In this uncertain season at the end of the summer, and before the beginning of a new fall television season, some of you may be contemplating spending your impending long weekend watching some blockbusters and catching up on Breaking Bad. If I could venture a recommendation, however, I’d ask you to consider another option: catching up on Call the Midwife, the British blockbuster about midwives working in London’s East End in the late 1950s that’s based on Jessica Worth’s memoirs. The first season is available on Netflix, and the second is streaming on PBS’s video portal for six more days, and there’s not a show I suspect many of you haven’t watched that I’d endorse more highly.
I think it’s become easy for us to convince ourselves that we’re taking an unflinching look at the world when we watch Walter White dissolve a body in acid, examine a tongue pulled through a man’s slit through in The Bridge, or observe the meticulous violence Hannibal Lecter does in turning humans into merely meat. It’s true that such baroque violence does take place in the world, and that versions of it act as a scourge on entire communities and ruin lives. But when we tell ourselves that we’re facing reality in some way, using exceptionally grotesque violence as an anesthetic, we’re turning our eyes away from rather more common forms of violence and physical harm, as well as from the everyday consequences of poverty and gender inequality.
It’s for this reason that Call the Midwife, despite the filigreed monologues delivered by Vanessa Redgrave that frame the episodes, the charming anecdotes involving the nuns at Nonnatus House, the midwives base of operations, and the delicate beauty of the young actresses who make up the midwife corps, is one of the toughest programs currently airing on television.
The challenges the midwives in the show and their patients face are commonplace for the period, rather than extraordinary, and they’re born out of poverty and the gender norms of the day, rather than out of sociopathy. The pregnant women in the show encounter physical danger in the course of everyday housekeeping, whether they have to hang laundry in a damp backyard while late in term, or climb up damp stairs untended by a negligent landlord. They live in dangerous accommodations because their potential living situations are limited by their race, or their poverty, or the unwillingness of the people in charge of council housing to provide apartments big enough to house their growing families, and they continue to work and move about Poplar late in their pregnancies because while the advent of the National Health means they have access to home care and an Obstetric Flying Squad in emergencies, the idea of free or subsidized child care or household assistance is laughably distant.
Given the illegality of abortion and the extreme difficulty of obtaining reliable, safe contraception, the women in question have more pregnancies than they might have chosen, or than is healthy for them. The lack of available cesarean section, for example, subjects one woman to repeated still births and immense pain when she finally delivers a healthy daughter in a breach birth. Another woman, who is financially unable to support an eighth child, seeks out an illegal abortion and falls into a coma after she contracts an infection from a perforated uterus. Even women who are pregnant for the first time, rather than with their fourth or eighth child, often face the prospect of bringing children into environments they themselves find suboptimal, whether because they are impoverished, live in suboptimal housing, or face physical or verbal abuse from their partners. And even parents who want their children and have the means to support them can still be knocked flat by an event like the birth of a disabled child, whose care and acceptance they must navigate both in social services bureaucracies and on the streets of Poplar.
And Call The Midwife‘s many scenes of birth are unflinching without being graphic. Without going so far as Judd Apatow’s image of hairless female genitals during the delivery scene in Knocked Up, the show repeatedly demonstrates how babies come into the world inch by inch, and the positions, bedsheets saturated with body fluid, and physical pain that accompany that process. Call The Midwife is exceptionally comfortable living in the contrast between the joy and beauty of a healthy baby and the messy, painful process of producing one. And it’s exceptionally good at preserving the dignity of poor women giving birth: physical pain and damage to bodies here are profoundly human things, rather than things that divorce meat from its humanity, as is the case on so many anti-hero and serial killer programs.
And watching the baroque violence those shows asks very little of us, in contrast to the pain and periodic domestic violence of Call The Midwife. Very few of us will have to face down a cartel leader, but watching the young women in Call The Midwife face rather more realistic dilemmas when they dart in to snatch a burning cigarette from the hand of an abusive husband, or put themselves in between a man and the woman he’s preparing to beat with a metal tray raises important questions about our moral and physical courage. The existence of a hyper-intelligent serial killer like Hannibal Lecter doesn’t suggest any particular changes that need to be made to U.S. law enforcement techniques, except maybe to suggest that it would be unwise to offer serial killers employment as criminal profilers. But while the experiences of women seeking illegal abortions in Poplar may seem distant from our own experience, but the restrictions on pregnancy termination being written into law across the United States make the question of what women will do when they’re denied safe reproductive health care frighteningly relevant. Are we really so unflinching, so brave in our confrontations with reality if we’re watching violence that we’re almost certainly safe from, but we turn our eyes away from depictions of pain, poverty, violence and injury that’s far more likely to affect us, or that affects people in neighborhoods adjacent to our own?
None of this is intended to make Call The Midwife sound like a slog, because it’s anything but: it’s funny, and romantic, charmingly scored with fifties pop, and beautifully acted by an expansive cast of women. And most of all, it’s a show about the joy of birth and children, the cough that signals a baby thought too premature to survive is insisting on living anyway, the pride the residents of Poplar take in dressing up their infants for a baby show at a street fair, the miracle of a couple becoming a family, the way children learn compassion and tenderness from the experience of turning into siblings. It’s a radical rebuke to the idea that the reality of life is pain and suffering, and that any happiness we experience is a dupe or an illusion. Call The Midwife knows that the reality is far more complicated. And the show itself is proof that degradation isn’t the only route to moral and aesthetic enlightenment.