How fear results in important truths being concealed makes for the backbone of this heartbreaking episode of Call the Midwife, as the consequences of a series of violent attacks against women in Poplar are explored.
It’s to the show’s credit that it doesn’t do what so many other shows would in actually showing the brutal assaults. Its interest is primarily in seeing the effect they have on the victims, giving the audience a clear understanding of how shame can make people less likely to speak out, and showing how such attacks can lead to crippling fear and an inability to relate to others.
The two women we initially hear of attacks against are a prostitute working late at night and a young mother who was taking her child out for a walk (on the advice of Sister Julienne) so that she’d be able to finally get a good night’s sleep.
For both of these women, it seems there are already pressures on them to not speak out. As a policeman, Peter wants to talk to them to find out as much as he can, but even he acknowledges that the first woman could risk arrest herself for soliciting in the first place. As for the other, it’s clear she worries about the blame being placed on her husband, or having to admit she briefly abandoned her child for some peace and quiet.
Around halfway the episode, though, it starts to feel clear that the unexplained violence will hit home for the midwives of Nonnatus House in a much more real way. On the way back to Nonnatus after assisting Trixie with a particularly difficult situation, Sister Mary Cynthia stops to reflect at the docks and is suddenly attacked. That moment isn’t as shocking as seeing her wake though, when she’s alone, bloody and bruised.
While such an attack could’ve happened to anyone, Sister Mary Cynthia is perhaps the most vulnerable and one of the most calm and kind midwives on the show, and seeing her react with uncharacteristic anger and distrust (played in a powerfully emotional way by Bryony Hannah) makes it clear just how much this will change her.
But she also finds strength in her ability to overcome the horror of what happened to her, and to be the one victim able to speak up to the police and see the man found. It’s interesting just how little the show spends focusing on the man himself or the reason for his actions, Call the Midwife knows well that it’s the consequences of this that matters so much more and is far more deserving of the focus in the narrative.
Elsewhere in this episode, a woman named Thora (Sarah Durham) is attempting to pass off her daughter Diane’s (Jill McAusland) pregnancy as her own so that she’ll raise the child and save her daughter from the shame she expects she’ll feel at having to be a mother at a young age. The disastrous consequences from this are what result in Trixie and Sister Mary Cynthia having to go out to this woman’s home at such a late time of night, and the scenes of this birth are horrifying and shocking, especially when you consider how much of it could be avoided if fears about reputations hadn’t caused all these secrets and lies.
First and foremost, then, this episode is all about how such secrets can cause terrible things that can rarely be predicted. Honesty is what is needed, and while we know that Sister Mary Cynthia will certainly struggle with recovery, we can see that she her ability to come forward and speak the truth will keep a dangerous man off the streets and help keep the women of Poplar safer.
It’s tough to watch such horrendous things happen, especially to a character who we’ve come to know so well, but Call the Midwife also finds encouragement, strength and bravery in one of its most heartbreaking stories.
Aired at 8pm on Sunday 21 February 2016 on BBC One.
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