If you thought the series five finale of Call the Midwife was going to be a run of the mill episode, by now you know you were sadly mistaken. Sure, we start with Dr. Turner bemoaning the restrictive regulations placed on his beloved contraceptive pill and are introduced to yet another instance of passion turned to quickie marriage in the form of Mitchell Anselm and his Australian fiancée Noelle who is making her way to England in hope of marrying before their love child arrives.
However, it is soon revealed that this installment’s traumatic events will shake the lives of the Poplar community for two big reasons.
The Truth Comes Out About Thalidomide – Patrick receives an official letter informing him that Distival (the licensed name of thalidomide in the UK) is being withdrawn with immediate effect due to its suspected connection to severe birth defects. Dr. Turner is rattled by this news as he has prescribed this medication to dozens, perhaps scores, of patients. Shelagh finds an editorial article in The Lancet on the subject which states only that is there is a “possible association” to infant deformities and that no cases have been reported in the UK.
Patrick starts making phone calls to local doctors and requests a conference with Sister Julienne to discuss the crisis. After going over the recent cases of limbless and similarly affected babies in the area, it’s clear some detective work must be done. Nurse Crane offers her organizational skills and suggests Nurse Mount would be an ideal candidate to join the effort. Phyllis also tells the despairing doctor that he is not to blame for this situation, but he still feels guilty. Did anyone else notice that he’s smoking again?
Records show that seven women in the district were given Distaval for morning sickness and all had healthy babies. It is discovered that Ruby Cottingham (the woman who lost her baby in episode four) was prescribed the drug for sleeplessness before her pregnancy, but may have taken some of the leftovers after she conceived. Rhoda Mullucks (episode 1) whose baby daughter has thrived despite her deformities has a sister who was prescribed the drug for insomnia and may have shared a bit of her stash.
The painful task of notifying the mothers begins. Sister Julienne finds Ruby in a café where she spends her days not so discreetly spiking her tea with gin. This visibly broken woman tells the nun about her attempts to move on by coming up with a name for her daughter so she can make her real. Julienne tells her that if she took previously prescribed sleeping pills while she was pregnant that may be the cause of her baby’s poor condition at birth. Emotionlessly Ruby pulls the pill bottle from her pocket, asks if she can take one more and gives the rest over to the sister.
A short while later Rhoda Mullucks is brought into the surgery to meet with Dr. Turner. He asks whether she took any of her sister’s sleeping pills. Rhoda’s sister told her they work better than alcohol. As would be expected, she is furious with herself for taking the pills and harming her baby. Patrick assures her it’s not her fault; however, for Rhoda her pain never ceases. People avoid her when they see her in the street with baby Susan and now she knows the torment she endures is due to something she did.
A Final Farewell to Sister Evangelina – The main story line this week was obviously a tribute to a Nonnatus sister who made us laugh and cry throughout these past five years. Sister Evangelina was a no-nonsense force to be reckoned with. Though she didn’t have the serene calm of Sister Julienne or the philosophical mysticism of Sister Monica Joan, it is apparent from this episode she was revered in London’s East End for her skill, diligence and devotion.
In the interest of time and economy (which I know Evangelina would appreciate), I will touch on the highlights of her final days and the impact of her death here:
Sister Evangelina is back in the swing of life at Nonnatus, but still insists she’s not fit for the two handed job of handling newborns. She also appears easily tired and rather irritable, even for her. Noise and lack of cake can set her off in a trice.
When the mother house sends over some books and mementos from their attic, the sisters reminisce about the wedding dresses they wore when they took their vows. Evangelina who had never dreamed of a wedding day was not a bit nostalgic and recalled how she loathed wearing the frilly monstrosity.
Despite her refusal to take on midwife duties, Nurse Gilbert requests her help with a delivery at the home of a very poor Indian couple. Sister Evangelina acquiesces with the condition that she won’t handle the infant, but will do the donkey work instead. However, Barbara, being the observant and kind girl that she is, convinces the sister to bathe the newborn while she helps the mother deliver the afterbirth. Evangelina’s face shines with joy as she cares for the baby. Later she thanks Barbara, ostensibly for making her a cup of tea, but we all know she is referring to being given the opportunity to be a midwife again.
The next morning Fred finds Sister Evangelina in a chair by the fire. He chats away for a bit, drops some tools and then realizes something is wrong when she doesn’t startle. He tentatively checks on her, then somberly removes his hat and takes her hand. Later we see Fred outside working on Sister Evangelina’s bike. He tells Rev. Tom he didn’t know what else to do so he decided to get to work just as she would have done. She made it clear she had no time for pleasantries and never thanked him once in eighteen years, but you can tell Fred is gutted all the same.
Everyone at Nonnatus house is in shock and grieving, but no one more than Sister Monica Joan. She is distraught when Dr. Turner suggests a post-mortem might have to be performed on Evangelina. Julienne reminds her elderly counterpart that their beloved sister is already in heaven for it is her reward. It turns out the coroner decides against the post-mortem considering her recent stroke and general condition. Another more massive stroke is considered the cause of death.
It seems all of Poplar is in mourning. Flowers are pouring in to Nonnatus House. The local undertaker wishes to cover all funeral expenses. He says Poplar considers Evangelina one of their own and he personally owes his life to her. Born two months premature, Sister Evangelina nursed him and his mother for a week straight, never leaving their sides.
A divine nudge from the recently departed nun inspires Sister Mary Cynthia to give Evangelina’s voluminous white gown to the pregnant bride Noelle so she may feel special on her wedding day. The poor girl goes into labor at the reception and actually gives birth in the gown, prompting Sister Mary Cynthia to say it was the best day that dress had ever seen. I thought for a split second they might suggest naming the baby after Evangelina, but it was a boy so that overly sentimental ploy was avoided just as the sister would have wished.
Then there’s that moment in the chapel where Sgt. Noakes joins Trixie in the chapel for a private viewing. They agree that while Evangelina terrified them, they both learned a great deal from her. This has to be the most awkward Chummy-free moment yet. They don’t even bother to mention why Nurse Noakes is unavailable to pop her head in and say farewell to the woman who “welcomed” her to Nonnatus House. This is my response to that omission.
In the end, we witness the funeral procession about to depart. The entire route is packed with those who wish to pay their respects. A glass horse-drawn carriage awaits. In line with the nuns’ vows of poverty, the casket in unadorned except a pair of Evangelina’s shoes, a symbol deemed appropriate by Sister Monica Joan for a woman who devoted her whole life to God and her community.
This has been a big blow indeed. The loss of Sister Evangelina, and the departure of actress Pam Ferris who has portrayed her all these years, will most certainly change the dynamic of the series. But in Call the Midwife, just as in life, there is always hope and compassion on the horizon.
Will Tom and Barbara tie the knot? Will Father Christmas bring Trixie a new beau as Nurse Crane suggests? Is Delia set to officially join Nonnatus House as a midwife, despite her mother’s suggestion that it is a “nasty, personal” job? Of course I think Mrs. Busby’s real objection is that she has recognized her daughter’s sexual preference, asking Delia to not do anything that would make her dad cry. And course, we have the confirmed return of Miranda Hart as Chummy to look forward to so as I say there’s always hope!
This is your last chance to discuss Call the Midwife for almost a year so let’s get on with it. Share your favorite Sister Evangelina moments here as well as any other Poplar perspectives you’d like to mention.