I shouldn’t say Catherine Cawood, the heroine of the BBC/Netflix series Happy Valley, is unsung, because literally she is sung in the opening theme song - “In this trouble town/trouble I’ve found.” written and sung by Jake Bugg. Maybe I’m old, but if you take the time to find Jake Bugg, he seems incredibly young; his youth and plaintive voice just make the words more poignant.
I want to talk about Catherine and the other characters in Happy Valley as characters, even real people, not as actors in a show, though, in order to talk about the show at all, I have to identify it. I want to talk about Catherine as we experience her.
When we first see Catherine in the opening scene, she is trying to talk down a despondent young fellow about to light himself on fire – “I’m Catherine by the way. I’m 47, divorced, I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroin addict. I have two grown up children; one dead and one who doesn’t speak to me, and a grandson. So… It’s complicated. Let’s talk about you.”
Catherine’s younger sister, Clare is Catherine’s caregiver. Clare is really the only one who reaches out to help Catherine. To hear Clare tell it, she looks to Catherine who “has been taking care of everyone” since Clare was 13 and Catherine was 15, when their father and mother died.
Clare does the cooking and housework, while Catherine fights crime. Clare also volunteers at a local mission. Catherine’s grandson, Ryan is a handful, often getting into trouble at school. Ryan is the child of the rape of Catherine’s daughter, who hung herself soon after his birth. Catherine is still mourning her. The rapist, Tommy Lee Royce is just out of prison for drug dealing, not for the rape. Catherine, and Happy Valley, are about to endure more pain and suffering at his hands. As it is, Catherine finds only one thing to be too hard for her – to remain happy for more than a few moments.
Have you ever seen a burned out woman weep? She sobs for three seconds, then she’s done. Just enough to let the pressure out.
That’s how Catherine Cawood cries. Not for herself, mind you, but out of frustration at not being able to help a victim.
I know that Catherine Cawood is more than a hero, more than a role model. If I had to search for a word, I would say, Catherine Cawood is a new archetype. But, an archetype of what? I want to say matriarch.
I will say matriarch. I don’t know if the producers of Happy Valley will find the term sufficiently sexy. Catherine is definitely sexy. Her blonde hair is tousled, though an attempt has been made to tie it neatly back. Her face is just barely hanging on to pretty. Her figure appears tall and full, long-legged. She’s indulging herself in a secret affair with her ex-husband. Attractive men from her past seem to react sexually to her presence, getting somewhat nervous and awkward when they speak to her up close.
Catherine strikes me as a kind of Amazonian Matriarch. Natural and powerful. When I watch her, I don’t get distracted by false eyelashes, ridiculously tight leather pants or voluminous hair extensions. When I watch Catherine Cawood, I think about what she is thinking.
Catherine is not a detective. She is a soldier. Not a foot soldier, a sergeant. We never see her posing with her gun because Catherine doesn’t carry a gun. She is armed only with her intelligence, her bravery, her strength, and, oddly, her vulnerability – oh, and a stick, a torch and a spray. She doesn’t want to be a detective because she doesn’t want to sit behind a desk, or leave the action of the street. I believe she wants, hands on, to take care of the people.
Catherine should be Queen.
Catherine is a good listener. She listens to everyone. She knows the truth can come from any random source, and usually does. Her sister has broken a case, her son has. Information has come to Catherine from all sides, and she has listened. And seen the connection. I love that about Catherine – that she can see connections where others can’t, usually her superiors. But, she isn’t rogue. And, man, is she quick! Tell her a thing once, and she’s off! Whether the culprit is a drunk police official in a traffic accident or a drug-dealer on an ice cream truck, Catherine doesn’t mind looking foolish or taking a beating. When she’s not in her uniform, Catherine tends to slouch. She’s not graceful, she’s a bit awkward, stumbling a lot, head down, watch cap, natty scarf, down jacket; Catherine holds her head up when she’s in her uniform. Her aging face is beautiful. But, she’s, to coin a phrase, “beat up.” Quite literally. When she appears at a party with a shiner, she mumbles proudly, “It’s just work.”
While Catherine is not unsung, she does remind me of all the everyday, unsung heroes: the nurse who delivered my daughter when the doctor refused to come down because a first time mother “couldn’t be ready yet”; the EMT who leaned over my wounded, bleeding husband and told me, “You have to be strong now. He needs you to be strong.” probably recognizing that I was about to cave, that I’d always relied on him for strength, just by one glance in my direction, she summed me up. Those are just two I heroes know of, two out of all the millions of women who do their job every day and night, helping people, saving lives, giving courage by grace of their own courage.
Catherine is not a superhero. She has no superpowers. She does not fly through the air, nor breath fire, or change the weather. She’d probably get a kick out of it, if she could.
But, Catherine is more than an everyday hero. She is an archetype. An ideal. In a way, she does have superpowers – her intelligence, bravery, strength, vulnerability, all mentioned before – and, her endurance. If she’s knocked down, and she’s been knocked down plenty, she just keeps getting up again.
Catherine also reminds me of the female Boston Irish cabdriver, who made an offhand remark that became famous while she remained anonymous, “Oh, honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” She declared this homage one night in the turbulent ‘60s, to her passengers, who happened to be Gloria Steinem and Fay Kennedy.
Catherine is capable of making such a remark, and forgetting it the next instant because she’s on to something else, something equally earth-shattering.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.” Muriel Rukeyser
I worship Catherine Cawood. If she knew me, she’d have none of it, for Catherine does not suffer fools, nor does she think very highly of herself. She’d say, “I’m just doin’ me job.” But, since watching Happy Valley, Season 2, I am in awe of her.
Here’s a wonderful exchange between Ann Gallagher and Catherine Cawood:
Ann: “I know I’m pissed [Pissed is Brit for drunk], but, do you know what I think God is? I think God is like this collective goodness that’s in all of us. In someone like you. It’s like you have so much of this goodness. This bigness. It’s like you embody what God is.”
Catherine: “Omnipotent and ubiquitous. God, I’m good.”
Ann and Catherine have a deep relationship, not a sexual relationship, more like the deep bond that arises between two soldiers in combat. I cannot elaborate further without giving away the story, but Ann has very good reason to feel the way she does about Catherine, and Catherine, about her.
Yes, I am in awe. I am transfixed by Catherine’s blue eyes, at the end of the last episode, gazing off into the future thinking, what? What is she thinking? Is she thinking about possibly killing her grandson, the one who broke up her marriage, drove her daughter to commit suicide, the kid whose dad is a deviant criminal still powerful and manipulating from his prison cell? Will she have to do what she just discovered her friend had had to do, assassinate her own flesh and blood because he turned out, finally, despite all her love and care and teaching, to be a monster like his father? Is that what she’s thinking?
Season 3. Please, Season 3.
©Patricia Goodwin, 2016
Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation.