There’s something unique in the way the British drama Call the Midwife, which premiered its fourth season tonight on PBS, can make us feel so warm and fuzzy inside with its characters’ familiar maternal presence, but at the same time leave us gutted by the harsh realities of London’s East End in 1960. Who wouldn’t want to have a baby delivered by the bubbly blonde nurse Trixie Franklin (Helen George)? She heralds her still-in-pin-curls arrival—to both a birth and a new season—by chirping, “Magic-carpet midwifery services at your disposal!” But by the end of the episode, not even Trixie’s happy engagement news to her curate boyfriend Tom Hereward (Jack Ashton) can scrub away the agony we’ve just witnessed over the past hour.
With former leading lady Jessica Raine (Jenny Lee) having moved northward to the murderous island of Fortitude, Trixie—unsurprisingly—now takes center stage on Call the Midwife, allowing George to finally branch out beyond the boy-crazy glamour girl mold that her character’s been limited to up until now. In the premiere’s main story line, the young nurse notices a filthy little boy, Gary Teeman, roaming around the clinic most days, pushing his equally filthy baby sister (clearly suffering from impetigo) in a carriage much too large for him to handle on his own, and scrounging for National Health Service milk tokens and free orange juice. Brief glimpses of the Teeman family’s squalid conditions (there are two more sisters at home) and one quick look at Gary’s always-working mum leave no doubts that the children are being neglected while Mrs. Teeman is selling herself in “a licensed establishment.”
Why does Trixie take such a shine to these kids? Because in this episode’s big reveal, we learn that her life wasn’t always filled with Chinese silk pajamas and Cinzano Bianco nightcaps. There was a time where, like Gary, she had to shield her siblings from her father’s “breakdowns.” “You don’t forget what it’s like to be putting on a show,” she confides to Tom. “Wishing all the time that somebody who can help will say, ‘Is something the matter?'”
Eventually, Gary is caught stealing some food—not for himself, you understand, but for his sisters: “I don’t get hungry, but my baby sisters will cry”—so will we, Gary, so will we—”They can’t wait like I can wait.” But it winds up being his Cinderella moment, because he’s brought into the custody of one now-Sergeant Peter Noakes (Ben Caplan), who calls in the fairy godmothers of Nonnatus House. Gary and his sisters then get some much-overdue pampering at “Maison Trixie” (in reality a re-opened “cleansing station“), where they luxuriate in the first hot baths they’ve probably had in months, and the kind, tender care they’ve so desperately needed courtesy of the aforementioned nurse, the local doctor’s wife Shelagh Turner (Laura Main) and the formidable Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt). Tending to these children is also a welcome task for the still-in-and-out senior nun—her restlessness finds her scrubbing floors at one point in the episode. She may not be able to perform nursing or midwife duties anymore, but knowing how to rid “the most wretched of whatever filth encrusted them” is a skill that doesn’t go away. “It was never pleasant work,” MJ tells Trixie. “But that it was necessary was not in doubt. It will not shock me, and it is work that I can do.”
NEXT: Ready for more tears?