There's a scene in the penultimate episode of Happy Valley's third and final season that exquisitely captures the entire vibe of Sarah Lancashire's beloved police sergeant, Catherine Cawood.


After discovering that Clare (Siobhan Finneran) and Neil (Con O'Neill) had secretly been taking her grandson Ryan to prison to see Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) – the psychopath who raped her daughter and drove her to suicide – Catherine largely kept her composure. Until now, that is.

With Tommy on the loose from prison, she finally bursts when Clare suggests jetting off to a holiday home in Spain until he’s caught – except what Catherine exhibits isn't rage; it's quieter than that, more irritation, exhaustion, resignation as she insults Clare's "idiotic, dependent personality", adding: "Just keep an eye on Ryan, or not, whatever. I've done my best for you, all of you, so whatever. Good luck."

The scene perfectly sums up the energy of Catherine that we've come to know and love: just when she thinks she's seen it all, another horror comes her way. And she's so over it.

Happy Valley's Catherine embodies a new kind of heroine emerging in TV: the world-weary, middle-aged woman. Over the last few years, that character has also appeared in Broadchurch and Mare of Easttown – two dramas also revolving around midlife female police officers fighting crime in their respective communities.

Like Catherine, Broadchurch's Ellie (Olivia Colman) and Mare of Easttown's Mare (Kate Winslet) are raising sons of violent, troubled men who they worry will follow in their father's footsteps. But while neither Ellie nor Mare quite match Catherine's brilliance, they still fit the bill of being quietly fantastic at their jobs, but also human and flawed. And they've had it up to here with the abusers, murderers, sexist officers and troublesome family members that fill their days.

Of course, these heroines aren't the first angry women we've seen on our screens. From Sharon Hogan's Bad Sisters and BBC drama Killing Eve to Ti West and Mia Goth's horror film Pearl, there's been a wave of violent women in film and TV over the last few years. But, as with Bad Sisters, which sees a woman murder an abusive man and get away with it, these tales often focus primarily on female empowerment and feature cathartic and uplifting endings.

By contrast, Catherine and co are more long-suffering, more near-defeat, their rage more muted.

Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood in the final episode of Happy Valley.
Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley season 3. BBC/Lookout Point

So why is the world-weary, middle-aged woman so appealing to viewers? In Happy Valley, aside from it being a more realistic and refreshing take on what it's actually like to be a woman who's been through the wringer in contemporary society, it's Catherine's attitude and self-irony that brings about much of the show's humour. Just think of those long, silly and surprisingly funny chats she has with Clare over mugs of tea in which she prattles on about the latest abuser or murderer uncovered in the valley.

Ultimately, of course, audiences also root for Catherine because her over-it energy is just a front, a coping mechanism for the atrocities she's suffered. In actuality, she's invincible; she's a symbol of hope. She might never fully be able to quash workplace misogyny, Tommy Lee Royce or stop Ryan from turning into him but, as we've seen throughout three seasons, she'll keep on trying.

Whatever happens in the Happy Valley finale at the weekend (unless Clare sacrifices herself to catch Tommy after the way Catherine spoke to her), Sally Wainwright has created an indelible character in Catherine, whose nuances are played to perfection by Lancashire.

"I’m the best copper that ever lived," she tells Clare early on in season 3 as she looks forward to retirement. She’s not wrong. She will be sorely missed.

Happy Valley season 3 concludes on Sunday 5th February at 9pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer. The first two seasons are available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.

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