply untrustworthy. Fundamentally, she stands alone.

Golden age westerns never had female sheriffs of any description, of course – and Happy Valley would be quite a different proposition without the gender combat at its centre, or, indeed, the pulverising force of Lancashire’s performance. But this is how it reinvents a classic form.

There’s a staunch hero, who has seen deeply into the heart of lawlessness and moral evil, refusing to bend. Driven, out for justice, this crusader is prepared to roll with the punches. Beyond the long-term nemesis that obsesses them, there’s also a town that needs cleaning up, saving from criminal elements that are variously vicious, stupid or purely chaotic. Before you can say High Noon, there’s going to be a reckoning.

The more we choose to lean into Happy Valley in this light, the more enjoyable it gets. Over the credits, Jake Bugg’s evocative song Trouble Town calls to mind, if you like, a surly cowboy strumming under a tree. The score – all scratchy guitars marching us to the scaffold, with doom-laden synths – has a spaghetti western quality, as Alice Lowe tweeted last week, referring to Cawood as the “jaded sheriff gone maverick”.

Lowe is right that Cawood isn’t some squeaky-clean, Gary Cooper figure of flawless integrity. She’s more like John Wayne, with his terrifying absolutism and refusal to take prisoners: even her gait in that high-vis get-up, strapping on the tools of her trade, is kind of Wayne-ish. There’s a swagger to her. She also has Wayne’s total assurance with expressing herself, a dry, deadly manner which shuts down nonsense, sometimes cruelly, and doesn’t suffer fools.

A town that needs cleaning up: Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), Happy Valley's flinty sheriff - Matt Squire/PA Wire
A town that needs cleaning up: Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), Happy Valley's flinty sheriff - Matt Squire/PA Wire

As for the escaped outlaw Tommy, his combination of lethal charm and psychopathy has plenty of western precedents. You could point to Lee Marvin, say as Liberty Valance, but something about James Norton’s blond highlights in Series One reminds me even more of Dan Duryea, with his slicked-back locks and whole career in smiling villainy, both in noirs and westerns (Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73, for instance, opposite a fuming Jimmy Stewart).

Happy Valley’s conscious sources of inspiration are, naturally, closer to home. Wainwright acknowledges the old 1980s cop show Juliet Bravo as one. The kidnapping in that tremendous first season is pretty steeply indebted to the Coen brothers’ Fargo, with Steve Pemberton’s twitchy accountant a brilliant variation on William H Macy’s role.

Fargo, with its own (much friendlier) Cawood in the shape of quick-witted Marge Gunderson, is not a western so much as a midwestern, but we’re still dealing with law and order, weaselly miscreants, a bobby on the beat. In turn, Wainwright’s show clearly inspired the Philadelphia-set Mare of Easttown, Kate Winslet’s stint as the divorced gran clawing through thickets of drug addiction, misogyny and murder.

Perhaps it’s reaching to point out that one of Wainwright’s earlier miniseries was actually called Unforgiven. Title-wise, fine: you could shrug this off as a merely coincidental bit of overlap with Clint Eastwood. But the core themes are crucially the same, and in Happy Valley, which could equally be called Unforgiven, they remain so.

Forgiveness is least likely to be bestowed at all times by Catherine Cawood. Take her betrayal by her sister – a deep wound which may not heal in a hurry. With the truly unforgivable Royce, she’s locked into a grudge match even more twisted than the one between Eastwood’s William Munny – who used to be a cold-blooded killer, after all – and Gene Hackman’s Little Bill, who represents community and the law, despite being, in that film’s complex conception, the brutal villain.

We have to wonder what Catherine, whose personal animus when Tommy’s loose makes her decidedly incapable of calm, level-headed or objective policing, would stop at doing in a dire emergency. There’s enforcing the law, and then there’s taking it into your own hands. “I know those law books mean a lot to you,” Wayne tells Stewart’s legislator in John Ford’s masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), “but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.” Wayne played many men with many problems – but never a grandma with quite this many.