call the midwife: ave atque vale

Spoilers for the season five “Call the Midwife” finale below. Click away now or forever hold your peace.

It is a testament to the skill of “Call the Midwife” showrunner Heidi Thomas that great tragedy unfolded across last night’s season finale without feeling contrived or cheap. We don’t see it often in network television; I’ve been known to rant at length about repeated offenses to the viewer’s intelligence via ratings-driven “plot twists”. I find Shonda Rhimes in particular guilty of this, though less so in the last half of this season of “Grey’s Anatomy” — I don’t watch the rest of the TGIT lineup, so I can’t speak for the other series in it.

What I saw last night was an inevitable shoe drop, especially if you know your history, combined with a quiet, completely logical, graceful exit for a beloved character.

Shoe drop first: yes, after over a season, Dr. Turner finally knows the connection between Distaval and the uptick in limbless babies in Poplar. So does the whole world. As Thomas herself mentioned after the finale, 1961 really was the perfect year to do this storyline. It’s the year McBride published his concerns about thalidomide in The Lancet. All season we’ve seen the effects of the drug: baby Susan Mullocks is born phocomelic, Ruby Cottingham’s child not only lacks limbs but external sex organs (“Oh, God, another one!” says the surgeon). Now we get to watch Dr. Turner take the equivalent of a cannonball to the solar plexus; he gave out this drug, this Distaval, thinking it was perfectly safe for his patients. With everything he’s already been through, what surprises me most is that he was able to handle the sorrow without another breakdown.

Especially since his wife, and his community, must now face the loss of one of its cornerstones.

The previews gave absolutely no hints. We saw Sister Evangelina return, we saw her acknowledge that she’d had a stroke, and we expected we’d see her having to adjust to life without the use of a limb. Even her exhaustion at the end of the day, falling asleep in that chair, felt perfectly ordinary. Aging midwives need their rest.

It isn’t until Fred’s quiet “oh, no” moment that it sinks in, and all credit to Cliff Parisi for that subtle, beautiful discovery. It couldn’t have been played any better. Nor could Shelagh’s revelation to her husband — nor could Monica Joan’s exquisite grief at the loss of the friend she probably thought would go last. We’ve seen the bond between Sister Evangelina and Sister Monica Joan in other episodes; Evangelina always seemed the elder of the two, despite Monica Joan’s actual age. Now who will fetch Monica Joan back from the brink when she despairs and wanders away? Now who will understand her? It’s a perfectly valid fear on the loss of a person who has been one’s friend and guardian. One’s sister. Who will watch out for me now?

For all it’s easy to play Monica Joan as completely batty, Judy Parfitt’s consistent ability to get inside that somewhat-confused head means we see nothing out of the character’s ordinary. This is how she grieves. This is how she honors her best friend. In bringing those beat-up shoes out for the funeral procession, to be placed on Evangelina’s coffin, Monica Joan’s understanding of Evangelina is revealed to be deeper than anyone else’s. Recall how Evangelina fussed at the notion of replacing her shoes with anything but trainers from the castoff box? Evangelina was very much a “make it do or do without” sort of woman.

So in Heaven she will have her shoes.

The icing on this cake is Poplar turning out with all it has, even if all it has is grief to share. Flowers keep appearing, as if through some crack in the time-space continuum (whoops, wrong show). The undertaker gives Evangelina her sendoff for free; turns out he was one of her babies, one she couldn’t just let die at two months premature. No, she saved his life, and now he will provide for her in death. Everyone in the parish intends on filing in to see Evangelina lying in state, and they will line the road during her funeral procession, which in Nonnatus style is composed of everyone who’s washed up there to live, not just the sisters themselves.

I would be remiss in omitting the anguish of Ruby Cottingham (Becci Gemmell), convinced she had a daughter, trying to define a life that never was. Ruby finds herself unable to name her own child, even to herself. Names have already proven significant in this show — half the characters are nuns who changed their names when they took their vows, and don’t forget the reversal from Sister Bernadette to Shelagh! — so it’s interesting to see how a name for a child can mean so much to a mother who never held her.

Even in all this loss, there are beginnings. The Pregnant Couple of the Week has its child at its wedding reception, the bride having been decked out in Sister Evangelina’s old wedding dress (Bride of Christ, remember). I love the way this is proposed: Sister Mary Cynthia hears it as clear as day, in Evangelina’s tone of voice, how that gown shouldn’t go to waste and how that girl deserves something lovely for her big day. Delia and Patsy all but come out to Delia’s mother; Delia asks for her birth certificate so she can get a passport and travel with Patsy, and also Delia intends to train as a midwife. Delia’s mother says, I kid you not, “I’m a woman of the world. I’ve been to Jersey. And the Isle of Man.” Implying she’s known something’s not totally platonic there. She does finally approve, on the condition that Delia’s father never finds out.

Trixie and Peter, when viewing Evangelina laid out for burial, mumble about missing Chummy. Sure enough, if you look on Wikipedia, Chummy is listed as “Midwife & Nurse (S1-4, 6)”. It would appear they won’t have to miss her for too terribly long, and neither will we. Hurry home, Chummy. We need you now more than ever. Am I wrong?

“Call the Midwife” will return in Spring 2017, according to PBS, but I suspect we’ll get the Christmas special at Christmas. Well, I hope we do.

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