*This piece contains major spoilers for the TV show Happy Valley*
It hasn’t been easy coming to terms with being related to someone who is, at their core, a terrible person. Someone who has ruined lives, including mine, for the sadistic thrill of getting away with the crime or to convince themselves they’re smarter than everyone else around them. I didn’t start watching Happy Valley because I thought I would finally see a relatable portrayal of the effect a psychopathic parent can have on a child. I started watching it because I had heard it was critically acclaimed and had powerhouse performances, especially from James Norton and Sarah Lancashire.
When James Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce first appears on screen, you know there’s something wrong with the guy. His obvious evil and lack of humanity shines through from the very first minute you see him. This is nothing new. There are reprehensible characters in several TV shows and films who have often reminded me of my father’s own narcissistic and psychopathic tendencies. However, it was only when I saw Tommy interact for the first time with his newly-discovered biological son Ryan at the tender age of 8, that I really saw the similarities. The empty promises, how his personality switches in the blink of an eye the minute you disagree with him or even that murderous look in his eyes the second before he brings almighty hell on them.
Over the seasons, I sat tensely on the edge of my seat hoping and praying that Ryan wouldn’t become ensnared in his father’s path and would see him for what he truly is. I found myself silently screaming at Catherine to be patient, to be open and tell the child who he is because I had seen how people like Tommy Lee Royce work. They don’t care about the wellbeing or healthy development of a child, they just want another pawn to use in their larger game. At the end of the first season, Tommy is close to successfully convincing Ryan that he is not the criminal everyone makes him out to be, despite having murdered three people and raped and kidnapped another one. Tommy’s earnest eyes and his repetitive insisting that he is a good man would have any 8-year-old in the palm of his hands, especially one who has never met one of their biological parents prior to this.
Flash forward to the third season and Catherine realises her mistake in not telling Ryan about Tommy and his abhorrent history sooner. The mystery creates an intrigue for Ryan and he wants to know this man, his father and decide for himself whether he is a good man or not. Again, Tommy has him close to convinced he’s a misunderstood saint and edges closer to him while Catherine is slowly losing her grip as she keeps more and more secrets from the now 16-year old Ryan. Finally, in a burst of fury, it is Ann Gallagher who tells Ryan what his father has done, how he has ruined lives and traumatised several people who were nothing but innocent bystanders. This is the moment when Ryan is finally armed with all the information that had previously been hidden from him and the audience waits in suspense to see what his decision is.
That’s when the final trick is pulled by Sally Wainwright, the genius writer behind the entire series. Both the audience and Catherine spend the entire time assuming Ryan needs to be protected from the truth, protected from his father in case he becomes a monster just like him. In case he chooses the wrong side. But Ryan is not his father. There is a powerful moment in the final episode of the series when Catherine realises this. Ryan, despite all the flaws that come with being a 16-year-old boy, is beautifully normal, kind and cares deeply for the two women who have raised him. It’s their open-mindedness in raising him that he portrays when he decides to start visiting Tommy. Even as a 10-year-old in the second season, he is guided by ideas of forgiveness and second chances when he first writes to Tommy.
In all the years since I have seen depictions of children with difficult parents/childhoods have I seen a story that so mirrored mine. I constantly falter thinking that being related to my father and others in my family will mean that I am a bad person who will hurt others. This has made me strive in every way possible to be kind and understanding to those around me, whilst being vigilant in keeping out those who I worry might hurt me. My trust is given sparingly, but when it is, it is as solid as concrete and never wavering.
Somehow in other depictions, and in my own mind, difficult childhoods mean the child is destined for failure and inability to create strong and meaningful relationships. But they forget one important thing. We are not just the men who fathered us, we are a product of those who have raised us and, at a certain point, we get to decide the people that we want to be. I have been raised by the people who write my favourite books, make my favourite films and TV shows and stand up on teetering podiums fighting for their rights even at risk to their own lives. In a way, I consider myself lucky. I saw evil at a certain age and, whilst the first 20 years of my life were not easy, they have equipped me to have a certain sixth sense when it comes to danger. More importantly, like Ryan, that sixth sense has helped me to see that evil is out there and not within me.
Happy Valley S1-3 is available to stream on BBC iPlayer
by Aleena Augustine
Aleena is a Classics graduate who splits her time between High Wycombe and wherever the latest film or TV show she is bingeing is set. She enjoys watching rom-coms, coming of age films, animations and comedies featuring a strong female ensemble (thank you, Bridesmaids). Her favourite films are Before Sunrise, Inside Out, Zodiac and When Harry Met Sally. You can read her blog, That’s What She Said and more of her writing at Music Bloggery.
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