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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Call The Midwife: “Baby Snatcher”

Illustration for article titled Call The Midwife: “Baby Snatcher”

Leaving aside that the episode is called “Baby Snatcher,” it’s not a good sign when there are no more pregnancies at the halfway mark on a show about midwives. The baby that is delivered is kidnapped, and the other dies along with its mother due to eclampsia. Of course, everything turns out all right, by which I mean Cynthia joins up with the romantics in their belief in soul mates, and Jenny rescues the kidnapped baby. Turns out Mary the ex-prostitute kidnapped the baby to replace her own. She tells Jenny, “I can take care of Kathleen better than anyone. I love her.” The irony is overwhelming, and that’s what makes “Baby Snatcher” so fascinating. For a moment, Call The Midwife is poised to overthrow its entire belief system.

It’s not just that the episode plays out so tragically for so long for a change, though it does. Fortunately, every moment not spent with the patients of the week is full of life. Chummy and Noakes go out, so Trixie makes herself useful with a long, hilarious sequence of dating tips like looking at your date through your eyelashes. Meanwhile the younger midwives eavesdrop on Jenny’s phone call with Jimmy, giving Jenny the opportunity to play-act a veritable Stan Freberg routine: “What? Alone for the whole weekend? We couldn’t, Jimmy!” Eventually they all go dancing at the swingingest joint in town, although the majesty of the dance-acrobatics is diminished thanks to the Glee-style editing. Even Sister Bernadette removes her habit and lets her hair down, tempted to join them, to get dolled up and have a carefree evening for a change. Needless to say, “Baby Snatcher” establishes a joyous baseline for the midwives’ lives, playing out delicately on the margins of the main stories.

The title plot, on the other hand, is Call The Midwife at its cheesiest. A shadowy figure watches a new mother, and when the mother turns, the figure vanishes. Later the figure watches through the window as the mother plays with her daughter. After the kidnapping, when we finally see the kidnapper’s lair, it’s treated like Buffalo Bill’s place in Silence Of The Lambs, a dank cacophony of unnatural occurrences. We see almost nothing, so we’re left with the signifiers: a baby’s incessant crying, broken glass, milk spilling down the walls, and a rushing sound to highlight the intensity. Call The Midwife is hopelessly modern as a rule, but I never thought I’d compare it to a CBS procedural.

But then we find out it’s Mary, and suddenly everything changes. Sure, there’s a social-medicine commercial here: If not for the particular work of the district nurses and midwives, Mary’s extenuating circumstances would never have come up in her defense. But the primary focus is much deeper. Suddenly the episode is interrogating the idea that, to be a bit glib, love conquers all. At its best, Call The Midwife makes the power of love concrete, as in the Ted story from “Maybe A Baby,” but the general feeling is more Hallmark. Here, though, Mary says she’s the best provider for that child because she loves her, even though she’s calling her by the wrong name, can’t even get her to drink milk, and is living inside a Decemberists song. In the very next breath, she’s threatening to kill herself if someone takes the baby, so it’s fair to say Call The Midwife isn’t about to call for voice-over reinforcements about the unrivaled power of maternal love in every situation. Meanwhile, a man gives his wife permission to die and returns alone to an endless line of row houses. The only thing love is conquering is Chummy and Noakes.

Poor Mary. Even after her screaming in “The Browne Incident,” I don’t think I realized how much it hurts her to have her child taken away, to be told by this monolithic bureaucracy, represented by the only people who have helped her, that she’s unfit for the most natural thing in the world, motherhood. I mentioned that Call The Midwife complicates its politics for the first time in that scene, but I was too focused on the welfare of the child to give the mother much thought. Two episodes later, it’s devastating to see Mary fall through the cracks once again. It’s just so inevitable. At the same time, Jenny’s determined to catch Mary with the social safety net, and she appeals for leniency on Mary’s behalf. Prison would destroy her; counsel could well save her.

Meanwhile, all the good fortune is spent on coincidentally bringing Cynthia to David just after Margaret seizes from eclampsia. Then Margaret loses her baby, suffers in her last days, and finally dies, while David lets his soul mate go. Cynthia manages to put an optimistic face on the story, but it almost belongs on a shelf with Nicholas Sparks and David Nicholls. It's like Call The Midwife doesn't realize the tragedy is important in and of itself. After all those close-call successes, Call The Midwife takes the deaths of a mother and child seriously. Not even the sight of Mary next to that broken window hurts as much as the shot of David arriving home not up a family member but down one. He’s so alone there isn’t even another car on the block. So why does this need a smiley-face button on the end? There’s nothing comforting about this situation in the short term, but it leads Cynthia to find comfort in some romantic sense of destiny, so good for her? David’s story is the struggle, here. Where everyone has an independent set of desires in the Mary plot, as long as the focus here is on Cynthia, David’s a nice, pat lesson instead of a living, breathing human. However seriously Call The Midwife is complicating its premise, turning people into examples seems counterproductive. If there’s a moral to take comfort in, it’s that widowers and widows do survive. And it’s a far more complicated struggle than simply believing in soul mates.


Stray observations:

  • Jamie Payne takes over for Philippa Lowthorpe as the director of the final three episodes of the season. The second most striking image (after David at the end) comes early. It’s David and Margaret’s life in a nutshell. Margaret practices violin front and center against their neutral house of blank walls and cardboard boxes. The left side of the frame is rigidly geometric, evoking Art Nouveau, and tiny David slowly descends the background stairs toward Margaret’s left shoulder. The rest of the frame has a curtain backdrop, a wide, open horizon except for the splatter at the end of the violin. How’s that for foreshadowing?
  • Trixie needs a spinoff stat. Maybe she runs a school for girls, or maybe she just goes out on the town a lot. The point is, Trixie’s tips are hilarious. But I tried tilting my head to look through my eyelashes, which, granted, aren’t very long, and wound up looking closer to Jerri Blank than I’d like. That’s for the third date.
  • Best moment in the entire series: Chummy suddenly clasps the bed-rail and says in her most sultry tones, “Fish and chips, please. And can you put the vinegar on first?”
  • Unfortunately, that will be the end of our run with this series, as limited readership is canceling our coverage. We hope you have enjoyed these reviews and hope you continue to enjoy the series.