Fortunately, in the U.K. we have never had to yearn after strong female characters in our prime time television dramas. I remember being only ten or eleven years old and watching the formidable Helen Mirren in reruns of the 1991 crime drama Prime Suspect. Despite facing criticisms and sexism in the workplace, she made solving crimes look effortless.
Of course, Mirren spurned a new generation of female detectives, forensics and PCs. Heroines such as Scott & Bailey, Rosemary & Thyme, Dr Nikki Alexander of Silent Witness fame and of course the superb female cast of Waking The Dead (Sue Johnston, please adopt me?)
We can start to see a pattern of capable female detectives throughout contemporary British TV programming, and so it is remarkably unsurprising that we now have Olivia Coleman glueing us to the screens in Broadchurch or Gillian Anderson paving the way for a new era of female protagonists in The Fall. Both shows had phenomenal first season ratings, and have gone on to have well received second season too.
Happy Valley (from writer/producer Sally Wainwright) is another one. An emotional roller-coaster, bookended by psychotic acts of violence, it bears a lot of resemblance to other programmes on air at the moment (it has been compared extensively with The Fall, Line of Duty, Broadchurch etc). However, it seems to me that Happy Valley is doing something entirely unique in it’s handling of the female victims. Which is to say, it doesn’t allow them to be characterized as victims.
Violence against women is an integral theme in Happy Valley. The entire show is constructed around the brutality and abuse which two women are subjected to. The first is our main character Catherine Cawood’s daughter, a crime that we never see, and the second is the daughter of the town’s richest inhabitant, who is kidnapped as a means to access his money. The narrative, spread across six episodes, becomes intricate and more complex than just these events. The fact remains, however, that it is these acts of terrible violence against two young women that frame the entire series. It is also interesting to note that both of the victims are daughters, and are represented as their parents child before we see them as person in their own right. This is particularly true for Ann Gallagher, who is discussed at length as a means to an end well before we are introduced to her onscreen. Before we are even given an idea of Ann’s character; her aspirations, her desires; we are already aware that the men involved in this kidnapping plot (Kevin and Ashley) think of her only as a tool to extract money from Nevison Gallagher. I think it is clear, however, that Wainwright does not expect us, the viewers, to view Ann in this way. Kevin, Gallagher’s accountant and the perpetrator behind the kidnapping, is a truly unlikeable character, it is hard to identify with his actions, despite understanding the circumstances that led him to this act. Therefore, we don’t see Ann as Kevin see’s her – as leverage to get what he feels he ‘deserves’.
“Like most crime shows, the violence is sustained almost entirely by women. But Happy Valley has a unique take on violence against women, playing with the well-known tropes to create something entirely new. Most crucially, Happy Valley revolutionizes the connection between rape and suspense. Rape happens, but it is always a fait accompli rather than something the show is leading up to. Isn’t it enough that it has happened? Wainwright seems to be asking. You want to see it too? By withholding the scenes of sexual violence, she mocks and exposes the desire—produced by fifty years of television—to see it perpetrated on screen” Batya Ungar-Sargon.
Daily Beast writer Ungar-Sargon describes entirely why it is that Happy Valley is different. In addition to the withholding of sexually violent scenes, we are encouraged to not see Ann or Catherine’s daughter as victims. We certainly never see Catherine as a victim, despite the fact that she is attacked in one of the most brutal scenes in the series. In a great many crime dramas, the audience watch as the forensic examiner looks at the cold naked bodies of girls, splayed out in various positions – they are mannequins, utilized in the show for their bodies and their gender. Not in Happy Valley. It is hard to watch at times (the first time that we see Ann and Tommy Lee Royce together had me watching between my fingers), but it isn’t using rape or violence as light entertainment. It shows very little, leaving our imaginations to do the work for us. Happy Valley spends more time examining people and their flawed psyche than it does examining the female body.
It is the exploration into Catherine’s, Tommy’s and Kevin’s flawed characters that has the viewer on edge. We are not horrified at what Tommy IS doing to Ann, we are terrified of what he COULD do. Ultimately, Tommy his humanized by the series finale; his eagerness to bond with his son shows that he is not simply a brute or a stereotype – he is a person who is as complex as Catherine. Catherine’s own revelation following the suicide of her daughter (triggered by Tommy’s assault) ensures that Catherine is not left unexamined. She is undone by her actions, and we get to witness this. Sarah Lancashire brings a stunning performance as Catherine; constantly on the verge of a breakdown, we wonder how much more she can take before she breaks. Even Kevin, (who is by all accounts a snot-nosed weasel who wants more than he is willing to work for) has a humane side. We don’t condone it, but we understand why he has gone to such measures once we see his wife and her debilitating condition.
Happy Valley provides an opportunity for us to label it’s characters victims, but the female characters actively avoid labelling themselves. Whether it’s Ann refusing to allow her traumatic experience to affect her life, Catherine owning up to that awful thing she said or Catherine’s sister battling a drug addiction (and winning!), the women don’t allow themselves to be painted as a victim.
On the subject of Catherine and Clare (Catherine’s sister), I found it one of the most refreshing and honest portrayals of female friendship in a crime/detective show. There is a trend for the female protagonists of crime dramas to have few to no female friends, and certainly none whom they share their emotions with. Clare’s role as Catherine’s sister was pivotal in witnessing Catherine’s depression – and their relationship was handled perfectly.
Happy Valley, is fundamentally about ‘women saving women, women saving themselves’. When Catherine is beaten by Tommy after discovering Ann in the basement, Ann is given a window to escape. She could have left Catherine to die, after being locked up for days and subjected to torture, I wouldn’t have blamed her. But she didn’t. Women saving women, simple.