Sunday, November 18, 2012

Potentially reluctant fathers in Call the Midwife

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Call the Midwife episodes 3 and 6

One criticism I've seen of Call the Midwife is that episode 3 is unrealistic.  In this episode, an older couple finds themselves unexpectedly pregnant, and the mother seems less than thrilled about this development.  Partway through the episode, she confides in the midwives that she's afraid that when the baby is born it will be black.  It seems she didn't love her husband, only married him for financial security for her (now grown) children from her previous marriage, and had had a single one-night stand with a black man.  So the baby is born, and it is black.  And the mother's husband thinks it's the most adorable baby that has ever lived, and is later seen proudly pushing his pram.

Critics say that the man's immediate acceptance of a baby that clearly isn't is isn't realistic, especially for that era.  But it really worked for me as an audience member because, for that very reason, it was a totally unexpected plot twist.  I was expecting her husband to abandon her or beat her or something, or, as a longshot, have a visceral negative reaction but ultimately forgive his wife.  His utter delight at having a baby to raise came as a complete surprise, and therefore I found it narratively satisfying.

However, this affected my reaction to episode 6. In episode 6, a patient informs the midwives that she has come to London from wherever she was before to be with the father of her baby.  She is confident that he will be thrilled that she's pregnant.  He isn't home (she says he's a sailor and is at sea) so she gains entry to his flat somehow only to discover that there's no sign of life and the electricity and water isn't turned on.  And then, of course, she goes into labour there.  (And gives birth to triplets.)  And is still deliriously happy with the situation.

I was expecting her babies' father to never come back, or to turn her out of his house, or to end up already having a wife and kids.  But instead, we see her in one of the final scenes walking down the street pushing her pram, with the babies' father walking beside her and proudly carrying one of the babies.  And this struck me as unrealistic and not narratively satisfying. 

An unexpected plot twist is enjoyable, but having every single potentially reluctant father end up being thrilled with the new arrival eliminates a lot of the potential dramatic tension.  Either they should have had an unhappy new father in between these two plots, or the triplets' father's willingness to be a father should have been established earlier.  (Even though the triplets' mother's story is an impetus in Chummy's decision to move forward with her love life, they could have resolved the father's issue by having him find the mother in labour and call the midwives, and then gotten dramatic tension from a sudden delivery of undiagnosed triplets.) Creating the same dramatic tension as in episode 3 and having it resolve the same way weakens the series as a whole.


laura k said...

I've only ever heard/read about this show on your blog, so my information is very limited. But based on your posts, I wonder what the attraction is. Sounds so baby-happy. Is it a good drama, or something else?

impudent strumpet said...

I enjoy historical midwifery as a subject for fiction. You get female protagonists living independently and being competent professionals in eras in which this is rare, you get medical drama that's never going to stray into the areas that make me squeamish, you get an unglamourized slice of life of the historical era in question from a female POV when they visit the various patients, you get to see how medicine was practised in that historical era, lots of interesting stuff.

Plus, in midwifery fiction set in older eras (the Margaret of Ashbury books, that recent novel by some Maritime writer whose name escapes me) the midwives were often thought of as witchy and social outcasts and they trained each other by apprenticeship, so you see a shy outcast girl taken under the wing of a wise old woman and become competent in a skill that is vital to the community and respected enough to live on her own terms, although not as part of the mainstream.

Call the Midwife doesn't have this last arc because the midwives were trained in nursing school and work for the National Health, but it's still an interesting point of view from which to approach historical fiction.

laura k said...

I had no idea there was midwifery fiction! As you describe it, it's an excellent subject. If I were to read only one midwife-themed novel, can you recommend one?

The only midwife book I ever read was "A Midwife's Tale", which is an explication of a diary. It was very interesting, but very dry, and I didn't finish it.