“Maybe A Baby” is the perfect title for an episode this half-hearted. The episode puts the rest of the series into relief by revealing what happens when a show of modest but well-executed pleasures becomes even thinner. Call The Midwife was never much, but it pulls off its heartwarming chronicle of social medicine with some powerful artistry. “Maybe A Baby” settles for a strange balance, wherein one half is on a narrative diet and the other is a five-star meal unfortunately topped with a bowl of cherries in cherry sauce spritzed with cherry juice, just in case the flavor doesn’t come through.
Atop her trusty bicycle in an opening so familiar it smells like regurgitated footage, Jenny Lee leads the charge into radical nothingness with a standalone arc that’s really more of a bump in the road and a long-term arc that settles for introductions. It’s not like Mr. Collett couldn’t supply whole episodes of story. He fought in the Boer War, which is why he now has ulcers on his legs requiring regular treatment from the district nurses, and his one-room flat is a case for the ‘50s version of Hoarders, or at least, that’s the intention. Really, his place is tastefully cluttered with antique splashes of jewel tones—a stack of blue books, a worn green sweater, an ochre chair with a ruby pillow—but he’s also housing a nest of bugs. I repeat: a nest of bugs! It’s such a compelling situation that the bug colony is the inciting—and only—incident in this story.
But even the bugs are a missed opportunity. Jenny Lee’s comfortable upbringing is so quiet it’s almost not talked about, but once again she’s confronted with how good she’s had it. She can’t wait to tell the nuns and nurses. “I had the most terrifying experience.” She undercuts her terror with the start of a gleeful smile. “I looked down and saw, right on the table.” Beat. “There were hundreds.” Beat. “Of insects!” She’s milking her experience like a pro, but the sisters keep sipping soup. “It was revolting,” she says as she reaches for her throat and transforms her smile into disgust. “It set off my asthma.” So now Mr. Collett is so disgusting that he’s even affected her health. What started as a fun gross-out story becomes a transparent cry for attention. Jenny's class tourism is such an ugly side of her, such a delightfully complicating facet of a pretty common protagonist.
Unfortunately, Jenny’s privilege is as developed as the plot, and that is the end of the story. The nuns chastise her, and suddenly, Jenny skips to the end of her arc, instantly becoming Mr. Collett’s best friend. She meets him that evening, she persuades him to attend a reunion of soldiers, and then she learns his building is closing. In narrative terms, nothing happens, at least not to Jenny. This is purely exposition—and a lot of it—to show what a nice man Mr. Collett is and what a poor lot he has, so when Vanessa Redgrave barges in with her sad details about his death, we will feel extra sad. It’s a propaganda campaign, and a naked, misshapen one. It’s Call The Midwife standing in front of a podium, addressing a rally about this poor man Mr. Collett from the East End whose building was closed, so he had to move out of the care of district nurses. His ulcers went untreated, his legs were amputated, and he died shortly afterward. All because he lacked the proper health care! That’s the perpetual point of Call The Midwife, but usually the artistry is more elegant. It rankles all the more because every last baby gets to live, but the writers deem this old man expendable, a bone to throw at those who would say there are no stakes because of all the happy endings.
It’s a good thing Jenny’s old friend Jimmy stops by with his good looks and romantic-hero set-up. Nothing happens with him, either. He’s just fun to look at. He offends Jenny with a harmless joke about her being so buttoned-up that he fears she wants to be a nun, she keeps her distance, and they make up. Well, they don’t, really, and once again, Jenny’s petty side is glossed over, but he does show up at Mr. Collett’s grave for moral support, so that’s what passes for storytelling.
Thankfully the other half is the usual, a beautiful little tale of an expectant couple, this time shepherded by Trixie and Cynthia. Ted’s reading all the books and cautioning Winnie against housework—a smart do-over of the Spanish plot from “Concussed, Nonplussed”—but Winnie is cold and a bit distant. As she bellows in labor at Cynthia’s prodding, “I’m scared it’s gonna be black!” Trixie looks bewildered at Cynthia, pulls herself together, and says, “I don’t care if it’s green, red, or orange. Your child’s heart rate is dropping, and I need you to start pushing. Now.” It’s the same old bit where a nurse is tested, pulls it together, and commands the room, but it still works like a charm.
It’s an incredible sequence. Dr. Turner’s late, so Trixie gets to prove her mettle. She and Cynthia are perfectly professional when the baby does turn out to be black. Cynthia flicks the baby’s feet and blows on its head, and finally he starts crying. When Dr. Turner leaves to tell Ted the hopefully good news, Call The Midwife finds another stirring tableau: Trixie and Cynthia holding the baby and facing each other, and Winnie looking away from them exhausted and ashamed in a room of pink pillows and blankets, white floral wallpaper, and light wooden furniture. Everything in the room is aiming for the baby’s comfort except the mother. Each successive scene carries that power—the men standing against an outer wall smoking, Winnie finally asking to hold the baby—and at last Ted comes in and shows what kind of person he is. “I don’t reckon to know much about babies.” It’s the set-up for a “but,” and the “but” is pretty obvious until it isn’t. “But I can see how this is the most beautiful baby in the world.” That’s what Call The Midwife is, not arguments but anecdotes, social medicine saving lives, and love making the world a better place.
- Though it’s glaringly obvious that Ted doesn’t care about the baby’s skin color, the nurses wonder afterward if he’s just in shock. So, just in case we had any lingering doubts, the epilogue shows Ted taking the baby for a check-up. There’s obvious, and there’s condescending.
- Sister Julienne lays down the law for Jenny: “Your comfort is not important. You have a job to do with Mr. Collett, and you will do it.”
- Jenny trying to sneak Jimmy out of the boiler room is pretty funny, but the best part is afterward when Sister Julienne sees them in the hall. “Sister Julienne, this is Jimmy. He’s an old school friend. He’s here for… He’s an old friend.”
- Fred’s selling toffee apples now, but Constable Noakes informs him that he’s closed for business since some of his confections have feathers on them and others have blood. These subplots are great in theory, but they need either more or less heft. This story is pure comic relief, but it’s given as much structure and attention as the primary plots, with full-fledged scenes and long exchanges of dialogue doling out information slowly over the course of the episode.
- By contrast, Noakes’ romance with Chummy is just right. It happens on the sidelines of other scenes, until Sister Evangelina rolls her eyes. “Enough. I cannot watch this anymore. Constable Noakes, would you like to take Nurse Browne to the pictures on Friday?”