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All Creatures Great and Small Needs to Change Course Before Season 4

The feel-good PBS series isn’t designed to address the horror of World War II.
  • Callum Woodhouse in All Creatures Great and Small Season 3 (Courtesy of Playground Television/Masterpiece)
    Callum Woodhouse in All Creatures Great and Small Season 3 (Courtesy of Playground Television/Masterpiece)

    [Editor's Note: This post contains spoilers for the All Creatures Great and Small Season 3 finale, “Merry Bloody Christmas.”]

    War may be the worst thing that happens to All Creatures Great and Small. For three seasons now, the PBS series has thrived as an uncommonly friendly, occasionally impish drama about James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph), a veterinarian making his way at a small practice in the English countryside. It’s a low-stakes, gentle affair, where folksy storylines about sick cows and pampered dogs result in heartwarming conclusions. There are occasionally heavier themes, but they never overwhelm the comforting decency that orders the show’s universe.

    But World War II isn’t comforting. The specter of combat shadows the show’s third season, which concludes with the Christmas episode that aired February 19 in the United States. Several moments this year explicitly address the strain to maintain a simple country life as soldiers prepare to deploy, and there are multiple scenes of James, whose vet work makes him exempt from service, looking guiltily at his fellow villagers as they register with army recruiters. As it incorporates the war, however, the series' nature works against it. Its plots are too tidy, and its values too neat, to contend with anything so horrible.

    This is most obvious in that holiday episode, “Merry Bloody Christmas.” In the opening scene, we meet a young girl named Eva Feldman (Ella Bernstein), who’s writing in her diary about how she’s moved into the veterinary residence with James, fellow vets Siegfried (Samuel West) and Tristan (Callum Woodhouse), and all the others. It’s clear she’s been with them for some time, yet it’s only later in the episode that the adults learn she’s Jewish. They’re startled to realize she doesn’t have any Christmas traditions, and they’re flummoxed by her description of a menorah and the other trappings of Hanukkah.

    The gang’s ignorance sets up an interfaith story that ends with housekeeper Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley) trying to make a menorah and little Eva getting a pair of red shoes as a Christmas gift, just like her hero Dorothy wears in The Wizard of Oz. But this conclusion comes at a cost. For one thing, we’re asked to accept that none of Eva’s caregivers knew she was Jewish. Somehow, they managed to board a wartime evacuee from London, eat meals with her, and talk to her enough to land in her diary without ever learning about her faith. What’s more, it's implied that Siegfried, who served in World War I, and Mrs. Hall, who has spent her life serving cosmopolitan families, barely even know that Judaism exists.

    Then there’s little Eva herself. Opinions may vary about Bernstein’s performance, which leans hard on the big-smiles-bright-eyes energy of child actors across the globe, but it’s difficult to excuse her character’s reaction to those red shoes. When she tries them on and clicks her heels together three times, she’s devastated to realize they aren’t going to send her home to her family. This is the same child who has the gumption to ask detailed questions about the adults’ personal lives and sass-mouth the local farmer who dresses as Santa for the holiday party. Yet she somehow believes that a pair of knock-off ruby slippers are going to whisk her away to London. While it’s true that younger children — Eva is around 10 — can mix up fantasy and reality, her bereavement about not returning to her parents is cheapened by the strained symbolic connection to Dorothy’s homesickness. The script, written by series creator Ben Vanstone, betrays Eva’s intelligence and pluck for the sake of a narrative trick.

    All Creatures Great and Small simply doesn’t have experience with something as heavy as a Jewish child’s forced evacuation. And the tools it does have seem mawkish when they’re applied to something so raw. The same goes for James’ unshakeable patriotism. It makes sense that he would want to enlist, despite his occupational exception. However, he never has a single moment of doubt, even in private, about heading into battle. His unwavering sense of duty is endearing when he refuses to lie about a horse judging competition, but when he has the same certainty about marching to the front, he seem deluded. When he’s unmoved by his crying wife, begging him not to go, he seems cruel.

    Or perhaps he seems like the hero of a propaganda film. There’s more than a whiff of rah-rah jingoism in the show’s sentimental look at the war, and it’s compounded when Tristan proves his newfound sense of responsibility by enlisting. In the final moments of the season, he smiles beatifically to himself as he takes a train to whatever combat adventures await him. He might pick up Mrs. Miniver on the way.

    This isn’t to suggest that James should become a counterculture rebel or that Mrs. Hall should join a pacifist movement. Eighty years of art have proven there are plenty of ways to tell gripping stories about people who believe in the Allied cause and are willing to risk their lives for it. However, if All Creatures Great and Small insists on sticking with the World War II timeline, then we could be in store for multiple seasons that double as cloying exhortations to buy war bonds. That type of boosterism won’t be very comforting at all.

    The complete third season of All Creatures Great and Small is now streaming on the PBS app. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: All Creatures Great and Small, PBS, Anna Madeley, Ben Vanstone, Callum Woodhouse, Ella Bernstein, Nicholas Ralph, Samuel West