Spring has arrived and that means the return of Call the Midwife on PBS! I’d like to welcome you back to another round of episode recaps in which we highlight the often poignant, but mainly uplifting, stories of Poplar residents and their steadfast caregivers, the sisters and nurses of Nonnatus House.
The debut episode of Season 9 begins in January of 1965 with the death of Sir Winston Churchill, a passing which saddens citizens across the U.K. Meanwhile, Poplar experiences an alarming outbreak of diphtheria and an abandoned baby is reunited with its troubled mother.
Indeed, the somber event of Churchill's death brings out a decidedly sorrowful side of our normally chipper Mr. Buckle. He starts going through his old medals and other mementos and comes across a snapshot of his first wife, Betty, who died in the Blitz. The current Mrs. Buckle comments on how lovely Betty was and gently validates the loss Fred is feeling. Later, Violet shows compassion for her husband’s melancholy by surprising Fred with Betty’s photo in a frame. She encourages him to add it to all the other family pictures on display. Violet can be a bit of a nag once in a while, so this gesture of patience and affection in the face of her spouse’s pain is even more touching.
Meanwhile, life in Poplar goes on. The younger nurses grumble about lady shavers and the high price of women’s hosiery. Trixie happens upon an advert for the “Gorgeous Legs” photo competition in one of her fashion magazines. She recruits Valerie and, with a bit of persuasion, Lucille and her exquisite ankles, to participate in the Wonderful Legs in the Workplace category of the contest in hopes of winning the grand prize, a year’s supply of free stockings. Alas, they come in as runner up which entitles them to a selection of groovy colored stockings and a paltry 10% off purchase voucher.
The main stories of the episode, of course, were weightier and involve the poorest and most vulnerable of Poplar’s inhabitants:
Lucille and Phyllis are called out to help Dena Bowland (Jenny Rainsford), a single mother who’s been raising her son Terry (Jordan A. Nash) in an infamously unsanitary homeless shelter for seven months. The woman’s labor pains are a false alarm, but Phyllis isn’t finished helping her patient. Full of that righteous indignation that Nurse Crane does so well, she advocates for the family with the council. Not surprisingly, Dena and Terry get moved right up to the top of the list for new accommodation.
Mother and son move into their council flat and things are looking up for the Bowlands. Dena has plans to fit-out their home courtesy of charity shop vouchers and Terry is excited about taking the test that would allow him entry into a good grammar school next year. Both look forward to the new addition to their diverse and loving family.
Of course, happy situations this early in an episode only mean one thing – disaster is about to strike. Dena goes into labor and presents with an umbilical cord prolapse. Nurses Crane and Anderson deal calmly with the complicated, and ultimately healthy, delivery of her baby boy,
Meanwhile, Miss Higgins is sent to the Bowland home to fill Terry in on the news. The secretary finds Terry passed out on the floor of the flat and quickly fetches help in the form of Dr. Turner. Upon examining the child, Patrick can’t believe what he’s seeing. Terry has diphtheria, a childhood killer that had been virtually eradicated. The boy is treated and taken to the hospital isolation ward.
All the students in Terry’s class are tested and sent home for quarantine. ( A bit too close to home, right?) Dena too has tested positive for diphtheria so her newborn son be kept in the nursery until her penicillin has kicked in. Terry is being well looked after in the hospital, but he’s concerned that he’ll miss the 11+ test next week.
The Poplar medical professionals are working against the clock to track down where the diphtheria outbreak began. One desperately ill young woman presents with the disease in Dr. Turner’s surgery and the patient’s aunt provides a clue. Up until a few days prior, her niece was living in the same homeless shelter as the Bowlands. Nurse Crane and Sister Hilda immediately go out to test the current residents, but they seem to have hit a dead end. No one has obvious signs of the dreaded disease.
The breakthrough finally comes when a student from Terry’s class shows up after a lengthy absence. The teacher tips Sister Hilda off that the girl has a huge ulcer on her arm that apparently started as insect bite before the family left Pakistan. Dr. Turner diagnoses it to be cutaneous diphtheria. Turns out before her family moved on to live with relatives, they resided in (you guessed it) that wretched slum of a homeless shelter. The doctor angrily orders immediate fumigation of the offending residence.
Finally the real happy ending comes. Terry recovers and is permitted to take his grammar school entrance test at home. He subsequently receives the congratulatory gift of one of Tim Turner’s old school blazers for earning flying marks on the exam.
Brenda and Baby Primrose
After an emergency call to fix a fuse, Fred Buckle discovers a crying newborn left in a trash bin behind the maternity home. He rushes her inside where Dr. Turner ascertains she wasn’t delivered in a hospital, in part because the cord was tied off with purple sewing thread.
The police put out an appeal for info concerning the abandoned infant in the paper, but in the meantime, she must go to St. Cuthbert’s to be checked out for infection. Sister Frances who has been caring for the baby wants to giver her a name before she leaves for the hospital. Fred suggests Primrose.
Shortly afterward, a woman stops by the maternity hospital with a knitted jacket for the baby she read about in the paper. She seems agitated to learn the child has been moved and grabs the bag with the gift before Sister Frances can stop her.
Frances reports this encounter to the police, telling Sgt. Wolf that the woman had milk stains on her blouse and also mentioned the nightdress the baby was wrapped in (a fact which was left out in the papers). Sgt. Wolf goes about his detective work, stopping by Violet Buckle’s shop to ask about the purple thread found on Primrose’s umbilical cord. She identifies it as pure silk and something often used in religious vestments and decorations.
Soon after, an unidentified woman claiming to be Primrose's mothter is picked up by the police at St. Cuthbert’s. At Sgt. Wolf’s request, Mother Mildred and Trixie meet with the distressed lady at the station. After examining her, Mildred asks for her name in return. The woman is ashamed of what she’s done and therefore doesn’t feel comfortable confiding in a nun. Trixie is less intimidating and finally gets some information from the mortified patient. Her name is Brenda Donnelly (Emma Lowndes) and she lives in a local presbytery as the priests’ housekeeper.
A determined Mother Mildred goes to the presbytery to get to the bottom of this inexcusable situation. Father Duncombe (Alec Newman) denies being aware of Brenda’s condition. He also assumes Primrose will be adopted, blaming the abandonment on Brenda’s history of mental illness. Mildred stands up for the desperate woman and then, noticing the sewing basket on the table in the priest’s study, questions whether Brenda came in there to do the mending. He has to admit she did, contradicting what he claimed earlier about not seeing Brenda as she went about her duties.
Brenda is finally reunited with her daughter in the hospital nursery, but she’s not free and clear yet. The hospital won’t release the baby until social services is satisfied that Brenda can take care of her. Then Father Duncombe shows up out of the blue with an offer to baptize Primrose and news that two adoption societies are willing to help her with placing the baby. Mother Mildred, who isn’t fooled by Duncombe’s intimidation disguised as compassion, terminates the conversation and takes Brenda and Primrose in as temporary residents of Nonnatus House.
As she settles in with her new baby, Brenda confides more about her past to Nurse Franklin. The guilt-ridden mother admits she isn’t a widow, but a physically abused divorcee. Orphaned at eight years old, marriage was the quickest way out. The last time she was happy was with her mother eating eclairs before she was left with the nuns. For this reason, Brenda sincerely wants better a better life for Primrose.
Father Duncombe makes another attempt at separating Brenda and her child by approaching her protector, Mother Mildred, with the offer of adoption wrapped in bullying. He warns that social services will scrutinize Brenda’s sanity and recent loss of employment, but she might be able to get back if she gives the baby up.
Mildred asserts keeping the child is a mother’s right and asks Duncombe point blank if he knows who the father is. The priest denies knowing, but Mildred isn’t fooled. In fact, she warns Brenda to think carefully about Primrose’s birth certificate. Despite how Brenda’s reputation might suffer, identifying the father would give him the right to influence her fate and fight Brenda’s decisions. Brenda prays over her what to do.
In the end it is decided that Brenda and Primrose will join Mildred when she returns to the Mother House. Probably a good thing since Father Duncombe just won’t stay away. In his final visit he offers some money to cover his former housekeeper’s room and board. When Mildred leaves the couple alone, the priest asks Brenda for forgiveness and says he loved her. Brenda doesn’t look at him, nor does she forgive. She is moving past the loss, abuse and manipulation to make a life for her daughter and herself.
As the Nonnatus crew gather round to send mother and baby off on their new adventure, Sister Frances gives Brenda a blanket made from the nightdress she first wrapped Primrose in.
Unfortunately, Sister Julienne has received notification that Nonnatus House is set to be demolished sometime in the next two years. She swears Sister Hilda to secrecy, adamant that not even Mother Mildred should be told. Once again, the sisters and midwives of Poplar face the prospect of being without a home base.
So how do you rate the beginning of Season 9? No new midwives or other characters were introduced this time which is a change from the recent revolving door of the past few years. Share your impressions and hopes for the coming season in the comments below.