“The Browne Incident” is so light on its feet that I was feeling shortchanged in the tears department until the climax. Its namesake, Chummy Browne, is the new recruit at Nonnatus, which remains so swamped that nobody can finish conversations and people only communicate in the traffic areas of the convent, like hallways and stairways and runways, probably. Chummy's initiation openly evokes Jenny Lee’s own just last episode when she immediately asks about the glass enema tubes. But where Jenny spends the premiere adamantly proving herself, Chummy spends most of her debut failing to. She's such an odd fit that she literally can't fit into the largest available uniforms. The narrative goes so far out of its way to show Chummy is ungainly that she can’t even clip a newspaper image without chopping it in two. Worst of all, she can’t get on a bike without leaving a bloody wake, inevitably taunted by the chanting children in the street. She could not be a more obvious underdog.
So the simple sight of Chummy setting off on a bike to reach a woman in labor suddenly becomes a vessel for all hope. It’s schematic, but that’s how Call The Midwife works. After arriving free of scrapes, Chummy determines the baby is presenting in the breech position, delightfully clarifying, “It’s coming out ass-first.” Of course it is. Earlier in the episode, Sister Bernadette lectures on the complications of breech births, and Sister Monica Joan has spent her two cents on the dangers of towel-induced asphyxiation. Seeing as it’s the one thing Sister Monica Joan has said in two episodes that doesn’t involve Saturn in the 12th House, its credence is distinctly Schroedinger-esque, both alive and dead at the same time. The finale is textbook suspense, and it works like a charm. Chummy tells one of the little, blonde punks that’s been taunting her to call for reinforcements from Nonnatus, so the scene cross-cuts between Chummy in the bedroom and little Draco in the phone booth for extra adrenaline. When the doctor arrives along with Sister Evangelina, who’s been hard on Chummy out of class resentment, Chummy doesn’t even acknowledge them until she yells for quiet. The mother takes priority. Chummy’s proving herself. As the doctor tells Chummy in an earlier scene, “You made her feel safe. That’s the mark of a good nurse. A midwife, too. Everything else is just mechanics.”
Speaking of mechanics, “The Browne Incident” focuses on procedure like it’s Breaking Bad, most vividly in Chummy’s delivery scene. She slowly, methodically explains every step of the process. “Pant, pant, pant, little push, little push, stop.” Chummy even establishes a rhythm with the audience: Take a breath when she explains each step, because you won’t while it’s happening. A shot of the mother’s worried face, a glimpse of the baby’s butt sticking out, Chummy calmly explaining what comes next. The process is so complicated it involves manually freeing the legs, guiding the arms, using the possibly dangerous towel method, turning the baby a quarter, and hoping she doesn’t try and take a breath while her head is still in the birth canal, every step heightening both the drama and Chummy’s accomplishments. At last, the mother gets to hold her newborn, and right on cue, Chummy receives an approving nod from Sister Evangelina. So much fist-pumping.
Meanwhile, Jenny Lee tries to free an expectant mother from a life of prostitution. A seductive montage of young prostitute Mary enjoying an evening with a paying customer set to the singing of the sisters at Nonnatus House leads to the most striking image in the series so far: a static shot from the foot of the bed as Mary lies diagonally in her pinkish undergarments. Her skin has never been touched by sun, and she’s posing atop silky blue sheets with one leg up, like she’s working at appearing relaxed. The bed is barely askew, her top dangles from the spare gold headboard, and dark brown shadows surround the bed. As the episode slowly reveals, it’s Mary’s life in an image, the tension between romanticism and realism. She buys into the fantasy of her life unable to see the horror.
Social justice is a lightly dispensed topping on the premiere, but in “The Browne Incident,” it’s practically the entree. After network-mate Half The Sky, it’s hard to take Mary’s delusion, but Call The Midwife highlights the superficial glamour of her life with Sternbergian aplomb: glitzy lighting flourishes, delicate curtains, something called The Crystal Room. Even Mary’s john is a far cry from Mad Men’s Jaguar exec. Still, Mary’s perspective doesn’t click into place until Jenny tells a priest, with the confidence of a comfortable upbringing, that she knows poverty because she works in a poor neighborhood. Father Jones immediately responds, “Nurse, I don’t think you do. Poverty isn’t bad housing, dirty clothing, families of 10. It’s never having been loved or even respected. Not knowing the difference between love and abuse. A kiss that wasn’t a down payment on a blow.” No wonder Sister Evangelina resents Chummy so strongly.
Father Jones personally drives Mary to some home in Kent where she’ll be beyond the reach of her abusive pimp, and a few weeks after she delivers, he puts her baby up for adoption without her consent. Jenny’s incensed, but he firmly tells her that Mary is 15. “It was a case of which child should we choose.” It’s the one scene with genuinely complicated feelings about the reach of government, though Father Jones’ reluctant wisdom is privileged over Jenny’s reactionary outrage.
In a more representative subplot, Chummy meets a patient whose childhood case of Ricketts warped her pelvis, resulting in four stillbirths. The doctor has a whole speech about how “Ricketts was a disease of poverty,” and how he can perform a free C-section to deliver her baby now, stopping short of winking at the camera. Vanessa Redgrave does that for him: “The National Health Service gave her the gift of motherhood. She called her child Grace Miracle, and she was perfect.” Is this the Harry Potter epilogue? In old Jenny Lee’s defense, no tribute to single-payer healthcare ever made its case with subtlety.
- I think we know what Danny Boyle was watching when he was planning the opening ceremonies for the London Olympics.
- Watching Chummy try to balance on a bike, Sister Monica Joan says, “One fears there is something in her that is misaligned. One suspects a planetary influence.”
- A great stylistic moment: When Jenny and Mary are standing outside the diner, Jenny asks, “Is there somewhere you can go?” as a shadow walks behind her. On the reverse shot of Mary, before she can say anything, the lights go out in the diner behind her. Danger in the streets, and no room at the inn. Call The Midwife is full of such expressive flourishes. Now if it can just trust its visuals and hold a goddamn shot.
- Mary tells Jenny, “People like you are supposed to help people like me.”
- If not for Chummy, Father Jones would steal the show. He offers Mary fig-rolls and then takes a bite. “They taste like treacle wrapped in a doormat.”
- I know from the bloody, bruised, or dazed reaction shots that each of Chummy’s spills is painful, but they still make me laugh in the moment, especially when the doctor bumps into her in the clinic and she knocks over a partition and a table of instruments.
- Fred offers Chummy a cup of tea before she rides off to her climactic appointment. She takes a sip, then asks, “You put a nip of something in it?” “Army trick.” “Before going into battle?” “Before going into the other ranks’ latrines.”