At the conclusion of Call the Midwife‘s season 4 run back in May, things were looking pretty bleak for the residents of Nonnatus House. Nurse Trixie Franklin had confronted her alcoholism, Nurse Patsy Mount was silently crushed over her girlfriend Delia Busby’s brain damage, and there was no shortage of depressing story lines befalling the citizens of Poplar, like the case of the pregnant lady who was given thalidomide to combat her hyperemesis gravidarum. Fun!
Now, we all know that if the good people of London’s East End didn’t have births with complications or life-threatening ailments that required the attention of the Nonnatus nurses, there wouldn’t be a Call the Midwife. But, aside from a few bits of drama here and there, tonight’s heartwarming Holiday Special was a welcome reprieve from CTM‘s shock-value-riddled earlier episodes this year. By the end, everyone was enjoying a very merry Christmas.
The events that threatened Poplar’s Christmas 1960 were nothing to sniff at, however. For starters, there was a measles outbreak (the vaccine was still several years away), which put a BBC-broadcasted children’s carol service at the local church in jeopardy. I had mixed emotions about this subplot: It was a great opportunity for Laura Main’s Shelagh Turner to demonstrate grace under pressure when dealing with insensitive TV producer Mr. Swann (“Will it be a good-looking newborn baby?” he asks of the Nativity scene’s infant Jesus) — Main’s underused comic sensibilities really shined in tonight’s episode. But it was hard to take this story line seriously when one measles-stricken little girl falls unconscious and is taken away to the hospital, never to be heard from again. This is, unfortunately, a typical CTM trait — introduce a character, have something terrible happen to him/her, and never offer up an epilogue.
Also, Nonnatus House is rattled to the core when Sister Monica Joan falls ill herself (not with measles, but a 102-degree fever isn’t a good sign for anyone, especially not someone who is “nearly 90”), and her tenuous lucidity is once again called into question when she goes missing for several days. But despite Sister MJ’s tendency to wander, anyone who watches this show regularly knows that her unmistakable, flowery speech belies a wisdom most of us can only hope to achieve someday.
Strangely enough, it is the almost-nonagenarian nun who pushes her fellow sisters to adopt a more 20th-century take on Christmas celebrations (“We are out of kilter with the world!”): Specifically, she wants a television. “It is a portal to much happiness!” she declares. Sister MJ’s demands are callously shot down by the austere-minded Sister Evangelina, who dismisses the retired midwife’s pleas that her “youth was not a happy one!” as rubbish. (Quick reference: Sister MJ is from a wealthy, prominent family — which is in direct contrast to Sister Evie’s rough-and-tumble upbringing — but as the crack in Judy Parfitt’s voice suggests, it doesn’t sound like those bundles of money came with a bundle of love attached.)
A distraught MJ then runs away, sending the nuns into a panic, especially when a couple of fishermen spot an old woman floating in the River Thames a few days later. The stringy, gray hair on the woman, as well as a recovered wimple and pair of shoes are heralds of what could be the gloomiest plot development on CTM yet. But when Sisters Evie and Julienne arrive at the morgue to identify the body, they are relieved to discover the corpse is not Sister MJ. Being the good nuns they are, Evie and Julie are also visibly distraught over the death of this poor, unnamed soul.
NEXT: “This is where my life is”