There’s something we all need to accept about Sunday evening BBC programming: it’s generally feelgood stuff. They want your heart to be warmed before you start your workweek. So, we’re not going to get terribly hard-hitting or experimental drama. No Ripper Street or Prime Suspect. I think it’s important to keep this in mind when watching (and, in my case, recapping and reviewing) shows that come on at this time. Not that we can’t criticize them when they’re really awful or the writing/acting/directing are lazy, but maybe we just need to adjust our standards a bit.
So, the Crimson Field. We start out on board ship, as a young woman (played by Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie, whom we last saw getting belly stabbed at the Red Wedding) tosses a wedding band overboard before disembarking. This is Catherine, and she’s just arrived in Boulogne in 1915. On the wharf, she passes an eager girl clutching a cake tin who introduces herself as Flora and is so excited to be in France. They catch up with a redheaded woman, Rosalie, and are all bundled off by an officious middle-aged officer to their transportation to hospital 25A, near the front.
In said hospital, the matron—hey! It’s Hermione Norris! I haven’t seen her since Berkeley Square—bustles around, efficiently taking care of things and handing out assignments. She’s stopped by one man, Pvt Molloy, who wants his boots. She promises to bring them in a little while, then goes to the chaplain and whispers that Molloy won’t see out the day. The chaplain agrees to see him next. The matron—Grace Carter—next goes to chat with an older nurse, Quayle, who lets us know that Molloy only joined up to escape a prison sentence. Grace doesn’t care, she thinks every man should be treated equally, especially when they’re dying. Quayle also isn’t looking forward to the new nurses coming, because she thinks they’re all undertrained idiots whose very presence insults the more experienced nurses.
On the road, Flora’s chattering away, trying to get the other two to spill their girl secrets, but neither Rosalie nor Catherine are inclined to do so. Catherine lights up a cigarette, and Flora asks if she can have one, not because she’s a smoker, mind, but because she thinks it’s cool and says all the actresses do it. Rosalie clearly disapproves. Nonetheless, Catherine hands a cigarette over and Flora gives it a try.
Back at the hospital, two young surgeons—Thomas and Miles—gossip about the incoming nurses. Well, Miles does. Thomas (a Scot, so we can tell these two apart), acts like he couldn’t care less. When the girls roll up, he heads over to the truck they’re riding in and helps them all down. He and Catherine stare at each other so long I wonder if they know each other or something, and then she pointedly ignores the helping hand he’s offering. Wow, that was oddly bitchy. Once they’re out of the way, he can get to what he’s really after—a typewriter.
Quayle greets the girls with a giant smile we now know is totally fake and takes them to the tent they’ll be sharing. Flora, of course, perks that this’ll be like camping, which she loves, and then tells Quayle that she’s much better at some things than at others, so she’s eager to know what they’ll be doing, presumably so she can plan accordingly. Quayle tells them to get changed into their uniforms and come meet the matron.
Grace enters the medical tents, where the surgeons are at work, and is attracted by the sounds of a fight. She goes to investigate and finds Molloy strangling the poor chaplain. Orderlies pull him off while she loads up a syringe and subdues him. In the background, some poor guy who’s clearly suffering from severe shell shock is writhing and clutching both ears in agonizing fear. Once Molloy’s taken care of, Grace takes Shell Shock to the office of the guy in charge, Lieutenant-Colonel Brett, who’s played by…Molesley? Wow, this actor’s found his time period niche, hasn’t he? This is clearly not the first time Shell Shock’s been brought in, and Brett knows what to do. He immediately cranks up the gramophone and leaves the poor young man to listen to the music. As it cues up, Shell Shock begins to sob brokenly. I’m telling you right now, I found this guy to be the most heartbreaking part of this whole episode.
Grace and Brett wait outside for Shell Shock’s episode to pass, wondering what it is about the music that seems to help him. Moving on to other subjects, Brett tells Grace he doesn’t want the new girls bullied or given a hard time by the other nurses, because they need the extra hands. She heads off, back to the ward, where she checks Molloy and asks why he attacked the chaplain. He doesn’t want to be made ready for the grave, he says. One of the orderlies offers to sit with the man, but she says that’s a nurse’s job. He doesn’t seem too pleased by that. Quayle comes in and reports the girls ready for duty and Grace asks her to come along for the orientation. Just outside the tent, Grace quietly tells Quayle that she was surprised to be elevated to matron, which was clearly a role they both thought Quayle would get. Quayle, Grace’s mentor, says she’s fine with it and proud of Grace. We’ll just see.
Brett takes the needle off the record. Shell Shock—Prentiss—is calm now, and rather heartbreakingly pulls himself to his feet and stands at attention. Brett gives him an at-ease and a pass to go home for a while. Prentiss tries to salute his superior but then bursts into tears. Brett pats him on the shoulder and tries to man-comfort him.
Grace has the girls lined up in front of her in her office and she immediately zeroes in on the cake tin Flora’s clutching like it’s a security blanket or something. Flora babbles about how great her family’s cook’s fruitcakes are, but Grace doesn’t care and orders her to hand it off. She does, to Quayle. Grace walks over to Flora and observes that she’s wearing scent. Flora says it’s just rosewater, but that’s still against the rules. Grace pours some water into a bowl and orders her to wash it off, with soap, Flora’s sensitive skin be damned. As Flora wipes her face, Grace reiterates the rules: no scent, no paint, no powder, no fripperies that might attract masculine attention. Catherine grumpily says it was just a little rosewater, completely missing the point that it doesn’t matter, it’s still against the rules, and though they’re volunteers, they’re volunteers attached to the army, and the army is pretty damn strict about its regulations. Also, Grace, as their commander, needs to assert herself from the get-go, which is exactly what she’s doing here. We know she’s not a cruel or heartless person, but she’s definitely strict, because she has to be. This is not the place to be messing about. Rosalie interjects that they all understand the rules and will definitely obey them. They’re ushered out, but Catherine takes a moment to glare at the matron for a second before sashaying out with the others.
They’re taken to an empty ward tent, where they’re shown how to properly make up the beds and given two minutes to do it on their own. As some nearby convalescing soldiers watch and cheer them on, they get to work. Catherine and Rosalie manage just fine, but Flora’s hopeless, getting in such a tizzy her headdress gets knocked askew. She looks so awfully proud of herself for having finished, but the only feedback she gets is that her uniform is now incorrect. Catherine rudely rolls her eyes and makes faces like a child at this. You know, I don’t buy that character for a minute. They didn’t just send random women who signed up off to field hospitals near the Western Front, you did have to go through some training first, so Catherine would have already done some work under at least one other matron who likely would have knocked this obnoxiousness right out of her. And if she persisted, they probably wouldn’t have sent her anywhere quite so important and high-pressure, because someone like Grace just does not have the time to deal with this kind of shit. Grace orders Rosalie and Catherine to make all the beds in the next three wards, and then observes that Flora sucks at this. Flora agrees, but says she’s awesome at bandaging—she’s got a letter from Lady Cavestock that says so! Grace levels a deep-freeze glare at the girl and then takes her to the laundry area, where there are immense piles of bloody bandages that need washing. Flora’s told to clean them all, run them through the mangle, hang them to dry, and roll them up. Her smile wavers just the teensiest bit.
Quayle goes to see Brett, who takes the opportunity to explain that she wasn’t promoted because she was just so good at her lower-level job. With a seriously frozen smile on her face, she thanks him for the compliment and promises that any decision of his has her full support.
Grace goes to Brett after dropping off Flora and tells them that Colonel Purbright has arrived, news that does not delight Brett. But, since Purbright is clearly the big man, he goes to greet him. Purbright, of course, is the stereotypical Clueless Upper Class Asshole in Charge that no drama of this sort can seem to do without.
Catherine sashays through the tent she’s working in in a manner that nobody wearing a corset or any period-appropriate undergarment could manage, and gets started on another bed. Rosalie tries to break the ice with her, but Catherine ignores her almost entirely, so Rosalie just jumps right in, reminding her—in a fairly nice way, I felt—that the rules exist for a reason and maybe she should remember that. Catherine snits that the other nurses don’t want them there but Rosalie’s a determined sort and is looking on this as a test, similar to the test Britain is being subjected to. The long and short of it is, she thinks Catherine’s crappy behavior reflects poorly on all the volunteers and suggests Catherine ease up, and they can all put this behind them, start again, and be friends. Catherine finally stops making the damn bed and gives her full attention to Rosalie to tell her they’re not going to be friends, because she won’t be friends with a hypocrite. Rosalie, taken aback, says she’s no such thing, but Catherine spits that Rosalie’s clearly about 30 and must be the embarrassing unmarried daughter and thank God the war came along so now she has some kind of purpose. She finishes that Rosalie totally didn’t volunteer out of duty, but to escape her clearly horrible life.
Wow. Catherine is despicable. First of all, those are a lot of assumptions she’s making there. Second, who cares what Rosalie’s reasons for joining up were? She’s here, and clearly ready and willing to do the best she possibly can. Third, she’s totally right. Catherine’s behavior is unnecessarily bad and does reflect poorly on the volunteers, who are already starting out at a disadvantage with the other nurses, so Catherine would really do well to listen up. Subjecting poor Rosalie to a full-fledged insult attack is completely uncalled for. I hate Catherine. I don’t care how good she is at making beds.
Catherine turns and stomps off, leaving her half of the beds unmade, and goes to have a smoke, looking a bit stressed out. Oh, poor lamb. One of the convalescents asks if she can spare a cigarette and she goes and sits next to him, helping him smoke and watching a cricket match. Talk about behavior that reflects poorly on the volunteers. She’s not here half a day and already she’s slacking off.
Prentiss dresses in his uniform, attaches his ticket of leave to a button, and walks outside, looking better than he has all episode.
Thomas is typing away while Miles makes fun of him and asks if the volunteers are hot. Thomas claims not to have noticed. Miles snorts and then passes along the order to appear before Purbright ASAP.
Purbright’s going through the medical records of the patients, and he simply can’t believe that so many of them have VD. Really, Purbright? Have you not been in the army long? He suspects some of the men are faking symptoms, but Brett reassures him the staff know the difference between real and fake syphilis. Purbright snits that all the men found to be poxed will be put on half pay and their families will be notified. Wow, harsh, dude. He dismisses Miles and Tom but retains Brett and Grace.
Flora’s making headway on those bandages, but when she goes to get some more to wash, she ends up with three toes in her washbucket. Horrified, she goes to find someone who can tell her what to do with them, after she stashes them in a cup and saucer. The orderly from earlier spots her and shows her to the incinerator.
Back with Purbright. He, being an uncaring asshole who knows absolutely nothing, decides to send a man with a burst eardrum back to the front immediately, even though the guy’s balance is shot. He moves on to Prentiss and asks what’s wrong with him, since he’s not injured. Brett says he has neurological problems, and any sudden noise or movements triggers seizures. Just the guy you want on a battlefield! Purbright thinks that’s all nonsense, since PTSD didn’t really exist back then, and orders the man brought in for an examination. Grace goes to get him, and while she’s outside, she sees Catherine still cooling her heels at the cricket game.
Prentiss stands at attention before Purbright, who asks him to walk a straight line and hold his hands out in front of him. I think it’s worth noting the man’s visibly shaking just holding out his hands. Nevertheless, Purbright declares him fit for duty, takes away his ticket home, and tells him to get his ass back to his unit. I wish Brett or Grace had grabbed a book and thrown it against the wall or something so Purbright could see Prentiss’s affliction in all its horror, but that probably would have been against regulations, so instead Prentiss is going back out and there’s nothing they can do.
Flora’s reluctant to just toss these toes into the incinerator, wondering if they should say a prayer or something. Jesus, Flora, they’re toes! Say a prayer for the man who lost them. She seems nice, but she’s kind of trying my patience here. The orderly tells her to get over it and says she’ll get used to it. Once he leaves, she does say a quick prayer.
Catherine’s been called to the matron’s office, where Grace informs her she disobeyed an order and left the ward before she was done. Catherine claims she needed some fresh air. You were in an open-sided tent, you ninny! You can’t get more fresh air than that! Not that Grace cares. She repeats that Catherine disobeyed an order and Catherine decides the best way to respond is with a huge helping of attitude. She rolls her eyes and whines about being reprimanded for helping a soldier smoke a cigarette. Is this girl being deliberately obtuse? That’s not why you’re being reprimanded, Catherine, you’re in trouble for disobeying an order to make the damn beds! Grace finally loses her temper and asks Catherine why she’s there, since she seems incapable of adhering to the rules. Fair enough. Catherine snaps that it was unnecessary to be so mean to Flora. Catherine, sorry, but Flora needs some toughening up. Catherine accuses Grace of trying to prove a point to Quayle. Grace stares at her for a moment, and then dismisses her. And by dismisses her, I mean she sends her ass home, because this girl is going to be no good to her, with her attitude. Catherine grabs her paperwork and leaves.
Back in the tent the girls share, she changes back into civvies, sits on the bed, and starts to cry. I have no sympathy for her, she brought this on herself.
Rosalie’s beds seem to pass muster, but that wins her no points with Grace, who sends her next to clean bedpans. Rosalie doesn’t protest, because she understands how things work around here. And by the way, Catherine, would you really call this a nice escape for anyone? And yet, Rosalie’s dealing with it.
Grace checks on Malloy before leaving the hospital on some errand.
In the ward tent, one of the patients has an emergency, and an orderly carelessly sets down a tray of instruments on one of the beds to go help. Molloy grabs a pair of scissors and slips out.
The convoy of men going home is packing up while Prentiss shakes, weeps, and tries to smoke a cigarette to calm himself down.
Purbright finally leaves, and he’s barely off the porch of Brett’s quarters before Brett’s reissuing Prentiss’s ticket home and handing it off to Quayle to deliver.
Catherine goes into the tent where she and Rosalie were making the beds, calling for Rosalie because she wants to make things right. Instead, she finds Molloy there. He holds the scissors to her throat and warns her not to make a sound, or he’ll kill her. He says he’s done it before and can happily do it again. She asks what he wants and he tells her to keep him alive.
In the other tent, the orderly notices Molloy’s gone and starts looking for him.
Catherine tells the man she can’t help him. He starts talking a little crazy about how ‘he’s’ coming for him, and then he asks her to wipe his mouth with a handkerchief. She does, and he sees that it’s bloody. He gets mad, claiming she promised to keep him alive. She decides to call his bluff and tells him to go ahead and kill her, then. Thrown, and denied his power trip, he takes the scissors away and begins to cry, telling her he’s dying. Catherine promises not to leave him and helps him to a bed. He holds her hand tightly.
The convoy leaves, without Catherine, obviously, just as Grace returns. As she’s walking past the tent, she sees Catherine’s carpetbag and goes in to see what’s up. She finds Catherine sitting by Molloy’s bed and demands to know why she’s still there. Catherine hushes her and shows her the handkerchief. Grace understands immediately and puts aside their personal shit, because she’s a professional. She immediately goes to get some supplies: a lantern, a cloth, some water, and a syringe. Catherine bathes the man’s face and Molloy admits to having killed…somebody. Sorry, I couldn’t make it out. He does say he’s sorry, so there’s that. He breathes his last. After a respectful pause, Grace tells Catherine that she should be the one to write to the man’s mother and tell her that her son died peacefully and pain-free. Catherine agrees. Grace notes that she disobeyed another order and instead of telling her that she was taken hostage, Catherine just says she thought this was more important. Grace lets it go and says they don’t talk about a dying man’s last words. What happens on the ward stays on the ward, right? Again, Catherine agrees. She’s put on probation, but at least won’t be going home. Joy.
Grace finds the scissors and seems to know what happened. She goes to the other ward tent and tells the orderly to help Catherine with the body before pointedly handing over the scissors.
Someone arrives on a motorcycle.
Rosalie’s scrubbed all those chamber pots to perfection, and Flora’s gotten all the bandages done. Her headdress is still askew, and Grace notes it, though it’s clear she’s both surprised and pleased to see that Flora’s managed to finish the bandages.
Molloy’s body is removed from the tent and Catherine carefully strips and remakes the bed. It’d be nice if she finished making the other 15 or so beds she blew off earlier, but apparently that’s a bit much to ask.
The motorcyclist is a woman: a new nurse named Joan. A trained nurse, no less, with short-cropped hair. Between that and the transport, we know she’s a bit of a rebel.
Miles finds Catherine finishing up the letter to Molloy’s mother and tries hitting on her. She ignores him completely, and Tom apologises for his lame friend. She gives them both the brush off and leaves.
Flora spots Quayle and asks if she can have her cake back. Quayle says they shared it out amongst the men, which she assumed was what Flora wanted. I can’t blame her for that—if Flora wanted to keep it for herself, why did she bring it along to Grace’s office with her? Why not leave it in the dorm tent? Flora recovers and says she’s glad Quayle did that, asking if the men enjoyed it. Quayle, smiling, says they loved it. Flora bids her goodnight and goes off to bed. Quayle continues on to Grace’s office, where Grace is just finishing up welcoming Joan. Grace introduces Joan to Quayle and is clearly delighted to have another nurse who’s actually qualified. Quayle only observes that Joan’s pretty young to have made sister already.
Joan makes her way to the tent where the other girls are staying. Flora asks if she’s married but Joan claims she doesn’t have time for a man. Flora perks that she’s got a motorcycle, which is much better. Outside, a bugler calls a muster, and Flora gasps that the boys are leaving and they should go wave them off. She doesn’t even care that she’s wearing her nightgown. Catherine goes over to Rosalie and apologises for having been such an extreme bitch earlier. Rosalie just says she’s sure they’ll get used to each other. Or they’ll kill each other, which could be interesting too.
The men line up, and we see that Prentiss is amongst them. Nooo!
And why is he there? Because Quayle, for whatever twisted reason of her own, never delivered his ticket home. Why wouldn’t she do that? Is she just being petty and taking out her frustration over the promotion on the nearest and easiest target? How incredibly bizarre. Oh, and apparently she didn’t share the cake out, she’s kept it for herself. Also incredibly bizarre.
Flora, Rosalie, and Catherine go to the edge of the hospital grounds to watch the men march off. Flora wishes them luck.
Back in the tent, Joan, looking sad, takes an engagement ring she wears around her neck in her hand and whispers ‘stay alive’ to it.