Sally Wainwright achieved the impossible in the Happy Valley finale: she elicited sympathy for Tommy Lee Royce.


In spite of his many abhorrent crimes – the murder of Kirsten McAskill, the rape of Ann Gallagher, his brutal attack on Catherine Cawood and the tragedy that initiated this whole sorry saga: the rape of Catherine's daughter Becky, which was the catalyst for her suicide – his misery was far from cathartic.

He was a shadow of the man who had leapt out of the court dock like Spider-Man and fled into the Yorkshire hills; the man who had bludgeoned Zeljko Knezevic to death with a rock was nowhere to be found.

Miraculously, he appeared remorseful as he leafed through photos of Ryan and Becky, unable to contain his emotion as the weight of his burden bore down on him like God's judgement itself.

We'd witnessed him express sorrow when his mother died, but not like this. This was different. Was Tommy confronting his demons? Would he finally take accountability for his actions?

During his final interaction with Catherine, Wainwright did not permit him that luxury.

When Catherine rejects Tommy's half-baked apology – "I'm sorry I didn't treat Becky any better" – he lays the blame for her death at the police sergeant's feet.

"I loved her," he asserted. "I loved her! She made me feel normal. And then she didn't want to know me. And that's when I got cross. And that were you. If I did anything to her it were because of you, you sanctimonious b***h."

Despite being confronted by Catherine's bone-deep agony, despite depriving Ryan of a relationship with his mum, Tommy is unable to accept responsibility for the violence he has enacted.

A reformed man would have remained silent and weathered Catherine's storm; a changed man wouldn't have set himself alight, but chosen to live out his days in purgatory. But Tommy couldn't.

Instead, he used that moment to "forgive" Catherine for the role she played – and not as one final cruel gesture, but because he had absolved himself of all blame, which once again speaks to how grossly unsettling he is.

Tommy displayed no real remorse. Becky's death was Catherine's cross to bear, not his.

Ryan and Tommy meet in Happy Valley
Ryan and Tommy meet in Happy Valley. BBC

There's also Ryan.

For Tommy, building a relationship with him was never about prioritising Ryan's well-being, the central tenet of good parenting. Not once did Tommy question how his presence in Ryan's life, from their prison visits to the violent display at court, would impact the 16-year-old.

By contrast, manoeuvring himself into Ryan's life was about what he could gain; it was about filling the black hole within him.

"I wanted to spend a bit of time with him," says Tommy when Catherine highlights just how negligent it would have been for Ryan to accompany him to Spain. Once again, he prioritises himself; all of Tommy's schemes and dreams initiate with the word 'I'.

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And even now, he can't grasp why Catherine had kept Ryan's existence a secret from him. He's unable to empathise with her predicament, her anguish, her fear. It has always been about Tommy.

Tommy Lee Royce in prison wearing his prison uniform with stitches on her forehead
Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton). Lookout Point/Matt Squire

There is a flicker of humanity from Tommy in his final moments.

"I realised what a nice life he's had, what a nice life you've given him," he says to Catherine, a lump in his throat. "I don't want you to get done. I want you to be here with Ryan."

But while such displays from Tommy are rare to the point of being non-existent, that moment should not be confused with a redemption arc. Instead, it illustrates the complex nature of the human condition.

Wainwright has never once excused Tommy's behaviour, but she has provided vital context as to why he is the way he is. His actions are monstrous but as we see with Ryan, he's not incapable of expressing emotion.

It's one of life's discombobulating truths and good writing acknowledges those nuances and anomalies.

For a single moment, the bravado melted away and we glimpsed something softer. It was a window into the man he could have been had his life played out differently. But it didn't and as a result, his final moment confirmed what we'd always known: Tommy was incapable of salvation.

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Happy Valley seasons 1-3 are available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.

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