After a season spent boldly exploring complex and difficult themes, Call the Midwife delivers a finale largely focused on positive major life changes for its characters, like Shelagh giving birth and Barbara getting married.
That’s not to say that the subplot this week about a woman who’s rushed to the hospital with a blood clot due to the contraceptive pill isn’t a deeply sad one, but the overall episode is much more joyous than it is tragic.
Shelagh essentially becomes the “mother of the week” for this finale, with her due date soon approaching. She’s encouraged to stop trying to work and take some rest, and also reminded that as a midwife she’ll be able to choose which of her colleagues will be the one to deliver her baby. Phylis is clearly a little disappointed that she’s not the one Shelagh opts for, but the pick of Sister Julienne is one that ultimately makes a lot of sense given just how far Shelagh’s come from when we first met her as a nun herself.
Everything about this story is handled really well, with Sister Julienne showing how proud she is of Shelagh as the mother-to-be struggles through the pain of childbirth and cries that she thought she’d “be braver than this” even as we can see she’s managing just as well as any other mother on the show ever has. It’s fitting that she allows Patrick to be in the room with her and is an emotional moment when she does, and it’s a relief and a great moment to see her miraculous and sometimes tumultuous pregnancy end with the birth of her new baby boy.
The episodic plotline is a slightly dark one, as it takes a development that is encouraging and slightly sours it with a reality check about the incremental progress of medicine. The arrival of the contraceptive pill and the freedom it brings is already highly divisive and causing clashes between the nurses and midwives around the dinner table. It’s a debate that’s been seen on the show before, as Trixie argues that the pill should be just as easy for women to obtain as it is for men to get contraception while Sister Julienne preaches caution.
This episode’s saddening developments for Wilma Goddens (Olivia Darnley), who is hospitalised and suddenly dies after taking the pill, come just as she finally feels like she’s taking control and making something of her life. The massive scientific progress of the pill comes with its reservations, unfortunately, but this story is far less a rebuke for Wilma than it is a story about the importance of not keeping big secrets and discussing things when you’re in a relationship.
This is something reflected in another of the episode’s key storylines, where Barbara tells Tom that she wants there to be so much honesty in their marriage that they eventually reach a point where they know absolutely everything there is to know about one another.
Because Barbara’s father is about to be sent on a missionary posting to New Guinea for three years, plans for Tom and Barbara’s wedding are suddenly brought forward. It’s a rush to get everything together in under three weeks, but the script here never really suggests everything isn’t going to go smoothly. It even actively reminds us that Barbara sees the bright side of even the worst situations, and that this is far from a bad scenario. In the end, just as she’d hoped, Barbara’s dad makes it to London in ample time and is able to officiate the wedding before he sets sail. The episode ends with the lovely moment of Tom hiring a merry-go-round ride for Barbara, a callback to a childhood memory she mentions earlier in the hour.
Those three key stories are far from all that happens in this busy episode, with other smaller plotlines seeing Vi dealing with the menopause, Trixie getting to meet Christopher’s daughter Alexandra for the first time, and Delia continuing to wait for Patsy to return. It’s really rather heartbreaking to see Delia’s loneliness amplified by how she’s unable to talk to others about how she feels, and just as lovely as many might have expected when Patsy returns right at the end of the episode.
The couple kiss for the first time onscreen, far away from prying eyes, and Patsy’s assurance that, “Wherever I go next, you’re coming with me” is really touching. The realities of social attitudes in the ‘60s affect just how openly these two can be together, but there are positive signs to suggest their strength as a couple will endure.
As the voiceover reminds us at the end of the episode, 1962 has been a year of great change at Nonnatus House. This season of Call the Midwife has been commended as possibly its most significant yet, especially in terms of the relevance of the issues that have formed the foundation of powerful stories.
Over its eight episodes, this season has looked at spousal abuse, disability, mental health, adoption, female genital mutilation, the effects of Thalidomide and the impact of the contraceptive pill. More than just hot button topics, these are often things just as relevant in the present as in the past. The show is only going from strength to strength when it comes to how confidently it approaches these subjects too, and every week it balances nuance and emotion highly effectively.
This wonderful finale is no exception, and it makes for a great way to cap what has been a momentous season for the show.
Aired at 8pm on Sunday 12 March 2017 on BBC One.
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