More than once in this episode of Call the Midwife, characters are placed in difficult situations and challenged to make hard decisions with only a moment’s notice.
We’ve seen almost all the characters do this before, but the stakes are high as the maternity home is under scrutiny and a baby’s life is in danger. Finally, the show devotes some time to giving us Sister Ursula’s backstory, too, and concluding the arc of her being in charge at Nonnatus House is surprisingly satisfying as we see her learn some important lessons from the tirelessly hardworking midwives and nurses in Poplar.
The key conflict of the hour comes from Sister Ursula’s decision that no more than 20 minutes should be needed per visit to a patient, supposedly allowing for more efficiency and the ability to visit more patients in one day. In reality, that time cap is simply not feasible, as Phylis attempts to explain to the new taskmaster.
When Sister Ursula pushes ahead with the new rules, it leaves Barbara rushing around and cruelly called a slacker by Ursula, and later unable to properly check on a baby at a visit which means that she doesn’t notice her deteriorating condition. When the mother and child both display signs of being seriously unwell, Barbara of course feels terrible and Phylis takes it upon herself to try to appeal to Sister Ursula’s sense of compassion in any way possible.
Thankfully, the new boss is not as much of a cookie-cutter villain as she could be and the show reveals that so much of her desire for efficiency is an attempt to atone for past failures. She used to be the matron at a cottage hospital that was closed, and views her role at Nonnatus House as a chance to get things right where she got them wrong before.
What she simply doesn’t appreciate is the realities of care in Poplar and how difficult the conditions are for so many of the women in this environment. She also believes that things can be improved when we already know that everybody has always worked their hardest to keep things running as smoothly as possible.
The more successful episodes of Call the Midwife tend to focus on just one “mother of the week” and that’s the case here too. Lucy Chen (Alice Connor) is a woman who is about to give birth to her first child and is having to deal with her overprotective mother-in-law, who insists she must stay inside with the baby for a full month after the birth and goes to great lengths to keep her grandchild warm and safe.
But she doesn’t notice the worryingly overheated room or the worsening state of both mother and child. It all leads to a climactic moment when Lucy and her baby are rushed to the maternity home, all while the facility itself is being inspected by the Board of Health representative.
That there are severe consequences to Sister Ursula’s decisions is highly important, and it’s good to see that she realises her role in the situation. She apologises to Barbara and begins praying for the child to survive, seeing now that she’s taken things too far.
By the end of the episode, she’s admitted to herself that Nonnatus House isn’t the project she thought it was going to be and is better off remaining in the hands of Sister Julienne, bringing a little sense of normalcy back to the dynamic of the show. When it comes to both Ursula and Lucy’s stern mother-in-law, this episode is definitely about peeling back the layers to unveil the humanity of severe authoritarian figures.
That’s somewhat true for the Board of Health inspection too, as Patrick and Shelagh, with the help of Phylis, are able to pull together a convincing case for the survival of the small maternity home. They’re able to demonstrate how vital it is to the community in Poplar and how capable they are of handling a crisis, but the inspector still tells Phylis that this is likely only a temporary reprieve for the home.
They’ve managed to save it from closure for the moment and to convince the inspector that the four beds couldn’t simply just be absorbed into a larger hospital, but there’s no pretending that it’s going to remain safe for long.
The return of Trixie about 40 minutes into the episode is a reason to feel positive, and it’s great to see her back and interacting with all of the other characters. She’s essentially missed the regime of Sister Ursula, but still arrives completely unaware of just how much has changed, including why Patsy has gone and puzzled by why she couldn’t find Sister Mary Cynthia at the Mother House when she arrived back from South Africa. That’s surely a mystery that’ll soon be answered.
All in all, this is another winning episode for Call the Midwife that resolves the concerns about Sister Ursula that some might have been beginning to have. She’s revealed to not necessarily be cold-hearted but to be someone who has made a series of poor judgements and ignored the all too obvious repercussions until she no longer could.
Her short time on the show proves that while there’s a lot of talk about streamlining and efficiency happening in every one of these first three episodes, it’s something that is incredibly difficult to achieve without overexerting medical professionals and subsequently putting patients in grave danger.
Aired at 8pm on Sunday 5 February 2017 on BBC One.
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