‘Out of Darkness’: The Heroic Women of BBC’s Happy Valley

An Analysis of Scene Composition and Violent Action 

During Sergeant Catherine Cawood’s Rescue of Ann Gallagher


It was a 4.5-minute sequence of British television that made headlines. Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood, protagonist of the BBC’s Happy Valley, is beaten to a bloody pulp by a sociopathic kidnapper and serial rapist while rescuing a kidnapped young woman. After the fourth episode of the crime drama aired, the UK’s Daily Mail ran the headline on May 25, 2014, “Did the BBC’s brutal Happy Valley go too far?”, asserting viewers were “shocked by the blood-soaked climax of violent crime drama” (Glennie, 2014). Only three episodes into the first season, BBC’s Happy Valley had already established itself as a gritty, uncompromising depiction of the life of a police sergeant living and working in Calder Valley, West Yorkshire in Northern England. Happy Valley’s plotline hinges upon violent acts against women, and, in the first season, the kidnap of a young woman, Ann Gallagher. In its portrayal of violence against women, Happy Valley finds common ground with many contemporary crime dramas and police procedurals. According to contemporary television scholarship, portrayals of sexual violence towards women are most commonly found in prime-time crime and police dramas (Cuklanz & Moorti, 2006; Lee et. al, 2010). Drawing on perspectives from creators, fans and critics, as well as a close viewing of the climactic action sequence, I will consider whether the Happy Valley series is another example of exploitative violence against women on television, or if it can be understood as a more nuanced, feminist portrayal of women’s power and agency in the face of insurmountable adversity. I will examine this question by applying feminist critical film theories of Mulvey (1975) of the voyeuristic gaze and the objectification of women in film, and Clover‘s (1987) examination of the female agency and resourcefulness of the Final Girl trope in the horror genre. 

Research Context

Welcome to Happy Valley

Happy Valley was conceived, written, directed and headlined by veteran women of British television. It is the story of a fictional woman, her family and community based in real-life Calder Valley, a Northern UK municipality racked by drug abuse, unemployment, poverty and crime. It is a place in Northern England sardonically named by the real Yorkshire police as “Happy Valley.” Fictional Sergeant Catherine Cawood struggles to raise her grandson alone while balancing the challenges of being a woman in policing. She does this while coping with the death of her daughter, who was brutally raped before committing suicide, leaving behind a baby son who was conceived during that sexual assault. The complicated plotline is delivered by equally complex characterizations. Sergeant Cawood is a flawed, resilient and flinty character — a complicated hero. Television critics have commented on the deep, complex characterizations of women in the drama (Nussbaum, 2014). Happy Valley show creator and writer Sally Wainwright has had a long career at the BBC with writing credits that include Coronation Street and award-winning TV serial, Unforgiven (2009), the story of a woman who is convicted of killing two police officers as a teen. Wainwright was also a Happy Valley director, directing the bloody episode four and four of the six episodes in Happy Valley season two. Happy Valley stars veteran BBC actor Sarah Lancashire known for her work on Coronation Street, in which she starred in 290 episodes, and parts in Upstairs Downstairs and Doctor Who.

On Being a Northern Woman

Television scholar Kristyn Gorton (2016) has looked at Happy Valley Wainwright’s career-long commitment to “British social realism from kitchen sink drama to Coronation Street” (p. 73). It is, Gorton argues, Wainwright’s roots growing up in a Northern working class family that shapes her television scripts and approach to characterizations and storytelling in her work. In an interview cited by Gorton, Wainwright mentions that ‘Northern-ness’ is a feeling of having a “chip on your shoulder” and a constant need to prove oneself (p. 74). What being “Northern” means in practice in Wainwright’s work is a kind of earthy, self-effacing honesty (Gorton, 2016). Consider the line in the first episode of Happy Valley’s first season, where we are introduced to Sgt. Catherine Cawood as she tries to talk down an drug addict on a children’s swing set, saying “I’m Catherine by the way, I’m 47, I’m divorced, I live with me sister whose (sic) a recovering heroin addict, I have two grown up children: one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me, and a grandson” (Wainwright, 2014 as cited by Gorton, 2016, p. 79-80). Gorton (2016) notes that Wainwright’s work is not that of a “detached” spectator, but rather someone who lived in the “grim” North in all its complexity and now lives in Oxford (p. 74). With the benefit of being “within and without” a Northern milieu, Wainwright provides the viewer with a well-rounded, analytical but unvarnished look at the real issues in Northern communities which include domestic abuse and violence against women (Gorton, p. 74).

Strong Women, Strong Relationships

Wainwright’s work is powered by strong women. The women of Wainwright’s dramas find strength in “the affective working through of their feelings”, and it is that emotional work that drives the plot and characterization (Gorton, p. 76). Fry (2017) notes Wainwright’s feminist drive to construct both strong female characters as well as portray the complex reality of strong bonds between women. Wainwright is quoted by Fry (2017) as saying portrayals of female relationships are lacking in television, “you don’t often see that dramatised on telly…” (p. 8) Fry (2017) suggests that, in showing the complexity and depth of characters and relationship, Wainwright subverts “the dominant 21st century understanding of ‘feminine’ on television” (p. 3). Fry (2017) notes that Wainwright wrote Happy Valley as a vehicle for lead actor Sarah Lancashire, after working with Wainwright on the acclaimed Last Tango in Halifax (2012), a 20-episode comedy and family drama. While Happy Valley is a departure from Last Tango’s lighter, romantic fare, into a darker world of violence and crime, Wainwright explores gendered violence in both series. Both are examples of Wainwright’s work of subverting TV tropes of the male hero and female victim. (Fry, 2017). Last Tango and Happy Valley, women characters explore relationships based on “mutual support, trust and encouragement” (Fry, 2017, p. 12). 

Detective & Crime Drama Genre

Happy Valley is, at once, a police procedural and crime drama, and family drama. Cawood is struggling with the raising of a young boy and helping her sister in addiction recovery. Cawood is living with the fall out of a divorce, and the loss of her daughter. While its primary genre is TV detective, these family tensions drive the action of the show as much as do the crimes. TV scholar Romm (1986) has looked at the established tropes of the TV detective genre in early television and contrasted them with the rise of the female detectives in the mid to late 1970s. Romm explores gender and the TV detective genre  suggesting that mid-70s shows such as Bionic Woman, Isis and Wonder Woman, all centred on crime fighting and were essentially detective shows. These women-led shows gave viewers “a new depiction of women created by the medium out of two existing and potentially conflicting stereotypes: the traditional stereotype of the male detective and the traditional stereotype of women” (p. 23). In her analysis, Romm provides a checklist of what makes a TV detective, based on an examination of the detective genre in the 70s and early 80s. Romm suggests that the TV detective genre features lead characters who invariably demonstrate “success in mission” in getting one over on the bad guys and restoring order. A second essential trait of TV detectives is the “primacy of the job.” This means that other relationships, marriage, child or friends, are “considered secondary” (Romm, 1986, p. 23). These hard-bitten detectives will, according to the convention, sacrifice anything including their personal relationships to get the criminals behind bars and solve the mystery.

Crime Genre: Sexual Violence Against Women

Another conventional aspect of the television crime drama genre is the portrayal of sexual violence against women (Cuklanz & Moorti, 2006; Lee et. al, 2010). There have been studies that criticize television crime dramas for sensationalizing sexual victimization of women for ratings and pointing to potential negative social behaviours that potentially stem from media portrayal of this violence (Malamuth & Briere, 1986).  US crime drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) has been called a feminist text in their focus on the female victims of sexual violence, showing the aftermath of these crimes, and featuring a strong female lead in Olivia Benson played by Mariska Hargitay (Cuklanz & Moorti, 2006). SVU is argued to be somewhat unique in the crime genre, showing ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ sexual crimes with in-depth discussions about victims rights and consent (Cuklanz & Moorti, 2006). Cuklanz and Moorti (2006) note that highlighting “victim voices and perspectives are rare” in prime-time TV, with the key difference being that SVU “…does not include depictions of rape: most episodes open with the post-rape crime scene” (p. 307).

The Gaze: Objectification or Empowerment?

 Benshoff and Griffin (2009) studied how women are portrayed in American film, through first looking at Berger’s (1972) Ways of Seeing. Berger (1972) looked at female objectification in the European art tradition and uncovered that women are presented as properties or objects in art (Benshoff & Griffin, 2009). Berger (1972) noted that women are not presented as individuals, lacking all will and agency. Mulvey (1989) essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” looked at women’s objectification in film. Mulvey (1989) developed the concept of the voyeuristic camera eye, presenting women in film as the objects to be looked at, rather than complex human personalities. This is a replication of patriarchal ideals, that women are merely subjects and men are the “dominant and empowered” figures (Benshoff & Griffin, 2009, p. 231). Women are to be looked at and rather than being agents of action in the film’s story. In this, how camera shots are composed and what choices directors make to tell the story can give power to a character or take that power away. By giving the protagonist a moment where he or she is sharing a subjective gaze with the audience — where the viewer and hero are seeing something at the same time — this creates  strong identification in the viewer with that character (Benshoff & Griffin, 2009).

Of Slasher Films and Feminine Resiliency

Another genre that is known for its violence against women is the slasher horror film. However, horror films do not simply portray women as lambs to the slaughter as film studies theorist Clover (1987) argues. Instead, there is a recurring trope called the Final Girl (Clover, 1987). The Final Girl is a female character who is the sole survivor of the carnage, and is often the most fully characterized and psychologically well-developed player in the film’s action. The Final Girl’s resourcefulness and grit is her means for survival. Clover (1987) describes the Final Girl in this way:

The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. …If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face; but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B)…” (p. 200)

The Final Girl is fearful but also resilient. She can make full use of her environment, can be resourceful under pressure and is, in all senses, a survivor no matter how insurmountable the odds (Clover, 1987). This critical female character is often the bringer of immanent justice in the film.

Data Collection

A close viewing of the 4:26 minute climactic rescue of Ann Gallagher by Sgt. Catherine Cawood looks at costuming choices of the characters, dialogue, direction including lighting and camera framing and angles. The sequence begins with Sgt. Catherine Cawood is looking for the series villain, Tommy Royce, so that she can deliver a warning directly to him. She drives to Tommy’s last known address in her police car to warn him to stay away from her grandson, Ryan. The very first shot of this important sequence is at the door of Tommy’s mother’s, Lynn Dewhurst’s home. This exchange is shot in an over-the-shoulder framing, with the camera positioned inside of Lynn’s squalid Council housing flat (Figure 1). This medium shot, framing the faces, head and shoulders of the characters, switches back and forth between the speakers as Cawood and Lynn exchange lines of dialogue. When Cawood speaks, she is brightly lit by the ambient light of the afternoon street. Lynn is more shaded, as the dark home is unlit. Despite being in full police uniform and driving in her police car parked out front, she’s not there to enforce the law but rather speak to Tommy about her grandson. Cawood says, “If he comes anywhere near our Ryan …There will be bother. More bother than he knows how to handle.”

Figure 1

Wainwright, S. (Writer), & Wainwright, S. (Director). (2014, May 20). “Episode Four”. In Red Production Company (Producer), Happy Valley [Television Series], Manchester, England: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Lynn’s face is vividly bruised from a beating she took from her son in the previous episode. The top of her hair is pulled into a loose ponytail at the top of her head, her gray roots show in stark contrast to her dark auburn hair. Lynn is standing unsteadily, her bruised eye heavily lidded, she appears drunk. “Yah, alright,” Lynn replies. The top of her lace bra is visible above the neckline of her striped t-shirt. Cawood indicates the bruise on Lynn’s face: “Did he do that? Why? …” Lynn responds, “Because it is a Tuesday, because the sun’s in the sky, because he felt like it. There is no ‘why’.” Cawood says, “Do you want to arrest him? Well, if he’s knocking you about, I’ll arrest him.”

Lynn shrugs, resigned, “No, I’ll get it even worse.” She pauses, forgetting herself and lapses into a gossipy complaint, “I don’t see him for ffff-in’ weeks then. Huh, this dog. I don’t see him for weeks, then comes home with a dog, and I am not allowed in me own cellar.”

At this moment, Cawood stops looking at Lynn, and stares up and over Lynn’s shoulder into the middle distance. Cawood says, “What dog? Why’s he got a dog in the cellar? …Show me then, show me.” Cawood walks in, uninvited into the home, Lynn weakly protests, stating “I am in trouble now.” The shot becomes a wide, two shot, with each woman’s full body in frame. Cawood walks to the cellar door which is padlocked. The score becomes a minor, low synth pad sequence that begins to swell and build in volume. Cawood is now in an extreme close up as she grapples with lock. Lynn then appears in darkness over Cawood’s shoulder, framed in a medium shot, continuing to protest. Lynn’s a dimly lit figure whose dialogue is muffled and incoherent. Cawood uses a club to pull the padlock from the door still in medium shot with her head and shoulders visible. The scene cuts to Tommy outside walking through the back alley in a long shot, the whole valley is visible behind him as he walks, his full body visible. He’s slouching, hands in his pockets. He’s walking back to his mother’s house.

Meanwhile, Cawood is featured as a medium shot walking down the dark staircase to the cellar. There’s only ambient red and orange light to see the slow, suspenseful action. She and the viewer, in a subjective gaze, discover Ann. Ann is fully clothed in a dark sweater and skirt, tall mid-calf leather boots, bound to a wooden chair, duct tape around her hands, boot ankles and mouth. “Get me out of here, get me out of here” is barely audible, a panting growl from Ann’s duct-taped mouth. A dimly-lit two-shot shows both women in full profile, head and shoulders visible, as Cawood removes the tape from Ann’s mouth. Tommy progress is tracked through the back yard and recorded in a wide, establishing shot, where you can see his entire body, the neighbourhood and skyline behind him, as he jumps over the back garden fence. The scene has become dusky, the sun is coming down. As Cawood attends to Ann, the scene is darkly lit, illuminated only through noir-ish chiaroscuro, high contrast light and dark lighting with columns of dim light coming through the metal bars in the basement window. 

“It is all right.” says Cawood, getting on her knees to untie Ann’s restraints. It is at this moment the music score stops. There is only silence. The two women are framed in a medium shot. Tommy enters the house, walks through the narrow corridor to the cellar stairs. “What did you do?” he yells. His mother protests, “It weren’t me.” Tommy shouts, “What are you fucking doing?” Tommy punches his mother in the face. Lynn reels in an over-the-shoulder shot, only Tommy’s angry face is visible as Lynn falls to the floor. He races down the stairs. As Tommy enters the red-tinged cellar, Ann screams, still trying to remove her restraints. 

As Tommy runs at Cawood, she’s able to strike him with a police club, doubling Tommy over. Ann continues to untie herself. The camera is in very close to this action sequence, placed beside Tommy in a medium, over-the-shoulder shot. The camera is in the thick of the action, trained on Cawood’s face as Tommy stands again. Cawood is pinned against the cellar wall by Tommy, both struggling for her billy club. She overpowers Tommy and pushes herself free. Tommy hits the floor. Cawood hits the prone Tommy in the leg with his club. Once again, Tommy leaps to his feet, punches Cawood in the face, knocks her to the ground and begins kicking her over and over.

“Bitch ….You are going to be eating food through a straw for the rest of your life. …You are going to need someone to wipe your ass for ya,” says Tommy, and continues to kick Cawood as she writhes on the floor. Now the focus is on Tommy, in extreme close up, showing his grimacing, vaguely self-satisfied face, illuminated only through a column of faint light. Cut to Cawood’s wounded face, also in close up. She is faintly lit. Even in the half-light, the viewer can see that her face is streaked with rivulets of blood, snaking out of her mouth and nose. “Oh yes…(inaudible),” laughs Tommy. 

Scene cuts to Ann, in a wide shot, her full body in the frame. She is removing the last of the duct tape from leather booted ankles. Ann is absolutely quiet, her face is determined. As soon as she is successful at removing the last of the restraints, Ann flies at Tommy, screaming, wielding a barbell, hitting Tommy in the head. The action is visible in a dimly-lit two shot. While he’s down, Cawood extracts an aerosol container from her police gear and sprays Tommy’s eyes with pepper spray. Tommy screams, prone in a corner of the dank cellar, crowded with old mattresses and garbage. Ann pulls the badly injured Cawood up the steep stairs by Cawood’s arm, in a medium shot. Cawood’s face, covered in blood, grimaces while she struggles to offer help to Ann by pulling herself up the stairs, holding the wall with one arm. Their progress is agonizing and suspenseful. All is lit by the ambient light at the top of the stairs and a faint red light in the cellar.

There is no music in the scene until the women make their way up the stairs. There are only ambient sounds, and the grunts of exertion, pain and gasps of panic. It is only as Tommy, helpless, rubbing his eyes and screaming as he has been pepper-sprayed and the two women mount the stairs that the musical score begins again. The score moves from the menacing sound of strings in a minor key, and then takes on a slow rising and triumphant quality. Both are now fully lit by daylight in the street, Ann dragging the badly injured Cawood to the police car in an establishing shot with the full street in view (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Wainwright, S. (Writer), & Wainwright, S. (Director). (2014, May 20). “Episode Four”. In Red Production Company (Producer), Happy Valley [Television Series], Manchester, England: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

As they reach the middle of the street outside Tommy’s mother’s house, Cawood is standing now, barely. They are both on their feet now. Cawood’s face is smeared with blood. Ann’s in the lead, propping Cawood up. This action is caught in a wide, establishing shot. Cawood stumbles in the middle of the street. Ann pleads, “No, no, please” dragging Cawood more and more forcibly to the police car. Cawood and Ann make it to the police car door, Cawood musters her last strength, opens the back door and pushes Ann in. This was captured in an over-the-shoulder shot. In a close up, Cawood radios, “Ambulance, we need an ambulance.” Ann, in the back seat, is shown in extreme close up wishing Cawood inside the car, mouthing words soundlessly. Then we hear Ann shouting, “Get in, get in!”

At that moment, Cawood, the police radio in her gloved hand, the other hand bloody and gloveless, presses up against the back of the police car window. Cawood looks at Ann, mouth open, and she begins to slide down the outside of the police car. Ann screams, “Don’t do that. Don’t do that!” A bloody, smeared window between them, Cawood collapses to the street. What was a two-shot close up of two women, now becomes an aerial crane shot of the police car and Cawood sprawled brokenly on the street, the entire community visible in a wider context (Figure 3). 

Figure 3

Wainwright, S. (Writer), & Wainwright, S. (Director). (2014, May 20). “Episode Four”. In Red Production Company (Producer), Happy Valley [Television Series], Manchester, England: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

The final screen is Ann, yelling, teeth clenched in intimate close up through the bloody window. She’s not cowering, she’s furious, nearly every tooth visible, screaming for Cawood to get up.


Detective Genre. Recalling Romm (1987), TV detective’s essential traits include “success in mission” and “primacy of the job.” It is notable that Cawood plays against this established type both in this episode sequence and in the series itself. It was her focus on family that allowed her to solve the mystery of who kidnapped Ann Gallagher and ultimately ensure Ann’s rescue. The breakthrough comes not from this detective’s dogged determination to solve the crime, while she works hard on this task as well, nor sacrificing family relationships in the obsessive pursuit of the criminal. Happy Valley shows a tension between the two roles that Cawood plays, as a police officer and as the head of a family. In this, she’s playing against the TV detective type found in the genre. Cawood invariably picks her grandson up from school. This is a recurring part of the episode’s formula. Her grandson is not neglected. Her home is shown to be warm and orderly, and her relationships with family are shown to be a priority. This is, again, demonstrated in this climactic sequence in the fourth episode. Like the feminist detective show SVU, Happy Valley has both a female protagonist, gives voice to victims, and shows the impact of violence against women. It also focuses on the real human toll taken on people and relationships by sexual violence, with a focus on its aftermath.

Strong Female Relationships. Arguably, it is the strength of female relationships that solve this case and aid the rescue. Lynn and Cawood share an intimate moment. Lynn drops her defenses to complain about her son after Cawood offers to press charges against him for hitting Lynn. Lynn takes a moment to complain about her son, speaking woman to woman. This happens because Sgt. Cawood expresses concern for Lynn as a person, voicing concern for her injury and asking her why her son hits her. In this moment, the key to the mystery of where Ann Gallagher is located is revealed. The line of dialogue spoken by Cawood to Lynn, “Did he do that? Why? …” expresses the police officer’s humanity. This recalls Fry (2017) analysis that Wainwright seeks to show strong bonds between women. Ann and Cawood’s joint rescue of one another is another moment of clear female strength in mutual support. These two women heroically do whatever it takes to save one another, fighting alongside each other. Neither is helpless; neither is incapable even despite their injuries. Ann saves Cawood from being beaten to death. Ann is saved from the cellar by Cawood. Ann drags a wounded Cawood into the street. They are stronger together and in this strength, they rescue each other from male violence.

The Gaze. The frequent use of medium shots, intercut with intimate close ups of the faces of Ann, Cawood and Lynn Dewhurst give the viewer a feeling of closeness to the action and the female characters. With this framing, the viewer is literally shoulder to shoulder with the characters, their conversations and events of the rescue. The viewer is made to feel like a member of the rescue party, seeing what Cawood sees when she sees it. The lighting and camera framing gives a cramped, claustrophobic quality to the entire sequence. Viewers are journeying into the cramped dark, unable to see just as the protagonist, Cawood, struggles to see. This uneasy feeling starts first in the doorway of the council flat at the beginning of the action, and then into the dark cellar. It is only once the two women Ann and Cawood emerge from the home, out into the expanse of the street and into the light that this feeling breaks. The grim, dark episode concludes with an aerial shot of the entire street, with Cawood spread out, vaguely Christ-like on the street. The journey into the dark cellar, down the very narrow stairwell, lit only with red and orange light is a trip to figurative and literal hell. The cellar is not a large room but a series of small, enclosed rooms, rather like a warren underground. Wainwright makes a directorial decision to give Cawood and the viewer a shared subjective gaze at the triumphant moment when the hero and the audience discover Ann alive. This is a powerful moment, and allows the viewer to identify with Cawood.

Final Girl. Neither Ann nor Catherine Cawood is a damsel in distress. Both have agency. Both demonstrate the hero’s ability to use what is at hand to overcome their challenges. In Ann’s case, she uses a barbell, part of Tommy’s make-shift gym in the cellar. Dressed in her official police uniform, Cawood uses her police tools and training, hitting Tommy with a billy club and spraying him with mace. Cawood uses her strength to overpower him and demonstrates superior understanding of close quarter combat techniques. Cawood is only hobbled in her ability to defeat Tommy due to her concern for Ann and her focus on the rescue. Cawood repeatedly overpowers Tommy during the skirmish. Both Ann and Catherine are fully clothed. Sergeant Cawood is in her official police uniform. Ann is also fully clothed, wearing tall leather boots with low heels. This is in contrast to other crime dramas that display captured women scantily clad, prone and helpless. There is no trope of falling over in high-heeled pumps for these women. When Tommy attacks Cawood, Ann becomes resolute, focused and resourceful. Ann goes silent, works diligently and with focus through her kidnapper’s combat, frees herself from her restraints and attacks Tommy, hitting him on the head. Despite Ann’s ordeal, being drugged and hurt, she manages to pull Cawood to safety, up the stairs and into the street. While Cawood, our series hero, breaks the case, Ann is an absolutely instrumental part of her own rescue. Through their strength, focus, resourcefulness and resiliency, both Ann and Cawood are Final Girls as described by Clover (1987).

Constellation Analysis

This pivotal episode was highly anticipated by viewers of the show. According to ratings reports at the time, the episode garnered 8.3 million viewers on its original airing on May 20, 2014. The gritty, emotional fallout from the violent kidnapping and the drama surrounding the police’s search for Ann was actively commented on by fans and critics at the time. A Daily Mail story took Happy Valley to task for its brutal violence and specifically honed in on the climactic action in episode 4. The Daily Mail’s TV correspondent, calls the show “unrelentingly bleak” (Glennie, 2014). The article quotes Twitter user Richard Foster saying, “Not so much happy valley (sic) as brutal, violent, drug-ridden, death valley!,” Francois Garcia saying, “Happy Valley on BBC is far from happy, more incredibly violent. Is this a real reflection of Yorkshire life? God help us if it is” and Facebook poster Zoe Smith was quoted saying, ‘Still shaking from the stress of it all. Gruesome, gripping, great TV.’” One Happy Valley Facebook poster wrote: “Man, BBC One’s Happy Valley is hard to watch. It’s a perpetual gut punch.” (Hicks, 2017, May 26, Facebook post). A New Yorker critic Nussbaum (2014) introduces Happy Valley to readers with the statement: “Does the show pass the “worth the pain” test?” Nussbaum (2014) references the suspense, gritty handling of drugs, poverty and violence, and evident interpersonal pain of the characters. Despite this, Nussbaum (2014) differs with the Daily Mail in arguing that the BBC series pulls its punches on the portrayal of violence, stating that the show “favors a slow accretion of dread, aided by directorial withholding, so that many of the worst acts of violence take place offscreen, for us to imagine” (New Yorker, 2014, September 29).

The controversy surrounding Happy Valley’s fourth episode prompted an interview with Sally Wainwright in the Guardian that was a direct rebuttal to the Daily Mail criticism. Wainwright says of the critical Glennie (2014) article:

“This is a quality, well-written drama. I think it is childish [of the Daily Mail]. I think it has backfired on them. Judging by the amount of email, texts, tweets I’ve had, I don’t think anyone is asking me to apologise. I’m sorry if some people found it too much. You can always turn the telly off. ….I directed and edited last week’s episode, the first time I have done so …It showed what a heroic and responsible human being Catherine is. How she is prepared to put her life on the line in order to save someone else [a kidnapped, raped and drugged woman, Ann].” (Brown, 2014)

Wainwright echoes Nussbaum’s (2014) perspective that the violence is not exploitative nor gratuitous but rather thoughtful and even redemptive, explaining:

‘…Ann refuses to be a victim of what happened to her, to let it define her – being kidnapped, being raped. She goes on to give an uplifting message. …What was particularly uplifting was that Ann, though suffering a terrible ordeal, had the presence of mind to rescue the woman who went to save her. Out of darkness something uplifting and beautiful happened” (Brown, 2014).


Can this five-minute action sequence be understood as a feminist text, a nuanced portrayal of women’s power and agency in the face of insurmountable adversity? As Wainwright (2014) argued, the episode was, in fact, redemptive and empowering of both Sgt. Cawood and Ann’s characters, adding “out of darkness something uplifting and beautiful happened” (Brown, 2014). Wainwright’s demonstration of strong female bonds and compassion for one another in dialogue; focus on intimate and familial relationships; directorial decisions in support of the framing of this violent action; providing Cawood with the subjective gaze; putting the viewer into the thick of action using intimate and medium shots; and showing the reality and aftermath of gendered violence, indeed makes this climactic sequence a feminist text. The women of Wainwright’s constructed world of Happy Valley are empathetic, caring, strong and heroic. The climactic sequence is a nuanced and layered portrayal of the impact of sexual violence and the strength of women together fighting back. There are no helpless women in this BBC drama. There are only complex and well-rounded individuals who deal with adversity with strength. By applying feminist critical film theories of Mulvey (1975) of the voyeuristic gaze and the objectification of women in film, and Clover ‘s (1987) examination of the female agency and resourcefulness of the Final Girl trope in the horror genre, as well as Gorton (2016) and Fry (2017) analyses of Sally Wainwright as a feminist television script writer, we can understand this pivotal moment in the Happy Valley series as an empowering moment for women on television.

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