One of the joys of this show is what you can infer from each character in the silence between dialogues. Sarah Phelps has a way of layering motivation as well in pauses as she does in words, like a delicious quiet tiramisu. When she does deliver blows verbally, however, they are as direct and unadorned as bullets. This episode features several such of my favorite moments, and remains an example to me of the perfect integration of main and subplots.
Kitty isn’t sleeping all that well, maybe because she keeps getting up to write heartfelt pleas for help to her mother and mailing them in the wee hours of the morning. Matron catches her during one such occasion, and after ordering her to work, uses her key to open the mailbox and read her outgoing letter.
Back in the wards, two patients await visits from their families. The first, a Private George Shoemaker, is catatonic and needs to be spoon fed by Kitty, his expression one of unchanging surprise. It is during this that she is told that the second, Major Edward Crecy, is awake. She goes into the surgery tent to tell Thomas, who snaps at her to leave.
She seems unruffled by his bad mood, calmly stopping him as he leaves to tell him to take off his apron before he enters the ward.
Major Crecy is being looked after by Private Byeford, the man who saved him by bringing him to the hospital. Thomas informs Crecy that his wife is on the way, and asks if he would rather be moved to an officer’s ward, but he would rather stay with Byeford, the only other survivor from his unit.
On the nurse’s side, Joan presses for additional training and responsibility for the VADs, which Margaret disagrees with because Margaret is some sort of nurse purist. This character is a bit of a conundrum. She does seem dedicated to the care of her patients, sweetly cleaning Pte. Shoemaker’s wounds and demanding his nurse feed him, but also seems to get a perverse pleasure from gainsaying Joan’s orders, even though they benefit the hospital.
Unknown to her cranky colleague, Joan goes ahead with her plan to give Rosalie and Flora additional responsibility after the former confesses that she felt useless before the war, and thinks that Joan is brave.
In a smaller side plot, Lt. Col Brett rescues Joan’s motorcycle from being confiscated by Reggie, who claims that he needs to track the petrol it uses. Col. Brett is not fooled, and warns Reggie that he knows the latter makes some things “disappear” in the bureaucracy in order to line his own pockets, ordering him to release the motorcycle back to Joan.
Outside, a recently arrived Mrs. Crecy can no longer wait as asked, and leaves to find her husband. Maj. Crecy is nervous to tell his wife that he is a double amputee, so Pte. Byeford makes him laugh, suggesting funny things he can say to his wife when she arrives. Even Kitty is amused, but the lighthearted moment is broken by Mrs. Crecy’s intrusion into the tent, and her sudden, panicked flight out as she realizes her husband has lost both legs.
It would be easy to discount Adelinde Crecy as an annoyance, but the truth is that the women we see at the hospital are prepared for and somewhat inured to, the horrors of war. Here is a housewife, a woman of means, facing what her life will mean with a husband who no longer embodies what she feels a husband should, and the process by which this is shown is finely drawn and as painful to watch as it must be for her to process. First she complains bitterly to Capt. Gillan, his surgeon, about the amputations, and when he assures her that they were necessary, changes tack and focuses instead on reinstating what status she can by asking that he be moved to the officers’ ward.
When Kitty comes to tell her that she thinks it a bad idea to split the two men up, she tells Kitty that she is grateful for the private’s actions, but discourages further contact between him and her husband.
Later that morning, Matron calls Kitty into her office and informs her that she has read her outgoing mail, as is her custom. Kitty does not wish to discuss the contents of the letter, but Matron insists, confirming that Kitty has a child from which she is forcibly being separated. She tells Kitty that “no woman is a blank slate,” and she is not about to claw apart through her history. Aside from reading her correspondence, I suppose she meant.
Kitty, a mother herself, is convinced her mother will forgive her, but Matron asks her to consider what may happen if forgiveness does not come. When Kitty rushes outside, overwhelmed and in tears, she is intercepted by Thomas, who is attempting to explain why he was rude to her earlier that day.
She waves it aside, tells him she is sorry about his patient and starts to walk away and Thomas, annoyed, tells her that most people “have the decency to accept an apology” when it is owed them. Kitty, desperate to get away, points out that not only does he not owe her anything, he also hasn’t actually apologized.
When he returns to his tent, he finds that an article he wrote on femoral trauma wasn’t published. To top it off, Miles asks him if Kitty has ever smiled at him, and he denies ever having spoken to her. Better luck next time, Tom.
That night at dinner, Mr. Shoemaker speaks frankly to Adelinde Crecy about his son. George cannot speak after sustaining a wound in the head. He tells her he suspects the boy neither sees him nor knows he is there. He says he doesn’t think he will make it. All this is too much for Adelinde, who reassures him with vague platitudes. “It will all be as it was before. I am certain of it.” When she leaves, looking alarmed, he stares after her with pity.
The next morning as he says goodbye to his son, he speaks to him as you would a child, asking him to “be a good boy” for his dad, and pausing at the entrance to the tent for one final, pained look before departing.
The Crecys dance nervously around each other, unsure of how to deal with their new dynamic. Both their attempts (his with humor and hers with flattery) fall terribly flat. Late that night, Maj. Crecy attempts honesty, and unburdens himself by sharing some of the horrors of war with his wife.
Adelinde, unable to deal, tells him he must forget it, because she “does not want that, all that filth and ugliness.” To her assertion that he is no longer a soldier, Crecy tells his wife that then he is nothing, and bitterly asserts she should not have come. Adelinde walks out in tears, and Crecy hits his legs repeatedly until he causes wets his bandages with a hemorrhage.
As the staff waits for a convoy of wounded to come, tiny but significant character moments. Miles plays golf in the dark, and assures Kitty of his continued dedication to winning her over.
Once the convoy arrives, Flora is energized to prove herself upon Joan’s request (and does so admirably), and Rosalie, asked to help a soldier wash, is put off by the realities of a male human body and leaves him, unable to finish her task.
The next morning, Joan finds Rosalie in the linen cupboard and kindly offers to teach her about the male body by using corpses as examples, but she only manages to outrage her even more, so that Rosalie confesses Joan’s methods to a self-satisfied Sister Margaret.
Kitty finally receives the letter she was waiting for, and the news isn’t good. She wanders into the woods in a stupor to cry, but comes upon Mrs. Crecy, who was informed of her husband’s suicide attempt.
She heroically sets aside her own grief to ask after the Major and listen to Adelinde mourn the “giant of a man” she sent away, and the “ghost with a head full of horrors” she got back, a man who would rather be dead with his soldiers than home with her. Kitty points out she should be back with him, and Adelinde falls apart, crying that she is not prepared to do what she must. “Everything is over,” she cries, and Kitty walks over, handing her the letter her mother wrote, where she tells her she is “dead to her” and will never see her daughter again. In a speech that has me in tears every time I hear it, she reminds Mrs. Crecy not of what she has lost, but of what she still has.
Adelinde walks back with Kitty to her husband’s room, and sits with him, holding his hand. He admits that he cannot remember their children’s faces, to which she responds with a calm, “You will.” Her speech to him is no less touching, and I am electrified anew at the way we as women have such a power within us to feed others with our strength, and to heal.
She kisses him sweetly, and leaves him with a “See you in England, darling.” I have such hope for these two crazy kids.
Much as Kitty did for Mrs. Crecy, Matron provides Kitty with the motivation she needs to go on. When Kitty tells her the contents of her letter fell way below her expectations, Matron kindly but firmly advises her to do her job. “The work saves us, Trevelyan. It saves us.”
I have to wonder at what caused Matron Carter to commit to a life of nursing.
At the beach, Kitty sighs deeply, tearing her mother’s letter into tiny pieces and taking her uniform off on the shore, running into the water in her shift in a sort of baptismal renewal.
She is surprised there by Cap. Gillan, who seems as entranced as the first time he saw her.
As Kitty walks out in her wet shift, Tom politely looks down, but she seems not at all embarrassed. She forthrightly sticks out her arm, asking without words for the uniform he absentmindedly picked up upon discovering her, and as he gapes after her, she turns once, and SMIZES at him.