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All mushed up inside
What’s up with Happy Valley?
The second season of the BBC’s all-conquering crime series Happy Valley begins with the discovery of a woman’s fly-blown body. After a couple of minutes we are briskly told that before being murdered, this woman had been sexually assaulted with a broken bottle. (This is all before you’ve had the second gulp of tea.) It’s then established that this poor soul had been the mother of Tommy Lee Royce, the all-purpose psycho-villain who bestrides Happy Valley like a stupid rubbery Colossus. In a conversation with his mad girlfriend (a very, very irritating performance by Shirley Henderson, who really must be stopped) Royce describes his mother’s vaginal injuries with weird specificity: ‘she were all mushed up inside’. Later on we’re shown what a broken bottle covered in blood looks like, just in case we were finding it a bit hard to visualise.
I realise that frightening violence is kind of inherent to crime procedurals. I watch and read plenty of them; I’m not snooty. But I refused to watch Happy Valley for years precisely because I knew it featured this kind of greasily fervent invocation of sexual violence. So many profoundly average writers carelessly re-enact women’s worst fears, like those weirdos who dress up in ‘historically accurate’ SS uniforms. The more horrifyingly specific and details-driven the portrayal, the more grown-up and ‘gritty’ these writers think they’re being, and it sends me into a rage.
But, anyway. Eventually I was worn down by the fact that half my Twitter feed raved about the third series of Happy Valley (broadcast in early 2023). I was particularly struck by how many cast-iron feminists were in thrall to its writer and show-runner, Sally Wainwright. After a decade or so in which many of the same women had strenuously objected to the use of sexual violence as a cookie-cutter plot point, I wanted to know how the show had resolved these apparent contradictions.
Some of my questions were answered at the start of the same episode, the one with the body and the broken bottle. The opening shot shows the central character - copper/matriarch Catherine Cawood (played by Sarah Lancashire) - sitting in her police uniform as she has a relaxed conversation with her sister. She is leaning backwards comfortably, her considerable thighs spread against the hard seat of the chair, and her legs are wide open in front of the knee-height camera. The polyester-encased V of her pubic area, prominent and emphatic, is right at the centre of the frame.
This shot (which I choose to believe was Wainwright’s; she directed this episode) captures things that women tend to do only in private - arranging themselves for their own comfort, feeling unobserved, sitting with their legs open, being large instead of trying to look small - and projects them into the public sphere on a giant canvas. It reminds us that while vulvas can sometimes be the subjects of frenzied sexualised violence, they are much more likely to be quotidian body parts, growling happily to themselves, minding their own business, unassaulted and unbothered. This shot neither celebrates nor denigrates Cawood’s body; it simply takes it on its own terms and notes the unembarrassed fact of its existence. This hardly ever happens.
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These two vignettes - the enthusiastic portrayal of sexual sadism, and the subversive camera work - sum up the unevenness of Happy Valley. It’s a formulaic show that has just enough off-kilter sparkle to keep you watching; it has the air of being only partially realised. I found the dialogue particularly frustrating, because it was so close to being very good, and some of it is genuinely funny:
[Cawood’s grandson] By the way, I didn’t [vandalise a teacher’s car with obscene graffiti]
[Cawood] No, I know you didn’t.
[Cawood’s grandson] How?
[Cawood] Because I’ve seen how you draw a cock and balls when we play Picture Consequences, and it’s nothing like that.
Wainwright has Cawood speaking in streams of consciousness that frequently end in sudden bathetic downturns. She wants to remind you of Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood. But 95% of this technique relies on a simple template: make a serious point (about love/violence/mortality) and finish with a mention of <spins wheel> custard creams, Richard Osman or thermal tights. Anybody can do this. The other 5%, the difficult bit, lies in finding the juxtaposition that leaves viewers breathless. Some of Wainwright’s lines are great, but most of them weren’t tightened up before rolling off the production line; you get the feeling that she didn’t really try that hard.
Happy Valley’s real point of difference, and the reason my Twitter feminists fell in love with it, is its absolute insistence on the primacy of female experience. It returns repeatedly to women’s genius for social communication: the workplace friendships, the extended family, the light-touch checking-in with everyone from your niece to your neighbour to your newsagent. Wainwright is saying something about how women use these ‘weak ties’, the casual relationships that became highly visible through their absence during COVID lockdowns. She portrays each glancing connection as a synapse in a vast cognitive net, like the mycorrhizal networks that connect trees (also cutely known as the ‘wood-wide web’). And she shows these networks as explicitly excluding men, because they rely on women’s acquired talent for sub-verbal communication. This selective invisibility means they are used to pass distress signals and offers of help without alerting predators.
In Happy Valley, where men are terrifying at worst and insufficient at best, these networks are highly significant. (There are one or two ‘good’ men in Happy Valley, but they’re greatly outnumbered by craven idiots, ordinary men who kill women impulsively, and serial rapists). When Cawood turns up at one woman’s house she quickly spots signs of domestic abuse; the woman, equally quickly, realises that Cawood has understood and will try to help. An unglamorous not-for-profit cafe staffed by women volunteers is the safest place for confidential conversations. When a young woman is kidnapped there are multiple scenes in which various men wonder aloud whether the kidnappers will ‘hurt’ her, while women glance meaningfully at each other.
These are not girly friendships focused on prosecco and hygge blankets and Magic Mike. The women involved do not necessarily even like each other very much. (All of the women are shown making judgements about Cawood, and she is explicitly judgemental about them, too.) When Cawood and her colleague go out for a meal the evening ends in miscommunication and mutual resentment but the damaged relationship stumbles on, an unlovely thing of gristle and string. The female network is a valuable functional resource, carefully saved up against times of difficulty, and maintaining it is hard work.
I didn’t get far into Happy Valley before it reminded me strongly of Mare of Easttown, the 2021 Netflix show starring Kate Winslet as a plump detective in late middle age investigating the disappearance and murder of women in her small Pennsylvanian town. (I was very late to this realisation. There’s a persistent rumour that Easttown’s writer Brad Ingelsby was specifically inspired by Happy Valley, although he says he wasn’t.) Winslet’s character has deeply tangled relationships with her mother, her daughter, her ex-husband’s fiancee and her female peers. Her mother, a jovial drunk, criticises Mare constantly while providing endless free childcare, domestic wrangling and emotional support. An old schoolfriend publicly accuses Mare of professional incompetence, but steps in to protect her from male assault. At the end of the series (the rest of this sentence contains spoilers!) Mare destroys her best friend’s family, but is also the person her friend turns to afterwards for comfort.
Even more than Happy Valley, Mare of Easttown examines forgiveness: how difficult it is to forgive personal betrayals, but how important forgiveness is to the functioning of small communities and personal networks. In both shows relationship-building is a practice that women commit to despite its costs, despite all the energy expended in listening, understanding, empathising, supporting, remembering, forgetting, forgiving, and even just feigning interest in someone else’s life at the end of a long day. And both shows argue that women commit to these arduous processes because these networks are not primarily about pleasure; they are about safety and support.
Sexual and domestic violence is hardly the only lens through which to examine the complexity of ordinary women’s lives. Most of us will reach our peaceful deathbeds without having being raped by a gun-toting kidnapper, a scenario that occurs in both Happy Valley and Easttown. I found some elements of both very hard to watch: Mare features at least one shot of a dead naked woman that is entirely unnecessary, and the depiction of sexual violence in the first two seasons of Happy Valley seems just inexcusably garish to me. (Those seasons were made before criticisms of the trope reached a tipping point after the first season of Game of Thrones; the third, which was made several years later, steers a more careful course.)
One of the many things that feels partially realised about Happy Valley is its sub-theme of substance abuse. ‘Happy valley’ is bleak local slang referring to levels of addiction and deprivation in the Calder Valley region, and the show repeatedly flits towards this topic before returning to the narrative comfort of sexual violence, with its familiar stories and ease of exposition. The Wire - which, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, is quite good - got five pulverising series out of poverty and drugs. Well, four pulverising series and one so-so series, but nobody agrees on which is which.
The justification for the lunatic focus on sexual assault seems to be that it’s an ‘unexplored’ topic, but given its ubiquity that doesn’t wash. Happy Valley adds nothing valuable to our understanding of the impacts of rape and assault. We know what it is; we’ve seen the lifelong effects on women who’ve experienced it; we know how it intersects with indices of difference and privilege; we know about whisper networks and safe browsing and panic buttons and the bunch of keys in the fist. Personally, I really don’t need the terrifying randomness of male violence to be drilled further into my brain, causing ever-greater hyper-alertness that pulls my life out of shape.
I can’t be the only one who wishes female-focused crime shows would occasionally put the damned rape alarm down and let us think about something else. Wainwright says there will be no more Happy Valley, but there are rumours that a second series of Easttown is in the works. Maybe we’ll finally get a crime procedural that looks at the world through women’s eyes without asking us to be entertained by our own abuse.
For cops and toxic masculinity, meanwhile: