‘Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.’ ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I find this quote fitting for episode three, as the latest installment of Call the Midwife on PBS was all about challenging our assumptions, starting with the assumptions we all made about mean Sister Grinch. Maybe she’s not the big meanie she appeared to be. Perhaps the damage she did was, in its own way, a result of caution and care from someone overcompensating for a past heartbreak. Maybe everyone is – or maybe not. We never know, do we?
Call the Midwife is very good at highlighting social issues or injustices of the past and tonight is no different. The story of the Chens included a passing reference to a page in British history I’d never heard of before. Despite the fact it took place over 70 years ago, in many ways it sounds like it could be torn from current events. Let’s break it all down with the Ten Essentials of Call the Midwife, Episode 3…
- Time is on my side (No, it’s not, with all due respect, Sir Mick)
In an effort to further make Nonnatus House (and everyone in it) run spit spot, Sister Grinch has instituted a new policy: a 20 minute time limit on all pre and post-natal house calls. Despite emphatic protests from every nurse and nun that this is neither realistic nor healthy for their patients, she will not be moved. The new policy is, ‘because I’m the mommy, that’s why’, and she will not hear anymore back talk, (don’t make me come up there!)
As a result, Nonnatuns are now sprinting through Poplar at a frantic clip. And not only that, Grinch dares to touch Nurse Crane’s big Rolodex. Uh-oh. No one touches The Rolodex! Grinch says she’s trying to ‘make improvements’ on Nurse Crane’s appointment schedule. This does not go down well. Sister Winfred tries to mitigate the situation and reason with Grinch. She invites her to come out on calls to see what it’s really like in the field, which causes Sister Grinch’s motherboard to crash. Seeing this, Nurse Crane goes to Sister Julienne to tell her she doesn’t think Sister Grinch is fit, and we get the dish. It turns out Sister Grinch was in charge of another order that failed and she took it hard. Sister Julienne has sympathy for her (even though she stole her job), so for now they will continue rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. This is a disaster waiting to happen — and happen it does.
- Lost Our Lease: Everything Must Go!
Things go from bad to worse. Sister Grinch hears about a meeting that Dr. Turner is summoned to attend about the future of healthcare in the area, and pushes in on it. Dr. Turner is as thrilled as he would be for a bad rash. What news does this meeting bring? In the name of progress and efficiency, the Board of Health wants to shut down the cottage hospital and move all patients to large centrally located hospitals, away from their neighborhoods. As he breaks the news around the table at Nonnatus House, everyone disagrees with this idea. Except Sister Grinch, she’s on the side of the enemy. A Spy among us, as it were (possibly without the hidden cameras).
Is there anything to be done? Shelagh and Dr. Turner say yes, there is: everyone should just keep doing what they’re doing. Sister Grinch pipes in to say that their resources are allocated elsewhere and helping to staff the cottage hospital can no longer be a priority – oh, and that Fred can help with repairs only on his own time. Harrumph! They await an inspection and scramble to get ready.
- Introducing Chinatown
In this episode we see a part of Poplar we haven’t seen before, a neighborhood full of Chinese immigrants where we meet the Chens. New arrivals Cyril and his mum run a laundry. His wife Lucy is UK born and raised. Her mother is English, and with her Chinese father deported in 1946, she grew up assimilated in Liverpool. (Maybe hanging out in the Cavern Club??) She finds the old country customs of her mother-in-law from hell, well odd, especially the one about ‘confinement’ (new mothers and babies being locked inside for a month) but in an effort to get along she’ll go along.
For her part Mama Chen finds English ways just as odd. She bristles at Lucy’s baby name choice as bad luck, and has to be assured that the classic English dish ‘Toad in the Hole’ is not actually made from toads. (They’re not French, after all.) Lucy wants Cyril to stand up to his mother, but poor whipped Cyril is walking a tightrope. Mama Chen also has a secret (naturally), a lock of baby hair that makes her freak out when Lucy dares touch it.
When Barbara returns to Nonnatus House, fresh from a house call at the Chen’s, Sister Grinch admonishes her for being late for tea. She informs her that in no uncertain terms that Nonnatus House will not tolerate slackers, causing gasps all around the table. Later as they commiserate, Nurse Crane assures her that for the moment they have to do the best they can.
- When push comes to shove
It’s time for the Chens! Nurse Barbara is the catcher and Mama Chen is the third base coach. And it’s a girl, which looks like it doesn’t please Mama Chen. At first, knowing what we now about China and girls, we think it’s a look of disappointment that the baby isn’t a boy, but things are not what they seem.
7.1. This Too Shall Pass:
Lucy is suffering through her imposed confinement. Tough taskmaster Mama Chen insists that drafts are bad and heat is good. The windows must stay closed. Lucy is roasting. She argues with her mother-in-law, who calls her spoiled and ungrateful, insisting she has no idea what hard is. Into this steps Nurse Barbara. Because of the new time constraints, she has to rush through her examination of Lucy Chen and baby Lin. Lin is sleeping soundly (finally) and Lucy is desperately frantic that she stay that way. She’s so exhausted; she pleads with Barbara not to wake her baby. That hot, stuffy room is giving Lucy cabin fever, a bad headache, and just making her generally out of sorts. With the wrath of Sister Grinch still fresh in her mind, against her better judgment Barbara acquiesces to the new mother and (hesitantly) goes. That turns out to have been a mistake.
FYI: Compulsory deportation of Chinese immigrants: Lucy mentioned that her father had been deported in 1946. He would have been part of a group of about twenty thousand Chinese sailors who were recruited by the British Merchant Navy (based mostly in Liverpool) in the early 1940’s who served during World War II. Although they played an important role during the war, once the war concluded the government colluded with local shipping companies to designate them an ‘undesirable element’ and have them forcibly repatriated (deported). By that time, approximately three hundred of the men had married local women and had children, but they were not permitted any case review, even though by law they were allowed it. The Home Office broke the law. The men were just taken, sometimes off the street. Their families left waiting for answers, thinking they’d been abandoned. Some of their wives formed an advocacy group to seek justice, but it was all for naught. Not a single case was ever reconsidered.
- Speed it up!
It is Cottage Hospital inspection day. Inspector Greenwood is all business and not impressed with Dr. Turner’s stats and research, saying the four beds in their little facility could be easily absorbed into a general hospital in a blink of an eye. That it’s too much care for too small a number of patients. That in the future, all expectant mothers will be serviced on an assembly line by a Nurse Ricardo and a Nurse Mertz. The Inspector asks, how can you compete with a big modern hospital with all its shiny, newfangled equipment? This is how:
As if on cue, Lucy Chen awakes from her nap and tries to rouse baby Lin. She can’t. The baby is unresponsive and she panics. She runs downstairs to Cyril and Mama Chen, who grabs the baby and in the emergency, the runs to the only place they know – that absorbable, little neighborhood maternity hospital.
Miracle workers Nurse Shelagh and Dr. Turner get to work, quickly diagnosing the problem as carbon monoxide poisoning (which impresses Inspector Greenwood), give the baby oxygen and send her on to the hospital where her life hangs in the balance. But if the balance is tipped in her favor at all it is because the cottage hospital was there – in the community. Dr. Turner tells Inspector Greenwood that that is what it’s all about.
With Dr. Turner rushing off to (now) take Shelagh to the hospital it is up to Nurse Crane to ask about the results of the inspection. He says they are safe for now, but it’s only a stay of execution. Progress is moving in a different direction, and none of these small neighborhood hospitals will be here in ten years time. The parallels to the way of life represented in Downton Abbey are all there. Progress does have its down side. But for now, Dr. Turner’s little-hospital-that-could lives to fight another day.
- Maybe Baby: Shelagh
Ironic that this episode features laundry workers because someone has shrunk all of Shelagh’s clothes. She needs to start looking for maternity wear – and letting out her seams. She’s afraid to tempt fate by being too happy or hopeful, or buying any baby things – but she couldn’t help herself. She bought a sweet little bonnet. Sister Julienne assures her she’s at the 50-yard line now and it’s OK to prepare. She even sort-of announces to the ward that she’s expecting too. (In actuality, she just confirms their diagnosis.) So far everyone she’s announced her pregnancy to has already guessed beforehand.
It turns out the bonnet purchase might have been a jinx. In all the excitement over the cottage hospital inspection, Shelagh’s butterflies turned into cramps and then spotting before she had time to take care of herself. In a panic she calls Nurse Crane for a taxi to St. Cuthbert’s hospital, but Patrick insists on taking her. The doctor says the bleeding has stopped and now we wait… Will series creator and writer Heidi Thomas allow Shelagh to miscarry her much longed for baby? Methinks that an outcome like that might cause viewers to dust off the pitchforks and torches they put away after a certain Matthew Crawley suffered an untimely splat.
- Square eyes: Sister Monica Joan has another habit that she cannot give up.
What’s up with Sister Monica Joan? Lately her boot heels seem to go wandering at the most inopportune moments – even when there is cake to be had, and that’s not like her at all. Of course, there is some history there that is making everyone a bit ill at ease. We recall that in recent seasons she has gotten confused and lost, and was brought home by the cops more than once. So what is it now? Everyone has their theory as to why she’s getting footloose again. (Still Sister Grinch thinks it may be time to retire her to the mother ship.) They need to figure this out before Grinch makes yet another of one of their number disappear. But where is she going? Does she have a side gig? A secret lover? The mind boggles.
Turns out it is none of the above. By chance Sister Julienne, returning from a baby call, spots her darting out the door, and calls to her (which she ignores as she goes skipping off into the night). Sister Julienne follows in hot pursuit and catches up with Sister Monica Joan sitting outside Seaman’s Mission where they are happy to set up a bench so she can watch the telly through their front window. Two mysteries solved at once. Sister Julienne sits down to join her and when they return to Nonnatus House Sister Grinch sends them to bed without supper.
FYI: The show Sister Monica Joan was so excited to see was Steptoe and Son, a BBC sitcom that began in 1962. It was about the conflicts between a father in the rag and bone trade (i.e.: junk) and his aspirational son. It was the show that the American sitcom Sanford and Son was based on. Among the notable guest appearances on Steptoe and Son over the years were Trevor Bannister (Are You Being Served?), Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances), and Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous).
- You’re so vain; you probably think this penance is about you.
Now, as the Chens wait, Mama Chen recounts her wartime experience: running from the Japanese while pregnant and giving birth in the rain, on the side of the road. But she had to keep moving, so she carried her daughter inside her clothes, skin to skin to keep her warm but she died from exposure. All she has to remember her is a lock of hair she bit off before her body was taken away. That look that we thought was disappointment on Mama Chen’s face was actually her thinking about her own baby who died. Because of this horror, she just wanted to keep Lin safe and warm. She couldn’t save her own baby so tried to save her granddaughter.
After baby Lin is rushed to the hospital, Nurse Crane takes it upon herself to tell Sister Grinch about what happened and why. She says she’ll pray for the baby. Nurse Crane also insists that Nurse Barbara was not at fault, but that the new time restrictions were. Grinch disagrees. She retreats to the chapel where she fasts and prays — and confides to Sister Julienne that she cannot help but pray for herself too, crowding out her prayers for baby Lin. Sister Julienne assures her it doesn’t work that way. Grinch realizes she must go, and should never have taken Sister Julienne’s job in the first place.
3.1. Hallelujah!: Baby Lin wakes. She’s OK, and that’s a good thing on so many levels. We couldn’t have had one of our sisters charged with reckless endangerment, now could we? But at the end of the day, that’s all she wrote for Sister Ursula Grinch. She returns to the mother ship to await her next assignment. Sister Monica Joan offers Sister Grinch a sweet roll as a parting gift, which, for anyone who knows Sister Monica Joan, is the greatest of all kindnesses. (Nevertheless she does offer a pinch of salt to go with the sugar, reminding her that an excess of penance is vanity.)
- Dr. Livingstone, I presume: Trixie returns to find chaos.
Trixie’s back from Africa and it’s as if she has stepped through the looking glass. Nothing is as it should be. Her welcome leaves a bit to be desired. She gets to the front door just in time for Nurse Crane to rush through, assigning her to take over phone duty as she goes. (Who would have done it had she not run into Trixie?) Most importantly, Trixie turns up just in time to sooth Nurse Barbara’s frayed nerves.
2.1. Missing In Action: Holy cow! When Trixie finally gets to sit down with Sister Julienne for a debriefing she asks about Sister Cynthia, and Sister Julienne tells her she’s getting the best care at the Mother Ship. But Trixie says that’s just the thing: she stopped overnight at the Mother Ship on her way home from Africa, hoping to see Cynthia. Yet she was nowhere to be found and no one would answer any questions about her. (Did you hear the collective gasp rise from in front of a million TVs across the nation?)! She’s gone! Vanished into thin air! What did Sister Grinch do with her? Turn her into gingerbread? And just as we had started to feel we had misjudged her, have we really? This is one unexpected cliffhanger.
- All’s Well That Ends Well (grading on a curve)
To quote the philosopher Dorothy Gale (a whiny little brat who would not share her shoes, but I digress), ‘There’s no place like home.’ Or, we’re all in each other’s countries, and home is where you set down roots, another message of this week’s episode. Luckily for the residents of Nonnatus House, the twister has passed by, the wicked troublemaker has been melted, and thankfully all the damage caused can be fixed — that is, if Sister Cynthia can be accounted for.
What did you think of this episode? Join the conversation below or tweet using the hashtag #MidwifePBS.