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.”
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But just when Call the Midwife has us all bawling over such a seemingly happy ending, they instead go for the jugular and switch our happy tears to ones of anguish. Yes, we get to see Mrs. Teeman arrested for neglect. But the final, purposely misleading scenes show a clean and tidy Gary boarding a ship with two of his sisters, Marcy and Jacquetta, with Vanessa Redgrave’s (still inexplicably providing narration as the elderly Jenny; Call the Midwife is now “inspired by the memoirs of Jennifer Worth” as opposed to “based on”) voice-over producing a devastating denouement: While the baby was adopted by a British family, the three older Teeman children were sent to Australia under the controversial Child Migrant Program, which you can read more about here: “They were promised a life of sunshine and blue skies and endless opportunity. The truth was otherwise and the only consolation is that hope made them happy, for a while.” Their excited faces only made Redgrave’s epilogue all the more upsetting, and no scenes of an elated Sister Monica Joan stuffing her face with Trixie’s unwanted meringue can make up for the further hardship waiting for the Teeman kids at the other end of their journey.
Between the Terrible Teemans Tale and the disappointing news that Nurse Camilla “Chummy” Noakes (Miranda Hart) will not be taking more of a leading role this season as previously hoped, it’s understandable if viewers are contemplating a hasty, premature exit. A word of advice: Stick with it, because it’s the love we have for these characters that will see us through the dark story lines and casting upheavals. While we saw Chummy for a quick moment in the premiere, the character has gone off to serve as matron of the mother-and-baby home from the Christmas Special, and, unfortunately, as Hart tweeted when Season 4 first aired in the U.K., that’s all we’re going to see of her until the season finale. But, never fear, because there’s an adorable new midwife come to stay at Nonnatus House, filling in the huge gaps left behind by Jenny, Chummy and, for the time being, Bryony Hannah’s Cynthia Miller (who is off at the mother house trying a nun’s habit on for size): Barbara Gilbert (Charlotte Ritchie).
Aside from her Jenny-esque short brunette haircut and comfortable upbringing, Barbara bears little resemblance to her predecessor. And as cute as she is, starting conversations with, “I say!” we are going to have to wait a little while before Ritchie really gets to stretch her legs on the show. For now, while she learns the ropes—rule number one, if you’re a teetotaling clergyman’s daughter, never ever accept a drink from Trixie and Patsy (Emerald Fennell) the night before you start work at a new job—Nurse Gilbert is stuck as Sister Evangelina’s (Pam Ferris) whipping post. Also, try not to be too disappointed that Liverpudlian Barbara doesn’t sound like George Harrison.
Speaking of our favorite sharp-tongued nun, however, it appears dear Evangelina has some sort of mysterious medical ailment only noticeable by comfort incarnate, Sister Julienne. That warm and fuzzy feeling you get when watching Call the Midwife I mentioned earlier? Seventy-five percent of that comes from Jenny Agutter’s cozy presence as Julienne. Any time she graces the screen, it feels as if we’re being wrapped in a knitted blanket, and we suddenly have a craving for a hot cup of tea with a side of motherly advice. The Sister-in-charge calls Evangelina on her food avoidance, and the fact that there’s a run on milk of magnesia—which Evie’s been guzzling like it’s Polyjuice Potion (and she’s Barty Crouch Jr.). By the end of the episode, Evangelina is seeing paying a visit to Dr. Turner’s (Stephen McGann) office, requesting a female doctor for her “women’s problems.” No!
But let’s hold off on our next round of blubbering at least until next week though, because if there’s anyone who’s going to approach a serious illness with both fists raised and guns blazing, it’s Poplar’s OG homegirl.