She said she didn’t have the language.
Happy Valley is a British program, the second season of which has recently dropped on Netflix. Is it a detective drama? A crime show? Sort of. But mostly it’s a character study, not just of an individual, but also of a community, and really of the “happy valley” – which is perhaps not so happy – in which we all dwell.
Even as a non-fan of crime dramas, I find Happy Valley quite compelling, mostly because of the fine acting and interesting characters. Sarah Lancashire has justly received great praise for her habitation of the role of Catherine Cawood, the physically and emotionally worn police officer in this Yorkshire town. We make so much of “beautiful” people today, people whom, we are told, you can’t take your eyes off of. Well, guess what – Lancshire playing Catherine Cawood, a solidly built, frazzled middle-aged woman, is one of those people. You can’t take your eyes off her as, in each situation, she reaches deep within and searches for the correct, most humane response, always aware of her own anger, always puzzling out the past and possible future for whatever decisions she might make.
You could start with season 2, but I wouldn’t recommend it. There’s a huge amount of backstory that’s all told in season 1 and impacts the second season. Short version: Catherine’s daughter had been raped by one Tommy Lee Royce, given birth to a son as a result, then committed suicide. Years later, Catherine, along with her recovering addict sister (beautifully played by Siobhan Finneran of Downton Abbey) is raising Ryan, the child, the past is settled, reconciled if not forgotten, when Royce re-enters the scene. That sets into motion the events of season 2.
Season 2 begins a few years later. Royce is in prison and entertaining the typical raft of criminal-fixated visitors including a woman played, incidentally, by the former Moaning Myrtle of Harry Potter. The sisters are still raising Ryan, who is a normal, healthy ten-year old. It seems there is a serial murderer on the loose in the area, Ryan is starting to ask about his father, and a detective involved in the investigation of the murders gets mixed up in one himself. There’s also a subplot about trafficking of eastern European women for what is, practically, slavery in various industries in England.
I experienced season 1 as a bit more compelling, but that might have just because it was so completely new. But I will also say that this season had a couple more elements of traditional mystery – which I solved immediately – as well as a couple of coincidences that brought information to light in far easier, and time-saving ways than would otherwise be the case, and I was put off by that. There’s also some gratuitous associating of religion – just through the presence of symbols – with Frances, the prisoner groupie – it would make sense that she might have what she saw as a religious motivation for supposedly doing good, but the fact that she was also moving towards killing takes the association from maybe to Sigh. Of course they’re going there. How radical would it be, instead, to have the Croatian woman depicted as depending on her faith to survive her ordeal and make sense of it? Which is closer to reality?
Anyway. With those quibbles aside, what shines through, and along with the performances, keeps me coming back, is via Catherine, the continual theme of the importance of hanging on to one’s own humanity and the ever-faintly glimmering humanity of others, as complicated and difficult as it may be, the primary obstacle in this case being, as Catherine puts it, “People are weird. People are mad, and they don’t always have it tattooed on their foreheads.”
Whether she is dealing with her sister who’s fallen off the wagon, the young prostitutes who are potential victims of the serial killer, the young Croatian woman who has escaped from near-slavery in a biscuit factory, or even the woman who, groomed and manipulated by Tommy Lee Royce, has infiltrated their lives and attempted to influence her grandson in Royce’s favor – Catherine is always reaching, reaching deep down past her own exhaustion and cynicism, past what she as seen of human nature and behavior to find a way to remain humane and bring those teetering on the edge back with her.
The end of the series was very striking. I can’t say much about it, but just know that along with the normal doubts about humanity that pervade the series, Catherine has learned of another horrible, tragic incident and relationship impacting another mother and adult child. She is asked if the mother had ever told the son of their odd history and Catherine responds, that no, she couldn’t because the woman “…didn’t have the language to explain it.”
And what follows is a scene of the entire family – Catherine, her sister, her adult son and her grandson Ryan, walking up a hill in the happy valley from a visit to her daughter’s grave. The events of the past days weigh on her and us as she watches her grandson raceup the hill. He knows hardly anything of his origins, of how he arrived on this planet and how it impacted others, including his mother – he does not know the specifics
of the history of his conception and her death – just that she died having him because that happens sometimes.
We can see that as Catherine watches him run up from the valley, up the hill, she is thinking about who her grandson is, how he came to be, and how to one day explain it to him, how to ensure that his tangled background does not end up hurting others – she cannot avoid it forever.
Where is the language to do so to be found?
These are peculiar circumstances, but when we expand the circle and consider life, well, is it so peculiar? If you could go back and figure out the whys and hows of your presence here on earth from a purely materialist – social, historical, biological – perspective what would you find? So much contingency, so many accidents, evil perpetuated, virtue maintained, missed connections, disappointments, joy. The movements of individuals, their vices and virtues have brought us here, as have the movements of cultures and peoples. Your grandparents would not have met except for a war that happened in which millions died, your parents conceived you because even though they were in the midst of a huge fight, they got drunk that one night, and now here you are.
Where is the language to talk about that to be found?
Where is the language to be found that reassures us that no matter how we got here in worldly terms, there is a transcendent reason for our existence, mysterious as that is, and it is good we are here. No matter what mysteries in our past we have to fight through to reach it, the point we must reach is the grateful understanding that the material details can never be explained, nor can we depend on them to find our own value – in fact, we must not depend on them to find our value, because if we do, all we end up with is the suspicion that we are accidental or even culpable for the pain that lies along the confusing path to our existence.