We got to see our beloved midwives and supporting cast one last time this season, but no one was feeling quite themselves in Episode 8. Given all the tension, we felt like we should back out a door saying, “Why don’t we stop in another day, then?”
But thank you, Call the Midwife, for not being an over-the-top drama queen. A lesser show would have dropped the bombshell about grandma and left us shell-shocked as our tea went cold. We’re grateful the Season 8 finale brought some resolution and reconciliation.
The Series Resonates with Our Times
The clinic’s new measles vaccine in 1964 was featured the same week that America was approaching its largest measles outbreak since 1994 (see Episode 3 recap). This season’s storyline of illegal abortion involved several episodes, but the court case in Episode 8 particularly resonated with this week’s news about Alabama enacting the country’s most restrictive abortion law. (Learn about Alabama’s new law and other states’ legal measures on PBS NewsHour).
Situation Not Normal
After she watches May driven off by car to her adoptive family, Shelagh tries to put on a strong face and gets busy planning the clinic’s Ballroom of Hope fundraiser. It’s startling to see this extremely polite and measured character be short with Fred as they start decorating. She’s clearly on edge about May leaving.
Now if there’s ever a disappointment, it’s when a “glitter ball” shatters: the clinic’s oversize mirrored ball (calling it a disco ball would be an anachronism in 1964) rolls off the stage under Fred’s watch.
Fred, Violet and Reggie
Reggie (Daniel Laurie) returns mysteriously glum from his residence home and Fred isn’t his cheerful self. Violet is unnerved by their odd moods. She bursts into tears when Cyril steps into her shop to place an order for the midwives’ gowns. He figures the men might be having an issue with one another, and he counsels Violet to let them sort it out between them.
Violet sends the two off to the pub and we find out what’s bringing them down. Fred’s bladder is troubling him, but he won’t tell his wife or go to the doctor. He flipped through Sister Julienne’s medical textbook and self-diagnosed himself with prostate cancer. He’s scared!
Did you ever think you’d see a man getting a prostate exam on Call the Midwife? It’s a beautiful thing to see the relief on Fred’s face when Dr. Turner tells him it’s not cancer. (The Prostate Cancer Foundation has prostate cancer screening recommendations based on age, ethnicity and family history.)
Reggie is just love-sick: he’s missing his new girlfriend Jane at the residence. We’re happy to see her arrive at the Ballroom of Hope.
This classy show may be set in the poor side of town, but it’s highbrow when it comes to manners and decorum. Val Dyer’s relative Maureen ignores precedent and charges into the clinic to confront Val and throw the biggest scene of the season (well done, actress Juliet Oldfield!). She loudly accuses Val of being a stuck-up turncoat who’s forgotten whose side she’s supposed to be on. No matter how it tears at her own heart, Val is going to testify against her own grandmother, Elsie Dyer, the Poplar abortionist.
There’s Greek tragedy written all over this narrative. What does one do: honor family or respect the law of the land? For a midwife and nurse whose profession is caring for women’s health, the issues surrounding illegal abortion are fraught.
A Dying Wish
Seventeen-year-old Julie Schroeder (Bessie Coates) is dying of Hodgkin’s disease, the most common cancer diagnosed in teenagers ages 15 to 19 years. In addition to this heartbreaking plot, the tension between the girl and her stepfather had us suspecting the worst (sexual abuse). That uncomfortable thought turned out to be wrong.
Julie’s stepfather is German, which warrants an aside. To be German in post-World War II London, a city flattened by relentless German Blitz bombings, had to be a life of extreme received prejudice. Julie says it was hard going to school with the last name Schroeder. As to Mr. Schroeder’s distant demeanor toward Julie, that stems from a different post-war trauma. During the skyrocketing inflation in Germany after World War I, Mr. Schroeder’s sister died at age five from hunger. When he met his wife Ena, her five-year-old daughter Julie brought up painful memories of his sister.
Now, Julie, with skin painfully burned by the radiation that didn’t cure her, can barely catch her breath. Money or nourishment won’t save her. She wants her family to acknowledge and accept her terminal diagnosis.
Julie witnesses the wonder of life when she sees her mother give birth, but one fervent wish remains: to attend a dance. Sister Hilda arranges a pretty dress and shoes so Julie can go to the ball. Julie is determined to go, but must first undergo a blood transfusion.
Mr. Schroeder also helps make Julie’s last days brighter. A glass maker by trade, he repairs the broken mirror ball and dances in style with his daughter at the Ball of Hope.
We Need to Talk
Last week Sister Frances stood up for Mrs. Blakemore, who needed rest after giving birth. In this episode, she speaks up for herself: she needs to talk about what she saw when Catherine Hindman came to Nonnatus House (see Episode 1 recap). Ill with a post-abortion infection, Cathe delivered a fetus in the bathroom. Frances had to wash the blood away, but no one would talk about what they all knew happened there.
Sister Monica Joan listens now and does more: they go find Cathe together. Cathe is surprised as we are to see the two nuns appear in her French luxury goods shop “up West” (that is, in the West part of London, a world away from the East End and Poplar).
Facing the Law
Elsie Dyer talks to Sergeant Woolf about the other young woman who had an abortion at the tavern. She claims she is innocent and lies, saying the woman had been found in the street, already bloodied by a procedure. Midwife Trixie’s statements to the Sergeant contradict Elsie, who must stand trial for attempting an abortion.
Val is terrified to testify in court against her grandmother, but in the end, she is spared because Cathe Hindeman arrives in the courtroom to identify Elsie as the woman who performed her abortion. Elsie ends the trial early by changing her plea to guilty.
We are Family
To Dr. Turner and Shelagh’s great elation, May returns home to them: her adoptive father has fallen ill again, and the family is unable to go through with her adoption. Shelagh can let her hair down at last and gets to work sewing a dress for the ball, identical to her daughter Angela’s. We hope May is their foster daughter for keeps now!
After Elsie Dyer is sentenced to six years of prison for performing abortions (two years less than the maximum sentence), Val visits her in her cell and sobs, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. It isn’t anybody’s fault,” her grandmother stoically answers. Elsie Dyer believes she has acted morally. She has tried to help the women in her community as best she could. Though prison bars will separate them, this granddaughter and grandmother are reconciled.
A Plot Twist
Sergeant Woolf has been courting Nurse Crane all season long, despite her brush-offs. He clearly admires intelligence in a woman, and his interest is piqued when he reads the poetry Ms. Higgins penned for Nurse Crane’s get well card. There’s something Shakespearean in Nurse Crane artfully re-directing his attentions. Sergeant Woolf “says it with flowers,” by making sure Ms. Higgins has a fresh bouquet at her reception desk. Nurse Crane’s back is better, and her mind is at ease now, too.
Elsie Dyer to Val and Midwives
“Until you girls, with all your training and all your learning, sort something out with the men who make the law, there’ll be names being whispered and money changing hands in every backstreet in England!”
Abortion may be illegal in England, but it won’t end, and will have dangerous consequences.
“Jenny,” the Series Narrator, to Us
If you didn’t catch the closing narration because you were too busy taking in the expert form of the midwives and their dancing partners, or admiring Reggie’s sweetheart Jane, or looking to gauge how Val was feeling after her gran’s prison sentencing, here are Season 8’s closing words of wisdom, to keep you until we meet again in Season 9.
Let the light shine.
Watch for it falling on each other’s faces.
Count the beams, catch them, let them be reflected back.
See the hope, see the promise.
Never hide your fears in silence.
Listen to those you cherish.
Hold them in your arms.
Let them hear your heart.
Tell your truth.
Tell your story.
Tell your love.
For more background on the year the midwives and sisters are living through, see our 1964 highlights of songs, films, advances in medicine and science and more. May 19, 2019 was the finale of Season 8. Episodes stream for two weeks after broadcast. You can read the blogs of real-life midwives on the Official PBS Call the Midwife site.