Why Sally Wainwright was right to redeem Happy Valley’s villainous Tommy Lee Royce
Sally Wainwright had no time for our bloodlust. Yes, the dastardly Tommy Lee Royce went up in flames, with the words of his nemesis, Catherine Cawood, ringing in his ears: “You’re just a f—ed-up, frightened, damaged, deluded, nasty little toddler-brain.” But Happy Valley did not end with the death of a monster. Wainwright’s eviscerating kitchen table showdown did not ask us to forgive Royce, or to forget that he was a manipulative, violent rapist, but it offered him something he scarcely deserved: redemption.
Since the very first episode, almost nine years ago, Tommy Lee Royce has been the byword for cold, calculating evil, not so much a man but a vessel for bottomless malevolence. Catherine, understandably, has always thought so. In episode one, she introduces Royce in the most dehumanising of terms, first labelling him a “rat” to her sister, Clare, then fantasising to her ex-husband about grinding Royce’s severed head into the mud, then “burying his worthless carcass in a shallow grave on the Moors, where it can rot, undisturbed and unloved, until the end of time”. No sympathy for the devil here.
At the end, however, a moment – however fleeting – of redemption. Royce, wounded, likely defeated, found the photo albums of Ryan and Becky that Catherine had been poring over, and he had his revelation – a cyclepath to Mytholmroyd moment, if not the full road to Damascus. In Ryan’s album, he saw warmth, happiness, love. All the things – no father, a heroin addict mother, a childhood of misery – he had been denied.
“I realised what a nice life he’s had,” as he said to Catherine, “what a nice life you’ve given him.” A life, in other words, he knew he could never have given Ryan, despite his half-hearted assertion that he “could have been a good dad”. Royce had spent years believing that if his life was worth anything, it was as a father to Ryan. Here, at the end, the revelation was that if his life was worth anything, it was by staying out of Ryan’s.
Wainwright is exactly right to allow Royce a modicum of redemption, a moment of re-humanisation. As a society, we are increasingly devoid of nuance. Everything was set up for a violent showdown between the leads – their every interaction thus far had ended in blood loss and stitches – and the pre-finale speculation was about which one of them would die, if not both of them. Royce’s final act – his last word in this world he so despised – would be to end Catherine Cawood for good. Wainwright, however, will leave that sort of ending to other crime dramas.
Instead, Royce chose repentance and, however misguidedly, forgiveness. Wainwright asked us, bravely, to see the world through Royce’s eyes, to see the wrong he believed had been done to him, to see the pain he lived with. Yes, we still cheered when Catherine called him a braindead psychopath and reminded him of the appalling things he’d said and done, but we were also asked to understand that Royce had come to understand that the world – and Ryan – was better off without his violence and ugliness.
To dismiss Royce as a monster is to ignore what Wainwright has been telling us all along – huge parts of the Calder Valley (and the country as a whole) are enormously deprived, riddled with drug addiction, crime and child poverty. Places like “Happy Valley” can produce Tommy Lee Royces, as well as the circumstances in which men like him can thrive. Wainwright doesn’t ask for our hearts to bleed for Royce – though it would take a cold person not to have been moved by his desperate wish for Catherine to “be here, with Ryan”, in the knowledge that no one was ever with Royce when he was a child – but she does ask for us to observe where he came from.
Tommy’s redemption wasn’t for him, it was for Catherine – and for the viewer. It was a reminder, epitomised in the gentleness of Ryan and Clare, that to meet savagery with savagery is to continue a cycle of bloodshed and misery. To offer up Tommy Lee Royce, the Beast of Calder Valley, as a human – naked, vulnerable and afraid – was Wainwright’s gift to us all.