Her confidence may be growing with each case that she handles but Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), the young nurse-midwife who’s the heroine of Call the Midwife, realizes that she doesn’t have all the answers in this especially strong episode of the British series.
“By the time I’d been in Poplar for a year, I began to think of myself as rather bold,” the mature Jenny (Vanessa Redgrave, in a voiceover) tells us at the start of the show as her younger self is seen bicycling confidently through the streets of London’s East End in 1958. “But there was much about life I had yet to encounter. Suffice it to say there were sure to be surprises in store.”
In this episode, those surprises include observing a couple’s struggles and then strength in the face of a difficult situation and new revelations about a colleague’s earlier life.
The couple are strivers Douglas and Ruby Roberts (Jamie Thomas King and Leanne Rowe), who are expecting their third child and clearly have more ambition and drive than some of their less fortunate neighbors in the East End.
“Your backside doesn’t smell of roses,” snipes a jealous neighbor to Ruby when both women are visiting the maternity clinic run by Jenny and her colleagues.
“Quite right,” Ruby ripostes. “It smells of lavender.”
The colleague is Jane (Dorothy Atkinson), the shy, taciturn medical orderly who arrived at Nonnatus House, the convent where Jenny and her colleagues live and work alongside the resident nun-midwives, in the previous episode. As she, Jenny, Trixie (Helen George) and Cynthia (Bryony Hannah) are all returning to Nonnatus House after a visit to a local fair, they exchange confessions about their first kiss. Trixie teases Jane that she must name the goldfish she won at the fair after the first fellow who kissed her. Jane blurts out that the fish will have to remain unnamed. Shy Jane, it would seem, has never been kissed.
A new visitor and temporary resident shows up at Nonnatus House this week. He’s Rev. Applebee-Thornton (Jason Watkins), who served with everyone’s favorite midwife, Chummy Noakes (Miranda Hart), at her temporary missionary posting in Sierra Leone. The loquacious parson reports that the natives there have given the strapping Chummy a nickname that translates as “Lot of Woman.”
Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) and Jenny head to the Roberts’ house to help Ruby deliver her baby. The infant is born with Spina Bifida, a gap in its spine and must go to the hospital for care and surgery. Ruby cries.
Back at Nonnatus House, it is fast becoming apparent that Rev. Applebee-Thornton is a thundering bore with a bad case of logorrhea. His apparent saving grace? He’s kind to Jane, warning her against overfeeding her goldfish and giving her a large seashell with which to decorate the pet’s bowl.
When Jenny arrives to check in on the Roberts at their home, Douglas is taking care of his two daughters in between visits to his new son at the hospital. A listless Ruby remains in bed, emotionally overwhelmed. When Douglas brings the baby home the next day, Ruby keeps her distance from the child.
Jenny and Sister Evangelina discuss the case over a meal at Nonnatus House. Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt), the dotty elderly nun, says that in her day, they let babies with Spina Bifida die as peacefully as possible shortly after their brith. Jenny looks horrified. Sister Evangelina lists the possible scary medical side effects of the defect, including brain damage, paralysis, mobility issues and lack of bladder and bowel control. Sister Monica Joan theorizes that S.B. is caused by eating green potatoes.
After again visiting the Roberts’ house, where Ruby has yet to pick up or care for her new son and Douglas is turning to the bottle, Jenny seeks advice from Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter), the head nun at Nonnatus House. “I feel so underprepared. I don’t know what to say to [Ruby], how to help, what options are available,” Jenny says.
Sister Julienne sends Jenny off to visit St. Gideon’s, a residence for children with disabilities. Mrs. Peacock (Susan Brown, who was Septa Mordane on Game of Thrones), the warmhearted but no-nonsense head of the residence, kindly tries to dissuade Jenny from the idea that the Roberts’ baby might be better off at the institution. “If the child can stay with its family, I suggest you do everything in your power to make that happen,” she tells her.
It turns out that Jane, who has gone with Jenny to St. Gideon’s, has a connection to the place: she grew up there. Jenny looks surprised at this revelation.
Back at Nonnatus House, the midwives and the nuns are all conspiring to encourage the budding romance between Rev. Applebee-Thornton and Jane. At their urging, he invites Jane to a dance at a local community hall. On the night of the dance, Jane lurks outside the hall, not quite able to get up her courage to rendezvous with her date. Meanwhile, a disconsolate and drunk Douglas picks a fight with some local youths who are also there. Rev. Applebee-Thornton, who has been waiting in vain for Jane, bravely wades into the middle of the row, breaking up the fight and rescuing Douglas. “She’s turned her back on my flesh and blood,” a soused Douglas wails of Ruby and his new son.
Jenny is still trying to persuade Ruby to care for her son. ”If I held him, I think I might die with the sadness. Why did they save him?” asks Ruby.
“Life is never without hope,” Jenny offers.
Jenny brings the Roberts to St. Gideon’s to look it over. Ruby remains in the car while Douglas and Jenny go in to visit. Douglas asks Jacob, a youth who lives there, what the place is like. Jacob, a friendly boy with a limp and impaired speech, tells him it’s not bad, offering, “There’s a biscuit factory next door. We get the broken ones.” (If you have a yellow highlighter, that’s the line you want to underline.)
At Nonnatus House, a melancholy Jane is having a tea break when Rev. Applebee-Thornton approaches her. He thinks it was his talkativeness that has put her off him. “It was in the silences at the dinner table that I felt my parents’ hatred for each other, so I grew accustomed to filling them. I talk so that I won’t know what the silence holds,” he tells her. Jane tries to reply but can’t get the words out. He smiles at her. She looks even sadder.
Douglas has a secret plan, but it’s a gamble. At his house, he packs a wee suitcase for the baby preparatory to turning him over to be cared for at St. Gideon’s. Douglas tells Ruby that he’ll take the suitcase but needs her to carry the baby. “Grab it,” he says of the infant.
“He’s not ‘it’!” says Ruby, finally snapping out of her post-partum fog. “He’s a baby. He’s my baby boy. How could you even think to send him away?”
She lifts the baby and cuddles him. Douglas puts the tiny suitcase down and smiles. “Change of plan, nurse,” he tells Jenny. “He’s not going anywhere. He’s staying here.”
Jane has finally worked up her courage and has a heart-to-heart with Rev. Applebee-Thornton. “I’ve been scared as long as I can remember. I used to sit bolt upright in bed and scream. My parents sent me away,” she tells him. “Life for me is full of fear but I want you to know that I really wanted to come to the dance with you but I was too scared. “ He tells her she’s brave and they smile fondly at each other.
Ruby and Douglas are on the street proudly wheeling their infant son in a pram. The older Jenny says in a voiceover, “It had been the biggest gamble of Douglas’ life, but the dividends paid were high, and beautiful. The Roberts’ baby defied all odds and thrived beautifully.”
As the episode ends, Jane tens to her goldfish and geezer Jenny tells us that Jane found acceptance and even love at Nonnatus House. Love? That there’s something fishy about that one as is soon revealed when Trixie, passing by, hails Jane’s pet goldfish with the greeting, “Hello there, Rev. Appleby-Thornton.”
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