'Call the Midwife' Explores the Power of Love & the Agony of Loss in the Season 9 Finale (RECAP)

Diane Snyder
Spoiler Alert PBS

East London’s Nonnatus House is saved… at least for another year. That was the joyous high point of Call the Midwife’s Season 9 finale, which took viewers on another roller coaster ride of emotion with a couple of major storylines.

Not many shows in today’s television landscape would dare to bare their hearts so openly, but the best episodes of this ’60s-set PBS drama have always been those written by series creator Heidi Thomas. She is a master at constructing extraordinarily touching moments about the power of love and the agony of loss.

Midwife Valerie Dyer grapples with both when her grandmother Elise (Ann Mitchell), imprisoned for performing illegal abortions that harmed and even killed some women, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The 80-year-old woman is sent home, where Val looks after her in her final days and tries to come to terms with her guilt (Val reported Elsie to the police last season when she discovered her secret) and her complex, contradictory feelings for a woman she still loves.

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“Every time she groans in her sleep, I think, ‘This is my fault. I helped send her to prison and prison made her ill,’ ” Val tells fellow midwife Trixie (Helen George), who assures her: “You’re loving her. That’s the only medicine she wants.”

And Elsie, an exasperating woman who’s not always on speaking terms with reality, shows some realization of the harm she caused when she initially refuses pethidine, a pain medicine. “Those poor girls never got anything for their pain, did they?” she tells Val from her deathbed. “They just gritted their teeth, and that’s just what I’m doing now.” Elsie eventually relents and accepts the medication, though, and she’s able to soothe Val’s troubled soul by telling her granddaughter how proud she is of her.

But it’s Val’s nurse colleague Lucille (Leonie Elliott) and her aspiring-preacher boyfriend, Cyril (Zephryn Taitte), who are by Elsie’s side when she finally passes, comforting her in a heart-wrenching scene as they sing “Amazing Grace.”

Cyril Robinson (ZEPHRYN TAITTE), Nurse Lucille Anderson (LEONIE ELLIOTT)

Dr. Kevin McNulty (Lee Armstrong), meanwhile, sees his career in Poplar come to an abrupt end when he collapses at work. The young medic had been filching vials of pethidine for self-injection and demonstrating increasingly poor judgment. His excuse is that he was haunted by the patients he couldn’t save.

The jury’s out on whether he’ll practice medicine again, but kindly Dr. Turner (Stephen McGann) isn’t as hard on him as he could have been. “The world is full of fragile people, Kevin, and when we try to mend them it can break us,” the good doctor says consolingly, admitting he too had despaired at times. And Call the Midwife is not the sort of show to leave viewers despairing. “There’s hope for me yet, then,” Dr. McNulty realizes.

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In the midst of these personal issues, the nuns and midwives had a pair of expectant mothers to tend to. Petra (Kitty Archer) was also rushing to plan her wedding to Eddie (Thomas Howes), while another single expectant mother, Bonnie (Ruby Thomas), was approaching her delivery date. Bonnie also has a beau named Eddie ... hang on, it’s the same guy! Even more shocking? It’s the same actor who played kindhearted footman William on Downton Abbey!

The women learn about each other when Petra and her mother (Sue Elliott-Nichols) traipse through a relaxation class for expectant parents and spy Bonnie in Eddie’s arms. Especially satisfying: the sight of Eddie getting walloped by his would-be mother-in-law’s purse!

Tensions remain high when Petra and Bonnie end up in neighboring beds at the maternity home. But the tactful Nurse Crane (Linda Bassett) is determined to keep things civil. “You are expectant mothers, not fishwives!” she asserts, sending scores of viewers to the dictionary to look up “fishwife.” Still, that doesn’t stop Petra from chucking a vase at Eddie when he shows up with flowers for Bonnie!

But since this is Call the Midwife and not Love Island, we get insight into why Eddie is behaving like a cad. He has no family, and with Petra he was trying to create the homelife that he had before his mother died. Then he met Bonnie and … well, “things got ahead of themselves,” he tells Nurse Crane, whose pursed lips drip with disapproval. “You can’t ask them what they want now,” she points out. “You are going to have wait till they decide for the sake of the babies you created.”

Valerie Dyer (JENNIFER KIRBY), Nurse Lucille Anderson (LEONIE ELLIOTT)

Soon the forgiving Bonnie is giving birth to a baby girl, Daisy, without painkillers and with a helpful Eddie in the room. But Petra, in the earlier stages of pregnancy, miscarries and has no reason to marry Eddie. She feels conflicted, but we think she’ll be better off in the end.

But will there still be a Nonnatus House from which the nuns and midwives can serve the working-class families of Poplar next year? With the council cutting its funding and raising the rent, and the building under threat of demolition, its future is in doubt. Since the show was already renewed for two more seasons, we weren’t terribly worried about the outcome this time around, but that doesn't lessen the impact of Trixie’s fiery speech before the board of health.

“We’re going to remind the great phalanx of men sitting there why the people of this borough need our care.” she vows. Brandishing ledgers dating back to the early days of Nonnatus House in the 1920s, Trixie tells the nine gray-faced men, “There are bus drivers and warehouse men and teachers at work in the East End today because a Nonnatus midwife knew how to unravel an umbilical cord from around a newborn’s neck or clear an airway of meconium to stop a child choking. We know this because their mothers wrote to us….do no think we won’t be missed if you wipe us out completely.”

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Cheers erupt when Nonnatus House’s funding is restored, even if it’s only for 12 months, because that’s another year this wonderful bunch of women will be together.

The episode ends on a chilly November night, with a bonfire and fireworks to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. Cyril tells Lucille he loves her, but love is all around that night, even in Vanessa Redgrave’s closing voiceover: “Love is the constant whereby we endure all winters and all storms. It is the climate in which all things can thrive.”

Like the nuns and midwives of Nonnatus House, viewers know maternity wards are the future, and this community-oriented practice won’t last forever, so we’re going to appreciate each tender moment we have.