"It's not always sunshine that splits the seed": Call the Midwife Returns!
Call the Midwife, the glorious BBC drama about a group of nurses in London’s East End in the 1950s and ‘60s, returned for its seventh season on January 21st. We here at Lady Science have been known to wax euphoric about the show - in fact, we did just that in our most recent podcast. With Call the Midwife already on the brain following our conversation, I was eager for new episodes to return. What will our favorite midwives be getting up to in the coming year? Sunday’s season opener resolved some lingering questions from the last season, and set up some new conflicts and adventures that have me eager to find out.
First, the basics. Call the Midwife season seven picks up right where December’s Christmas special left off: it’s January 1963, and the great freeze is still making life complicated for our intrepid midwives and their community. Street closures, rolling blackouts, and freezing temperatures are making everyone a little tense, but as usual, they keep calm and carry on.
Nonnatus House is also down a midwife, as Patsy Mount has officially left, and the newest nurse is delayed by the weather (more about her later). Tragically, my love for Patsy was not enough to bring her back for another season. About halfway through the episode, Patsy’s happy fate is revealed: she and her girlfriend, nurse Delia Busby, are traveling the world together! Their most recent missive arrives at Nonnatus House in the form of a picture postcard from Botswana, where the pair are on safari. As sad as I am to lose two beautifully drawn queer characters on my favorite TV show, I could not imagine a more perfect way to wrap up their story. And if anyone wants to get me a belated birthday gift, I will happily accept all of your Patsy-and-Delia-go-on-adventures fanfic.
Most episodes focus on new life - it’s about midwives, after all - but the opening episode of season seven had an unexpected thematic thread about aging (and dying) on one’s own terms. The episode’s central plot revolves around two elderly residents of Poplar. Ruth and Arnold Gelin are German-Jewish immigrants who are fiercely proud of the life they have built in England and the home that they own on the East End. Hillary, their grown daughter, has an established middle-class life in suburban Hendon (complete with central heating and a rotisserie oven!), and would like nothing more than to have her parents join her, especially when Ruth falls ill. Even when it becomes clear that Ruth is dying, and even when Hillary reveals that homes on her parents street are about to be demolished to make way for modern construction, the couple refuses to leave. As Ruth moves towards death, their pride and autonomy endures - as does their love for one another.
At Nonnatus House, Sister Monica Joan’s eyesight seems to be failing. The show has always treated its eldest Sister with empathy and complexity rarely bestowed on aging women. Now they’re teeing up a new struggle for her, which she hints at pointedly in an explosion of frustration after she incorrectly reads a timetable printed in the newspaper that informs residents of scheduled blackouts: “You are too swift to declare that my mind is infirm,” is the accusation she throws at the other nuns, “I am not confined to second childishness - sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything.” But if she is losing her sight, Sister Monica Joan will do it on her own terms and in her own way, and she will take no help or condescension from anyone.
Television has not always been kind to older women characters, but there does seem to be change in the air of late. I spent a lot of time this weekend watching the new season of Grace and Frankie, the Netflix comedy starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, which puts the sometimes-comedic, sometimes-tragic struggles of two very different aging women at its center. Without giving too much away, this most recent season deals heavily with what it means to lose one’s home, and therefore control over one’s life and one’s body. I wasn’t expecting to see those same themes in Call the Midwife’s season seven opener, though perhaps I should not have been so surprised; though tonally different, Grace and Frankie is feminist in many of the same way that Call the Midwife is, especially in taking seriously the interiority of older women, and the right they have to control their own lives.
Trixie, one of the characters that we have been following since the beginning of the show, continues to grow in complexity and maturity. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that she comes to a crossroads with her current boyfriend (nice guy dentist Christopher) and makes a choice that is thoroughly her own. Shelagh announces that she is hiring an au pair to look after her infant daughter, which is sure to charmingly overturn the domestic tranquility of the Turner household. And a baby is born, of course, while the camera lingers fearlessly on all of the sticky, uncomfortable, and ultimately gratifying details.
What about the new midwife? Well, we haven’t seen a whole lot of her yet. Lucille Anderson, Nonnatus House’s first black midwife arrives in the dark of night, delayed by the worst winter England has seen in 300 years. So far, her personality aligns well with what you would expect from a new Call the Midwife regular: she is kind and practical, she quotes Keates, she approaches her first midwifery case with all the expected gravity and joy.
Aside from one awkwardly staged breakfast conversation among the nuns and other midwives (must the series regulars so firmly assert their lack of prejudice while ominously hinting that “the community” may not be so accepting of a black woman delivering their babies?), Lucille’s race doesn’t play much of a factor in her introduction. Except for this: Lucille is wary. It’s played subtly, but there is care with which she chooses her words and a formality in her posture that implies that she does not expect this posting to be easy. Lucille knows what women of color have always known: that she will have to be twice as good to be accepted in Poplar. And only time will tell if that will be enough.