Call the Midwife may have begun as a show about Jenny Lee’s experiences as a midwife in Poplar, but much has changed in three seasons.
Lead actor Jessica Raine has now departed from the show, and this year’s Christmas special is its first real chance to prove that it can continue without her and grow – even if the last season finale was its most conclusive yet.
BBC One’s hit drama has a strong cast that seems to only expand even if it has occasionally lost certain characters. People who have been there all along like Trixie, Cynthia and Shelagh are now at the heart of proceedings, while more recent additions like Patsy blend so comfortably into the established dynamic that they feel like they’ve been around longer than they have.
Impressively, it never feels like Jenny is missing from the dynamic, because we know it was her time to move on (and there’s a little cameo from Vanessa Redgrave as the older Jenny that helps ease the transition and nicely ties into the episode’s story too).
Last year’s Christmas special was all about momentous changes occurring for all of the characters, and it was more tense and more downbeat than the show usually is, ending with the closing of Nonnatus House after the detonation of a bomb.
It was in keeping with establishing the show’s direction for last season, as those changes continued to hit hard and the show delivered some of its more serious material without losing its sense of steely optimism. What ultimately makes Call the Midwife so popular is how it avoids sugarcoating reality, but that it still earns the right to sentiment and hopefulness.
Unsurprisingly, it’s on fine form again with this year’s Christmas special. It’s one that welcomes smaller changes (although one character is struggling to make a much bigger decision) of the subtler variety. It’s clear Chummy’s about to embark on a new journey after seeing the disappointingly poor conditions in a mother and baby home. Her experiences are reflected in other characters, particularly Patrick and Shelagh, who decide to write a note to the mother of their adopted daughter assuring her that she is well.
The main story follows an unmarried mother preparing to give her child away for adoption, and how hard she’s working to not care when she so clearly does. It’s the driving emotional thrust of the episode and it works because it’s filled with pain and uncertainty.
While some of these plotlines resolve happily, Call the Midwife can always pride itself on telling every side of the story, as it shows the different ways characters experience loss and is prepared to show a darker side of medical care that is in stark contrast to the work we have seen the main characters deliver over the past few seasons.
That is a theme also reflected in the special’s secondary plotline, about a couple who have been released from a mental hospital and are finding it incredibly difficult to get by without a structure or enough work to bring in food and money. Call the Midwife shows its ability for nuance in unexpected ways in its treatment of this pair and their plight, once again hitting the right emotional beats throughout the episode to bring out some really meaningful moments.
If there’s any strong theme to the episode, it’s about the worth of things (and people) that outwardly appear to be broken. It’s reflected in the symbol of a damaged Christmas ornament but is everywhere in the narrative, from the terrible conditions in the mother and baby home, to the suffering couple and within the problems faced by all of the midwives.
Call the Midwife is a show that sees and is frank about how much there is to feel concerned about in the world, but believes that the right people can and will be there to help. It’s not saccharine, it’s honest, touching and exactly what we need at Christmas.
Aired at 7.50pm on Thursday 25 December 2014 on BBC One.
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