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The Nuns From ‘Call the Midwife’ Return to a New Boss
April 2, 2017  | By David Hinckley

The delivery of babies remains a constant on PBS’s Call the Midwife, but almost everything else in the show’s world keeps changing as we move to Season 6 and the early 1960s.

The new season debuts Sunday at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings) and kicks right off with a dramatic internal change. As a contingent of Nonnatus House nuns returns from a successful mercy mission in South Africa, they find they have a new boss in Sister Ursula (Dame Harriet Walter, top).  

Sister Ursula in a sense becomes Call the Midwife’s version of the mean girl, or perhaps more appropriately the corporate martinet.

It’s not that she’s a bad person. She’s just one of those managers who seems to feel that following the rules is more important than achieving the goals the rules were intended to promote.

The midwife game, as the show has charmingly illustrated over past seasons, can require some improv. Whether all the proper protocol boxes have been checked, a baby that’s ready is coming.

Less life-threatening, but equally annoying to the other nuns, Sister Ursula arbitrarily lays down a new set of rules, ranging from meals to entertainment, that would be more appropriate for a cloistered 12th-century monastery than the post-World War II residence she is running.

We see enough in the opening episode to get a taste of what Sister Ursula is capable of implementing. What we don’t know for sure yet is whether she feels her rules will encourage more Godly lives that better serve others, or if there’s a nasty edge to it.

That is, could Sister Ursula be a bit of a bully?

There seems little doubt this drama will become a major theme of the season, particularly given the unhappiness of Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter), who understands the advantages of a more flexible, humane approach and had been hoping to get the boss gig herself.  

Nor are those the only theological dramas. Sister Mary Cynthia (Bryony Hannah), who finally took her vows earlier in the series, may be having a crisis. Nurse Barbara Gilbert (Charlotte Ritchie) and The Rev. Tom Hereward (Jack Ashton) are navigating several issues in their new marriage, including the changing roles of women and the unchanging importance of money.

The starkest drama on Sunday, though, comes from outside the family.

Trudy Watts (Pearl Appleby) is a young mother with one child, and she’s expecting a second imminently.

Her husband Lester (James Farrar) is an abusive brute, which we know even before we see him attack her with full-on sadism.

Their older son, who seems to be about 5 or 6, wears an eye patch because of a serious astigmatism for which he is being treated.

Lester takes him to the gym, puts a pair of boxing gloves on him, and shoves him into the ring with a boy twice his size, who of course immediately pounds the boy to the floor.

Lester says this is what will “make a man” out of him and teach him the only real way to deal with a cruel world.

The nuns and nurses are aware of Trudy’s situation, though not its full depth, because of her pregnancy.

Domestic and spousal abuse is not a novel problem even today, sadly, and it was even more acute, or at least less acknowledged and dealt with, 50 or 60 years ago.

The resolution of this case, while not heartwarming in every aspect, suggests an awakening awareness of how corrosive this kind of abuse can be, and the need to address it even when it’s uncomfortable or potentially dangerous for the victim.

Meanwhile, not insignificantly, Call the Midwife continues to use popular culture, particularly music, to underscore the changing times.

Barrett Strong’s “Money” may not seem like a natural for this show, but it’s employed effectively to remind us it is now 1962 and this is not the war-crippled London we first saw several years earlier.

As the cast and the times evolve so does Call the Midwife. Already renewed through its ninth season, the show still has a lot to say about its times.

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