Well, it happened (again for those of you in the UK). The series ended and our cries blended into the universal weltschmerz. There was a brief hope at the time the series premiered in the U.S. that perhaps demand would greenlight it for another season, but a week after the finale, no word, and so we assume it will only live on in our memory. At least it gave us one final episode full of so much OMG, it can live forever in our hearts, and other parts of our anatomy that are now very fond of Richard Rankin.
We begin with noble doe Joan having her hand bandaged by Tom, who tells her he can’t give her any pain medication. She begs him to know if Anton has been caught and even if he tells her (not yet), he is anything but sympathetic and says that it would be better for her if they had, and that he doesn’t know what she thought she was doing.
**LOVEBACK** Anton and Joan in bed two weeks before war breaks out. He is telling her he must go home to check on his sick father. She begs him not to, despite his assurances that war will not break out between two nations with so “many shared interests” and that the English king is more German than he is.
As he gets ready to go, she tells him she is scared. “Liebchen, you are never scared,” he reassures her, and they kiss farewell. **END**
In the VAD tent, Flora is griping to Kitty and Rosalie about Joan and saying she would have never gone near her motorcycle, had she known. She is also worried that any suspicion could fall upon them for being friendly to her. Kitty asks if her affection for Joan is all in the past, and Flora replies that she has brothers fighting, and even showed her their photographs.
Kitty asks if Rosalie is also going to turn her back on Joan, but Rosalie reminds the girls that they have been asked not to speak of the matter by Matron, and she plans to obey. Later that day Kitty tries to make up with Rosalie, but she reveals that she knows about her marriage troubles, and lays into her not unlike Kitty did to her upon their arrival. She accuses her of trying to pretend to be decent, and of hiding.
Grace is telling a visibly aggrieved Roland that he should “distance himself” from the matter and let her accompany Joan during questioning as she is her staff, but he refuses because it is his hospital. “She must have been desperate,” he says sadly. What a good man to be in such a horrid position.
Joan is brought into the interrogation room and made to stand upon an X, whereupon she is accused in “aiding in the escape of a German Prisoner of War” by the only person who could have made this situation worse, Purbright. He tells her he wants a full account of events so he can present Intelligence with a “clear and concise” summary of events.
He also coldly informs her that she is subject to military law, and that if found guilty by means of her court martial, she will be “liable to suffer death.” A shocked Joan can only nod and tremble in silence when Purbright asks if she now understands her situation, and it becomes apparent that until that very moment, she very much did not.
Outside, Kitty waits for Tom to walk by so she can ask about Joan’s welfare, but Tom’s replies are curt and uncaring. When Kitty exclaims at his aloofness, he stops and asks her what she thinks they are doing there.
Flustered, Kitty walks away from him into the woods as he follows, his voice getting louder and his accent thicker with each sentence.
“What do you think this is? I don’t hack the limbs off men for fun.I don’t pull shrapnel out of their brains so they can spend the rest of their lives in a nursing home dribbling down themselves for fun. They’re not dying for fun.”
Kitty, obviously thinking that an explanation will help make sense, turns to him and tells him that Joan did not know Anton would be there, and thought it was only a letter. Tom fixates on how she knew beforehand, and Kitty says that she guessed, it wasn’t that hard. “But you knew and said nothing,” he insists, and Kitty asks him gently why he is so angry about it.
Tom says that it is because his boss, “a good man,” could lose his job over it. “He trusted her, and now his neck’s on the block. And you knew…and said nothing.” He stares at her in obvious contempt and accuses her of being complicit. “You’re as much to blame as she is. You’ll be in serious trouble if they find out.” He brushes past her as he walks away, and Kitty’s alarmed face tells that she had not considered that anyone would think her as aiding treason, mush less Tom.
Just a moment to get into the central conflict of this episode. It’s very tempting to be angry at all the people railing at Joan for her betrayal, because Joan has been a character that so strongly represented all that was noble and sensible about nursing-just as Margaret represented the opposite. The true crux of this, of course, is that every character has their fatal flaw, and Joan’s just happens to also be one of her most cherished virtues: her love for Anton. So Flora, Tom, and the others are not wrong in their estimation that Joan is a traitor to the English army, because in the strictest sense, she is. But they are wrong in assuming that her intent was to betray her side when Joan’s only intent was always to ensure Anton’s safety and their eventual reunion. It is a classic case of there being no right or wrong, and Joan and Anton’s situation is all the more tragic for it. All they want is to carve out a quiet, safe space for themselves free of greater allegiances, but war is no place for pacifists.
During Joan’s trial, people are called to speak to testify. One is Reggie, who lies about his embezzlement and confesses to having some guards “employ some encouragement” to remove her necklace, which is the reason Joan is bruised and hurt.
Purbright then asks Joan if she came to France to communicate with the enemy, but she says that no, she came to nurse. Purbright then tells Joan the story of three German prisoners, among them one Anton Ehrlich, who were put on a train for transport. Because Ehrlich was deemed to be intelligent and cultured, he was invited to tea with the officers. Seeing the coast from his window and discovering his location, however, Ehrlich breaks the officer’s jaw and escapes.
He asks Joan if she knows the man, and if he is who she met last night. Joan admits he was. Purbright accuses her of planning the escape by purposefully purchasing a greatcoat and a motorcycle prior to her arrival, which she denies. He brings up Jaco Tillen, and asks if he was a contact of hers to give her information, which she also denies. When told Jaco will be arrested upon his arrival in England, Joan confesses with tears that he knew nothing, she told him nothing and it was only her.
Purbright seizes upon this as a confession, and when she says she didn’t plan any of it, shows her the engagement ring and says she did, because her loyalties were always on the other side.
Among the new prisoners are Jimmy, a child-like cook who spilled grease on his leg and Greville, a stretcher-carrier who spent two nights holed up alone in a shell-hole “being nibbled by the rats.” A fever has left Greville hearing voices, despite Rosalie telling him there is no one there.
In the meantime, Flora has Jimmy, and upon recognizing his last name, deduces that he is brother. Flora tells Peter, and he rushes to see him. Jimmy hugs him enthusiastically and as they talk, one can see Jimmy is not as mature as he should be for his age.
Peter takes him to his tent and Jimmy asks why he left without saying goodbye. “No one talks about you.” Peter has not told his brother his secret, then, and attempts to take him back when Jimmy asks if he can wear his slippers home. Peter tells him he isn’t going home, and Jimmy confesses innocently that he burned his leg so that he would. Peter gets angry at his brother for “running from the enemy” instead of “wanting to kill them with your bare hands,” and leaves a crying Jimmy behind.
Purbright asks Joan how she met Anton, and she tells him that they met in LIverpool when he, a civil engineer, was working on the foundation of a building. He points out that she never mentioned this in her paperwork, and she says that after the sinking of the Lusitania, German families that had lived in England for years were “being dragged out into the streets to have their heads stomped on.”
Purbright points out that she lied, and she says it did not come easy. “Still, you lied to gain people’s trust,” he insists, and Joan begins to look resigned. Purbright’s questioning is less about arriving at the truth than justifying her guilt.
Into this sad state of affairs comes Margaret, back from her forced holiday from her brother’s house in Kent, where he must annoy her as she annoys everyone else.
She gives Grace her false sympathy on the issue of Joan, and affectionately tells her that she can rest, now she is back. Grace asks her pointedly if she thought while she was away, and she asks her forgiveness, saying she “is deeply ashamed” or her outburst and won’t “challenge her again in any way.”
Despite her meekness, Grace asks once more for the blighty ticket, saying that it is not the time for Brett’s loyalty to be called into question by that coming to light, and Margaret fakes her best outrage to insist that she destroyed it, which of course she did not. She tells Grace that “a show of unity” is what is needed, and offers to go with her to speak on Brett’s behalf.
Because the situation isn’t sad enough already, Grace receives a telegram for Roland and hurries to give it to him. As Purbright and Brett listen to Joan tell that she heard from Anton’s family that he was conscripted and likely sent to France, and then nothing more for an entire year, Grace tells Purbright she needs to take Brett out, and gently informs Roland that there “is no good way to do this,” handing him the telegram informing him of his son’s death in action.
Brett walks back into the interrogation in a seeming daze, holding the telegram in one hand, not unnoticed by Joan. When Purbright mocks Joan’s dedication to being a nurse, saying she has betrayed the men she cared for, Joan objects. Her quiet, tearful speech seems to be aimed directly at her former boss.
No, no. I am a nurse. I am a nurse. You bring me shattered men, with shattered bodies and shattered minds and I will try and put them back together again and if I can’t, I will stay with them ‘til the very last moment and beyond. No, I am a nurse.
Purbright tries to interrupt her to ask about her purpose in coming to France, but she speaks over him, openly weeping.
I was desperate! I thought the not knowing would send me mad. I thought I’d die from it.
Purbright interrupts again, asking louder if it was her purpose in coming to France to communicate with the enemy, and a hysterical Joan responds honestly.
It was just a letter! That’s all it was, it was…it was just a letter. I was just asking if he was still alive.
Purbright, unmoved, repeats the same question. Joan looks away, wipes her face, sighs once, and resigned to her fate, looks sadly forwards as she whispers, “Yes. Yes, yes it was.”
That night, laying on her cot, she remembers Anton’s proposal, the morning he left to see his sick father. He gave her the ring and upon seeing her expression, told her not to answer him at that moment, but when he came back home.
Anton is asleep in the woods after waiting all day for Joan. He wakes up, notices he is still alone, and gets up. At camp, Peter gives his condolences to Brett, and it is this polite gesture that finally causes the officer to release great gulping sobs.
The next morning, Peter spits in Joan’s breakfast and calls her a traitor. Kitty sees Tom about the camp, but the do not speak and she seems overcome by fear that he will tell of her involvement.
Joan is brought in once more to the interrogation room, but instead of questioning her, Purbright tells her that at dawn that morning, Edith Cavill, a Red Cross nurse in German-occupied Belgium, was executed by enemy firing squad. Joan, unsteady, asks why. Purbright replies that it was for aiding the escape of Allied POW’s from German territory. “Aiding escape. Treason. The same crime to which you have confessed.”
Joan guesses she will be court-martialed for treason, and both Purbright and Brett urge her to give up Anton’s location, since she may invoke leniency if he is found. Purbright reminds her of the penalty, and demands she be helpful, but she is aware, and says, “I won’t betray him. I’ve got nothing more to say.”
She stands, quietly dignified and resigned. Brett tries one last time before she is taken away, but she only says that she enjoyed working for him, that he is kind, and she is sorry for the trouble she has brought upon him, and is taken away by a guard.
In one brief, blunt conversation, Kitty and Miles get to the heart of the matter. Kitty says Joan is not a spy, but was “just in love with the wrong man at the wrong time.” Miles says that it doesn’t matter, because those sorts of mitigating factors blur the clear lines “the machine” needs to keep them their toes, and that “examples must be made,” though he admits under duress that he does not think her a spy. When Kitty asks if Brett is one of the examples and tells Miles that he didn’t know anything, Miles points out that he facilitated, knowing or not. Kitty admits she is happy she got to know him better, and he smiles.
In a surprise to no one, Reggie flatters Margaret with the sort of hyperbole that she seems to demand of her gentlemen admirers and reveals that she came home because he sent her a telegram. He has kept copies of Brett’s signature on the passes and urges Margaret to speak up and say that he can’t run the hospital, and she can be put in charge. “The hospital or the war?” Margaret asks with a smirk, because Margaret is the worst.
Ugh. He even calls her “Matron Quayle” at one point.
She goes into her tent and breaks her figurine, pocketing the blighty ticket and leaving the broken pieces purposely arranged to draw attention. When Grace comes in to look for her, ready to have her testify on Brett’s behalf, she finds the broken figurine and succumbs to the mindf*ck.
Margaret then dodges Grace and goes to speak to Purbright alone, wearing her medal because one sycophant recognizes another. Grace walks in, and when Purbright asks if Margaret has any reason to doubt Brett’s leadership, the music and the lighting lead you to believe that she will use the opportunity to gain power as Reggie suggested, but she does not. Margaret compliments the Colonel lavishly, calling his competence and judgement “beyond reproach,” and says she wouldn’t care to serve under anyone else.
Both Grace and Purbright are surprised, but the latter accepts.
The morning the soldiers with blighty tickets are getting ready to leave, Peter makes up with his brother by hurting him enough so he has to be sent home.
Jimmy’s screams wake the delusional Greville, who wanders out into the woods. Rosalie sees him and follows, despite the fact that he has stripped off his pants. She stops him when he says he must get to the lost men “out there” and chastises her “a lady” for being “in that terrible place.” Rosalie smiles reassuringly at him, and says that it is all right because ‘I’m not a lady. I’m a nurse.”
She wraps him in a sheet she took from the line and when he compliments her “beautiful eyes,” gently guides him back. Later on when he awakes to see her fixing his glasses, he does not remember her, and introduces himself by taking her hand. Rosalie tells him her name, and smiles.
The next morning at the service, Flora tells Reggie that he is wanted in theater for his brother’s injury, and Rosalie tells a grateful Kitty that she burned the newspaper her story appeared in without showing it to anyone else.
She admits that Kitty was right when she said she volunteered to escape, and Kitty says she did, as well. As Joan is walked by on her way to interrogation, the singing in the tent stops, and Matron hurries over to reassure a lost-looking Joan with a firm nod. Suddenly, a motorcycle comes roaring through the archway, and Joan throws herself forward, struggling against her guards.
It is Anton, come to turn himself in. He takes off the greatcoat she gave him and announces that Joan did not help him escape and he is no longer at-large.
As a half-dozen soldiers apiece try to hold them apart, the couple reaches desperately for each other, barely managing to touch hands before they are pulled apart. HOLY F IT’S ROMANTIC.
Some time later, Joan is alone when a pair of soldiers walk silently into her room. They have Anton between him, and are giving him an opportunity to speak to her though they separate them with their bodies. Anton asks if he can stand with her, but is denied. He notices she is hurt, but she says she fell and asks about him. He says he was offered an arrangement: Joan would go home, be monitored, and Anton would act as a spy on behalf of the British.
Joan asks him a bit wryly if he thinks she will let him agree, and he explains that since he is no longer escaped she would not be shot, but she would go to prison, hard labor for the duration of the war. “I really don’t want you to go to prison.” Joan says lovingly that if he is caught, he would be “up against a wall,” and that he would be caught, because he is “a hopeless liar.” She smiles indulgently at him and he briefly smiles back. “I don’t care about prison,” Joan says calmly. “I don’t care if the duration is 20 years. I want you to tell them no.” She tells him that if he loves or thinks anything of her at all, to say no. “Then, liebchen, that is what I will tell them,” he responds gently, immediately followed by “Are you going to marry me?” This surprises a laugh out of Joan. “Yes,” she says, still smiling.
When Anton starts forward as if to kiss her, the guard stops him with a hand on his chest, but Joan’s voice is still sweet as she comforts him. “It’s only the duration. It can’t last forever.”
Left alone with Brett, Purbright bemoans the damage to the hospital’s reputation, “all because of one bloody stupid woman.”
Roland, not in the mood for any of it, points out that she had him “on the ropes at one point,” and Purbright strikes back without thinking, telling Roland that he ought to be grateful Quayle wore her medal, and that part of the problem is his attitude toward his subordinates. “For Christ’s sake, toughen up! Stop trying to be a father to everyone!” Roland’s head falls toward his chest, and he holds a hand to his mouth, upset.
Purbright is alarmed at upsetting him, but not enough to apologize. Instead he lowers his voice and haltingly asks which of his sons it was, and whether his wife knows. Roland answers while looking away (Freddie, the eldest. His youngest, Alexander, is still at school. He imagines his wife Hetty knows.) Purbright mows on, saying precisely the wrong thing to the bereaved man: that it is tough for the mothers (when Freddie’s father is so clearly suffering) and that at least there is a comfort in knowing it wasn’t “a wasted death” because it “meant something” (when the death of a child will always be an unconscionable weight to a parent.).
Roland asked if there was any diplomatic intervention for Ms. Cavell, the nurse. Purbright says that the Americans tried, as they do, but Brett insists, asking about the British Army. Purbright says they didn’t want to make it worse for her. “She was going to be SHOT!” Roland yells at him, distraught,” How the HELL could it get ANY WORSE?” Purbright tells him to control himself, and later, to shut his mouth, but Roland keeps going, giving his assessment of the situation.
It is bitter, sardonic, brutal, and by Purbright’s reaction to it, likely true.
We’re going into a second winter when we weren’t supposed to have the first, and there’s no end in sight but nothing gets the shoulder to the wheel like an executed nurse. That’ll reignite the fervor! Everyone behind the war effort, no matter what! So… not a wasted death, then. It meant something.
Purbright tells him icily that he will overlook what he is saying due to his recent bereavement, and as he walks away you can see on Roland’s face that he is somewhat grateful for the reprieve.
Now would not be the best time for him to court disciplinary action.
In Grace’s office, a smiling Margaret waits for her praise, but finds none. She takes the blighty ticket and says she wouldn’t get rid of something “so invaluably damning.” She hands it over to Grace, as a “lesson in the true value and meaning of loyalty.”
Margaret really is the Littlefinger of this show. She tells Grace that Brett is lucky to have Grace, and that in turn, she is very lucky to have Margaret. She reminds her that she meant it when she said she wouldn’t challenge her again, and leaves.
Whatever goodwill she possessed exhausted by her efforts with Grace, Margaret sees Reggie walking Joan’s motorcycle and tells him she wants her share when he sells it. Alone in her office, Grace burns the blighty ticket.
In the storage room, Kitty is putting packages away when Tom walks in to speak to her. She shrinks away, and he asks if she thought he was bringing the intelligence officers for her. “Yes,” she says quietly.
He asks if she honestly believed that he would deliver her up and watch while they dragged her away. She looks down, and does not answer, and his voice gentles. “Why would you think that?” His voice rises again in emphasis, “You drive me mad, but…” lower, almost shy, “I’d never hurt you.”
Now it is he that looks down, and Kitty begins to speak, telling him why she came to the hospital. She tells him that she wants him to understand, and that she has a daughter back in England who she is not allowed to see. Tom gasps quietly, then seems to compose himself and asks why not. “Because I made a terrible, terrible mess of things,” she says, tearing up. “I really made such a mess.“
Her head is down, and she cannot look at him. Very kindly, he asks about her daughter, and what she is like. The details come at first slowly, then rush forth as Kitty warms to her subject. “Her name is Sylvie… She’s six… She likes climbing trees. She hates wearing shoes. She wants a dragon for Christmas.“ At this, Tom grins.
“She’s beautiful,” Kitty whispers, overcome,”and utterly fearless. She really is such a fierce, spiky little thing.” Tom is emotional as well, and covers it with a bit of dry humor. “Can’t think where she would get that from.” It has the intended effect, and Kitty laughs.
Suddenly the door opens and a nurse walks in, and Tom walks past her to leave but Kitty catches his arm and whispers urgently to him. She asks him to meet her in an hour, in the same place they agreed upon before. “I’ll be there,” she says upon his doubtful look. “I’ll understand if you’re not-but I’ll be there.”
Alone for a moment, Peter explains to Flora that Jimmy was born with the umbilical cord around his neck and he couldn’t leave him alone, because he needs to be cared for. She asks him why he left, if it was because his family found out “what he is,” and he scolds her for thinking he wants his life laid out like that all the time.
Flora tells him her secret then: she is not twenty-one but only nineteen, and she locked herself in her room for two days so her family would lie for her and let her come be “a girl nurse.” She points out that he can trust her with his secret, now he knows hers, and asks him to be careful. “Where’s the fun in that?” Peter replies with a smirk.
Outside, Joan and Anton await their transport and lay eyes on each other for the last time until the end of the war. In the most romantic moment of my life that isn’t actually part of my life, they look at each other and wordlessly reach their hands out to touch before they are separated.
Suddenly Joan wrenches free and rushes to Anton, grabbing his face and laying a kiss on him that lasts just as long as Purbright’s exasperated “For Christ’s Sake!” before they are pried apart. As they are forced into their separate trucks their eyes never leave each others’, and in their last instant staring at each other, they both smile.
KILL ME NOW. No wait don’t kill me because….
Kitty is darting to the edge of the woods looking about as suspicious as anyone can, and does not notice Miles observing and then following her.
When Miles sees Kitty linger he smiles and seems inclined to approach her, but suddenly she is no longer alone.
Tom walks up to Kitty, takes off his hat, and Kitty smiles at him. Miles sighs deeply and retreats.
For a few moments Kitty and Tom just look at each other, their eyes darting, until Tom swoops in and kisses her.
Kitty, who is no dummy, wraps both her arms around his neck and gives back as good as she gets.
I can’t believe I won’t ever see these two move past first base.
DAMN YOU, BBC.
Out for her morning rounds, Grace observes Brett doing paperwork, and moves on.
Finally, a quote from Edith Cavell, who was a real person and yes, was executed. She has a holiday on the Anglican calendar in her name (though not a feast day), October 12.
So this is it. I wanted to make this one a bit more detailed since it is not only the season’s end, but thanks to the unexpected cancellation, the series’ end. I will forever mourn this little gem of a show for its depth, detail, and its richness of character and emotion. The Crimson Field did more than present truly nuanced individual stories with the lightest of touches; it managed to communicate real truths about war and human nature: that violence can expose both the best and worst of us, and that in doing so, it forces us to become the heroes or villains of our own lives. And that was just one season. I will never stop wishing to know how this all ends.
Sarah Phelps, if you write it, I will consume it.
Thank you all for reading.