Jodie: We have been avid fans of Call the Midwife since the doors of Nonnatus House first opened, yet somehow we've never gushed about the show in a lengthy public co-review. As we've never talked about it together before, maybe we should talk about why we like the program so much. What has made this program about the daily lives of midwives, nuns and the women of the East End stick out for you?
Ana: Well, the first reason is what you once called the “basic feminist act” of centring a story on a girl of woman. Call the Midwife is almost entirely centred on women's stories — not just because many of the plots revolve around pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, but also because the central characters are women whose lives, relationships and professions are shown to matter. I love that — I never, ever get tired of that. I especially like series like this, with a large cast of female characters who relate to one another in a variety of ways and who remind us that “there's no wrong way of being a girl”.
Secondly, the series has been called “a love letter to the NHS”, and yes, it kind of is one. Call the Midwife has a political sensibility that is close to my heart, and the stories it tells repeatedly remind us that free public services improve people's lives in tangible, concrete, human ways. They're not a drain on us all; they're a common good and they help tackle inequality. This is an important narrative to put there in these troubling political times, when people in positions of power talk about “reducing dependency on services” with a straight face, as if the people who make use of them have an addiction they need to recover from. Several critics have pointed out that the series could do better — it's still primarily centred on the mostly middle or upper class nurses, after all, rather than the working class woman of Poplar. While this is absolutely true, I still appreciate the series' political subtext, and also the fact that it tells its stories in a way that feels organic and is never heavy-handed.
Finally, I love the characters. As a character-oriented reader/viewer, this is something that's always important to me. I adore Chummy, I love Patsy and Trixie and Shelagh, and sisters Julienne, Evangeline and Monica Joan. I loved getting to know them over the course of four seasons, and I love how the different storylines have continued to reveal different sides of them. What about you? What do you like about Nonnatus House and its inhabitants?
Jodie: Pretty much everything you already said. I know that when Call the Midwife first came out I felt an especial need for a new show that put women firmly in the spotlight; not just a woman but a whole cast of women. I can't remember specifically why I needed this kind of show at that time but I definitely remember feeling like Call the Midwife was an important show. And when critics talked about it I was happy. Even when they didn't exactly understand it, at least I saw regular column space given over to a show about women.
And of course, I love the characters. My absolute fav has to be Trixie (because obviously) closely followed by Patsy, Shelagh, Sister Julienne, Chummy, and Jenny. Barbara is growing on me too though, which is extraordinary considering she's only been in the show for one series.
Ana: Yes, I grew to like Barbara a lot too over the course of this season, and I hope they'll continue to spotlight her more as the series continues. Having her around more helped me cope with my sadness at the fact that Chummy wasn't as present (I'll admit she'll always be my favourite).
Jodie: In your 2014 in Review post you talked a little about your hopes for Series Four:
...with Jenny moving away and the supporting cast being given a chance to shine in terms of character development — perhaps the series will become a real ensemble show, much like Orange is the New Black in its second season. Likewise, I’m excited about the introduction of a lesbian character, who I hope we’ll see much more of next year.Did you feel like the wider cast came out from under Jenny's shadow in Series Four?
However — and this is an important however — I still feel that the series underutilises many of its characters and needlessly sticks them in stereotypical subplots. This is particularly true of Trixie and Patsy, but I expect we'll have plenty more to say about that in due course. Before we move on, how do you feel the new Jenny-less, ensemble approach worked?
Jodie: It worked a lot better than I expected. Even though I love all the secondary characters, I thought the show would struggle without Jenny. Lots of shows struggle once they move away from their founding concept or central character. And, because I'd seen Miranda Hart say we were going to see less of Chummy this series too, I was worried I would feel a bit at sea as I waited to get really interested in other new characters like Barbara and Sister Winifred (who I wasn't much interested in when she was first introduced).
In practise though, I didn't miss Jenny that much because I was so caught up in what the other characters were doing. I wouldn't say the show is better without Jenny - I really like what Jenny brought to the show, especially when it came to her friendship with Trixie. However, I didn't feel like there was a Jenny shaped hole in each episode. I'm not even sure I can imagine this series with Jenny. What that shows me is that Call the Midwife has developed its secondary relationships well and given the viewer great secondary characters to care about. Even if, as you rightly say, the show often doesn't quite seem to know what to do with those characters.
Speaking of characters the program kind of dithers around, what did you think about Cynthia's storyline? Cynthia, I feel, has been one of the most under-used characters of the show, and I was keen to see if they'd manage to make something more substantial out of her character once she felt called to become a nun.
Cynthia's story, like Shelagh's previously, showed this dynamic side of faith at work, and also illustrated said ramifications. I really liked how these two characters' stories complemented each other, particularly in light of Sister Julianne's relationship with each of them. The head of Nonnatus House is unwaveringly supportive, and her attitude is a reminder that there's no one true way to live a good life, or a life that feels right in light of your beliefs (can you tell that multiple truths are my favourite?). Shelagh doesn't lose her faith, though she prioritises things that require her to move away from her life as a nun. Sister Julianne understands this. Cynthia, on the other hand, becomes more and more drawn to this life, and sister Julianne gives her room to make what is quite a big decision in her own time.
I liked all these aspects of Cynthia story, but one thing that was just as important to me was that the series showed that becoming a nun didn't require a complete break with the person she was before making that decision. Obviously her choice represents a lifelong commitment that is deeply felt, but it doesn't erase her personality or trump her relationships. In some ways S4 does show us that: Cynthia continues to work as a midwife, a kind of work that was always important to her, and you could even say she becomes more confident and deliberate. I really enjoyed all the storylines around her relationship with her patients, like the one with the mother from a group of Irish Travellers she helps (bonus points for Mrs S from Orphan Black's appearance :D). However, it made me sad to see her friendship with Trixie suffer some setbacks. I can understand why the two would feel shy around each other, but I really wanted to see them sit down, talk it through, hug it out, and go back to being close friends. The fact that Cynthia was there for Trixie in the final episode gave me hope: fingers crossed that we'll see them interact a lot more in the next season. How about you? Any thoughts on Cynthia?
Jodie: My one problem with Cynthia's storyline is that I feel like her decision to become a nun was inspired more by the creative team's need to find something for her to do, rather than by any kind of natural character development. Cynthia's desire to become a nun is revealed and then before you know it she's off to The Mother House. She gets a few episodes to mull over her feelings, and the viewer is offered at least a chance to adjust to and genuinely connect with her deliberations, but it still progresses extremely quickly. It's so sudden and feels like the kind of about face decision a soap might introduce rather than a plotted series.
I mentioned that the show doesn't quite know what to do with some characters and Cynthia's individual development has definitely been left aside. The show sometimes struggled to work out how to develop her as an individual rather than as a member of a supportive group. Like Trixie and Jenny, Cynthia is involved in medical cases which develop her character and deepen the viewer's understanding of her background. However, unlike the other midwives, she doesn't really get much development as a person when she's away from midwifery. She stays stuck as one of the original three midwives; ready to get to work and always available for a slightly risque night out. She never looks much like moving into a new, independent personal sphere until she quickly goes off to become a postulant, returns as a nun and begins on that new (slightly forced) character journey.
Becoming a nun is a great storyline for Cynthia, and I think the show is developing her story well now, but I wish it felt less like the initial decision to send her down this story path was a bit slap-dash. Especially since Cynthia is the only (straight) midwife who doesn't have any kind of romantic relationship. We're going to talk about Patsy, the only lesbian midwife included in the show so far, later and I think her romantic storyline needs to be discussed separately. So, for the moment I'm going to focus on the romantic lives of the straight midwives.
There's no getting away from the fact that all the straight midwives, apart from Cynthia, get involved in romantic relationships. And then Cynthia becomes a nun. When I look at that chain of events it looks like the showrunners throwing in a plot vindication of Trixie's remark that if Cynthia had only kissed a boy she'd put this nun stuff right out of her head. While the show has its characters dismiss that remark, the setup of its midwive's personal lives seem to prop up the idea that if a straight character don't got a man then that character needs to be 'solved' somehow; there needs to be a 'reason' why they're not in a romantic relationship. Loose women roaming the streets by themselves - heaven forbid! And that's a little hard to take from a program which is basically all about women roaming the streets by themselves. It kind of says 'it's all well and good to bicycle through the neighbourhood alone, as long as there's an expiration date on that status'. It makes me worry about what they're going to do with Phyllis who is so unapologetically single. Don't pair her up with a man, show - just don't do it!
Otherwise, I'm really enjoying Cynthia's faith storyline so far. I hope the connection between her and the other midwives is going to allow the show to bring her and the nuns into the program even more. And I love how her new state as a nun lets the other Sisters talk frankly about issues like celibacy.
Ana: That's an excellent point about the narrative feeling the need to “explain” why a woman wouldn't have followed a culturally normative life path, in this case by being single. And yes, fingers crossed that they don't feel the need to pair up Phyllis!
To carry on with the theme of characters the story doesn't really do justice to, what did you think about the subplots surrounding Trixie this season? We've talked before about how sometimes the series seems to be punishing her for being fun, and I'd really love to hear what you have to say about that.
Jodie: Series Four really focused on Trixie's relationship with Tom, her cute but dorky priest boyfriend. Trixie and Tom's relationship is set up as a pairing of opposites. Trixie is fun and flippant. Tom is quiet and patient. Trixie likes to dance in clubs while Tom is terrified of dancing in public. Trixie wants a big wedding while Tom wants something more restrained. Yet, despite their differences they bond over their shared interest in helping others. Oh, the hilarious conflicts these differences will inspire, but at the end of the day they'll come back together because of their heartwarming common purpose!
Except, their fights stops being funny pretty quickly - right around the time the pair start discussing their wedding and their future. I was not a fan of Trixie and Tom's relationships because it allowed the show to shame Trixie at every turn. The program sets up situations where she's expected to compromise or inevitably lose Tom, the pure and darling priest, because she's standing in the way of his calling or asking him to do something that conflicts with his very nature. Like actually help to plan an extravagant wedding… I know, she's so unreasonable.
This chain of events ends with Trixie validating the show's subtle hints that she's not cut out to be a curate's wife because she isn't willing to sacrifice as much as he is. Essentially it shames a midwife who works and lives in an incredibly poor part of Britain - a woman who works long hours delivering other people's babies - for saying 'I'd quite like for our own children to live in the countryside'. Which is just a ridiculous way for the show to behave. Trixie once climbed a rope ladder to deliver a baby on a trawler - back off, show.
Ana: I absolutely agree that some of the storylines have tended to frame Trixie as kind of selfish or shallow, which is completely absurd in the context of everything we've seen her do. And yes, the power imbalance between Trixie and Tom bothered me a lot too. She's always the one who's shown to be coming short — to be failing to commit sufficiently or to sacrifice enough — and there's no reason why that should be so except for unspoken assumptions about how women should be the ones to give things up. Again, I'm interested in stories about how lopsided power dynamics affect personal relationships, but like you I never got the sense that the show was actually questioning this. It's presented as The Way Things Are — Tom is a perfect angel who simply wants to do good, and if Trixie's wants or needs get in the way of that they're simply framed as self-sabotage.
Jodie: Now it's time to talk about Patsy. Call the Midwife is well known for looking at relationships which were considered taboo in 1950s - 60s Britain but Patsy & Delia are the first lesbian couple the program has ever shown. Hey Ana, just wondering, how did you feel about Patsy & Delia's storyline? >.>
Ana: HAHA WHERE DO I EVEN START? Perhaps a five minutes-long wail of “WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYY, WRITERS, WHYYYYYY” will do?
Patsy and Delia's fate in the finale caught me at a particularly bad time: I had just watched Heidi Thomas' older series Lilies, and while I really liked it overall I was enraged about the storyline concerning the three girls' brother, Billy, and his romantic relationship with another man. It ends (you guessed it) with a Sudden Tragic Death that is in sharp contrast with the thoughtfulness and nuance of some of the series' other subplots. Coming across the same thing in Call the Midwife, then, was a vivid reminder of the pattern these stories contribute to.
In the case of Call the Midwife, though, it's not even just the pattern I have a problem with. “It's not each individual story, it's the overall trend” is something you've probably heard me say a million times in the past, but you know what? Here it is the individual story. I would say that about, for example, Angels in America: this is a series I love and adore; a series that explores a dark chapter in lgbtq history (how the community was affected by AIDS) in humane, thoughtful, and ultimately hopeful ways; and one that I found moving and necessary. However, you could rightfully argue that there's a problem with the trend of elevating AIDS narratives above all other lgbtq narratives — this knowledge and my love for the series can and do exist simultaneously.
Unfortunately I have no way to describe how Call the Midwife treats Patsy and Delia other than as exploitative, emotionally manipulative, crass tragedy porn. Delia doesn't die, but her sudden accident and subsequent loss of memory result in her being taken back home to Wales and removed from Patsy's life. I suppose the writers were going for social commentary here, because it's the fact that Patsy and Delia couldn't be open about their relationship that separates them. They couldn't acknowledge how close they were, how central they were in each other's lives, and so Delia's parents don't think much of taking her to a place where Patsy can't visit and don't know to send her news. However, all of this unfolds over the course of what, half an episode? It's a footnote in a story that comes across as predestined for tragedy, and so any sort of commentary on the realities of inequality is forced and halfhearted at best.
If you want to explore the consequences of homophobia in the early 1960s, you have to do better than that. It's possible to tell a good story about this, but to do that you also have to acknowledge that there was survival and resistance: that there were people who were lucky enough and found the necessary support to live happy, fulfilling lives as queer couples within a socially hostile environment. Homophobia was and is awful and we mustn't minimise it, but we don't do people's lives justice if we pretend it has always won. It hasn't. There were women like Patsy and Delia who moved into their own home and smelled the coffee in the morning and had private moments of happiness while continuing to fight for equality in ways big and small. They didn't live in a bubble, unaffected by society's homophobia, but my point is that they lived.
Lastly, when I say manipulative what I mean is that the way Delia's accident was set up in the episode was designed to be a facile tearjerker: their brief moments of happiness in the house they're about to move into, the promise of future happiness snatched away too soon, the music and camera shots in the accident scene itself — it all feels cheap, and it all hints at the inevitability of tragedy for young lesbians in love. That's too troubling an implication for words. It made me furious and was genuinely awful to watch.
Jodie: You've covered exactly why this storyline was THE WORST. It was painful to watch the story take all control out of Patsy's hands and then stretch its narrative control to the absolute bounds just to pile on the dramatic tragedy. Delia has told her parents Patsy is the 'lady she helps with the cubs'? Why wouldn't she have covered by telling them they were best friends or at least friends, which would have made Delia's mother more likely to let Patsy see her? Unthinking dramz is why. And Delia's parents don't even have a phone and don't want her to visit? That's not just a program attempting to show the reality of life in the 1960s. It's a program piling on dramatic obstructions because it thinks they make a situation more heart-jerking for the straight viewer. And without presenting another lesbian couple the show pushes the viewer to see 'tragic 1960s lesbians' as the One Truth, furthering a dominant media representation that insists lesbians can't be happy in the long run; in fact that there is no long run for lesbians.
How did you feel about the storyline from Episode Three of Series Four where an expectant father is caught attempting to pick up men? Did you think that skirted closer to social commentary than melodrama for straight viewers, and how did that storyline sit in the context of Call the Midwife so far?
Ana: I would say that yes, it skirts a little closer, but at the same time, no — it definitely wasn't enough. My feelings about this storyline were inevitably influenced by my feelings about Patsy and Delia's fate: if they were telling the story of a man trapped by the circumstances of a homophobic society alongside a story about a lesbian couple who were able to live together, that would be one thing; it's quite another to tell Tony's tragic story and then pile even more on with the gratuitous tragedy that befalls Patsy and Delia. It's also worth mentioning that there have been no other significant lgbtq characters in the show's four seasons. There's no counterbalance — there's either erasure or tragedy.
When I say there was a more cogent attempt at commentary in this episode, I mostly mean that Tony's story at least took the whole episode and was given a little bit more room to breathe. But considering what we're comparing it to, that's still not saying much. The episode gave viewers who might be unfamiliar with this side of history the chance to learn about agent provocateurs, about homophobic laws, about community backlash, and about the horrifying chemical castration "treatments" gay men were forced to undergo.
However, it's important to note that Tony's story is very much still geared towards straight viewers. It's a story told from the outside, not only because it assumes ignorance but also because the way the episode handles the narrative makes it less about Tony and more about giving other characters an opportunity to air their views — from Dr Turner to Fred to the inhabitants of Nonnatus House (Patsy not included, for obvious reasons), who sit around the table and discuss whether homosexuality is a sin they should condemn. And this — the fact that at the end of the day the story is about them, their feelings and their views, and not really the person they're discussing — is a form of marginalisation I'm very tired of seeing. Obviously the point of the episode is that homophobia ruined people's lives and that it's good that we've started to move away from it in the past few decades, but… we can tell much better stories that still acknowledge this history. A progressive central theme alongside more insidious forms of marginalisation is not good enough. It's more than about time we start to do better.
How about you? Any thoughts you'd like to share?
Jodie: Tony's storyline sucked and I have pretty much retconned it in my head by believing that Tony eventually runs away with a man he meets in a travelling circus. I feel like Tony and Patsy's storylines were the creative team's attempt to rectify the show's previous erasure of lesbian and gay history (they included so many other underrepresented groups in previous episodes but had never had an LGBTQ storyline). Unfortunately, they completely screwed it up. It must have been rough for LGBTQ viewers watching Series Four.
Ana: You'd said before that Shelagh is one of your favourite characters, so I was wondering if you'd like to talk about her a little bit, perhaps including her challenges this season concerning her obvious passion for her work and the expectations surrounding married women with children?
Jodie: Shelagh is amazing, partly because she's had such a great character journey, partly because of her friendship with Sister Julienne and partly because I'm a Sound of Music fan. Nuns who find love is a great trope! Nun BFFs - help, I died.
Again, I think this series the creative team have struggled to know what to do with her, especially as she has such a supportive husband. The show can't make a strong point about the problems of mothers who work without compromising Patrick at least a little (NO ONE WANTS THAT) so Shelagh has something to push back against. So, instead it's made her storyline mostly about her not knowing how to define her purpose when she doesn't want/isn't able to go back to full time midwifery. As a consequence, and because we haven't had much access to Shelagh's thoughts, her storyline has been a little wishy washy.
I actually think the show has made a better point about working mothers in Chummy's storyline. Chummy has struggled to balance motherhood and work. Peter, though supportive, has had issues with helping out at times because he's trying to develop his career while helping out with his first small kid who won't sleep. In contrast, Dr Turner is established in his career and well used to being a parent (and a single one at that). So, there are more sites of traditional conflict for the show to work with in Chummy and Peter's partnership than in Shelagh and Patrick's relationship.
The show almost needs to tap into a new language about career women and motherhood to tell Shelagh's story and I think it's struggled to do that in a strong way this series. Probably the best moment it set up was when Shelagh put her nurse's uniform on again in order to gain the patient's trust and re-establish her medical authority. Even then, the show doesn't really dig into what that means for women - how important wearing a costume is for professional women even when you've all the necessary credentials and how quickly people forget your work when you move from being a midwife to a wife.
Ana: I completely see your point about that not being explored enough, but I still found that moment really powerful — the fact that Shelagh found so much joy in slipping back into an authoritative role, plus her competency and obvious enjoyment of her work, really resonated with me. Of course, there's plenty more that could be said about people's need to separate Shelagh-the-wife-and-mother from Shelagh-the-professional, and like you I'd also have really enjoyed a story that digged into that properly.
Jodie: Is there anything else you want to talk about before we close?
Ana: Why yes, yes there is. However did you guess?
In episode four of this season, Sister Winifred meets a young sex worker who is pregnant and who suffers from syphilis. This woman is also responsible for caring for an older woman, a mentor figure who obviously means a lot to her and who is struggling with the final stages of the disease. These two cases inspire Sister Winifred to educate sex workers about contraception and protection against STDs.
I think this episode is another good example of Call the Midwife setting out to do something really good but then not quite going far enough to be completely satisfying. It's important that the series depicts sex workers without shaming them, and that we see someone like Sister Winifred (who hasn't always been the most understanding of characters, like in the episode where she makes homophobic assertions about Tony) spreading the word about contraception because she's a trained nurse and the health of her patients is more important than any sort of moral high ground. However, I couldn't help but compare this to Borgen's sex work episode in my head, and I have to say Call the Midwife fell short. Borgen acknowledges that there's a long history of sex workers being patronised by people who profess to have their best interests at heart; of being spoken for instead of listened to. Call the Midwife makes no such acknowledgement, and in fact perpetuates these dynamics in a way.
The most promising moment in the episode comes when Sister Winifred, who is out distributing pamphlets about contraception, talks to one of the sex workers she approaches. This woman tells her that as much as they'd like to have safe sex, the men who come to them would simply refuse to. If they insisted, they'd simply take their business elsewhere, which would make it impossible for women in strained economic conditions to make ends meet. This moment is a crucial acknowledgement that the balance of power is tipped against these women. As long as they remain marginalised, they have no recourse. In an ideal world, they'd work without fear of either public shaming or criminal charges, join forces in a union, and make use of collective bargaining to ensure that safe sex became the norm. None of them have the power to change the rules on their own, and unfortunately other courses of action are barred to them.
However, despite this key moment, the end of the episode still shows us Sister Winifred giving a lecture about safe sex to a group of sex workers. I'm not saying this isn't important — we absolutely can't assume that women in the late 1950s and early 1960s would have had access to this information otherwise — but it's an insufficient solution of its own, and one that puts the responsibility solely in the women's hands. The episode's final montage frames it as an unqualified victory, though, which is something that could easily have been prevented by having a scene where Sister Winifred (or perhaps someone else) also approached the men who seek out sex workers in the East End.
Ana: Yes, same here. It's because we love it that we expect more! As always, it was a pleasure to discuss all the reasons why this series both delighted and frustrated us with you. Thank you for sharing your smarts, and I look forward to swapping impressions about season five with you when it premieres early next year. I'm so glad we'll get to go back to Poplar and find out what all our favourite characters are up to. Any particular wishes for the next season?
Jodie: Delia should get her memory back. Trixie should meet a boy from the wrong side of the tracks with a kind hearted nature, and he should be cool with supporting her determination not to drink (I am all over a good stereotypical male romantic lead). Shelagh should go back to midwifery and Dr Turner should get a practise secretary. Barbara should get her own story before the show does something weird to her. And Cynthia and Trixie should bond again, and not just over her drinking. I think that's everything if I really can't have Trixie/Patsy which it seems I cannot.
Links of interest: