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All Creatures Great and Small Blends Its Feel-Good Charm With a New Heaviness

Season 3 embraces uncertainty as Europe inches closer to World War II.
  • All Creatures Great and Small stars Nicholas Ralph, Samuel West, Rachel Shenton, Anna Madeley, and Callum Woodhouse. (Photo: PBS/Masterpiece)
    All Creatures Great and Small stars Nicholas Ralph, Samuel West, Rachel Shenton, Anna Madeley, and Callum Woodhouse. (Photo: PBS/Masterpiece)

    The beauty of All Creatures Great and Small is that we know everything will turn out alright in the end. A pregnant cow will give birth to a healthy calf after James (Nicholas Ralph) successfully employs a new surgical technique. Siegfried (Samuel West) and his brother Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) will disagree over a course of treatment, only to begrudgingly find a compromise. No matter what, all the men will realize that housekeeper Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley) is right, regardless of the context. Up and down the Yorkshire Dales they go, healing sick animals and getting into a few low-stakes familial disputes along the way.

    This charming, lighthearted tone is one of the show’s greatest strengths — particularly in the COVID era — and while it does carry over into Season 3, it’s no longer the sole driver of the action. For the first time, disaster looms for the residents of Skeldale House: World War II approaches, bringing a sense of uncertainty and new anxieties with it. As a result, Season 3 is decidedly heavier than the two previous outings, but this helps make it even more successful in depicting the emotional evolution of its characters. Blending the feel-good with the serious creates an air of maturity, as if the show, like these characters, now understands the limitations of its relentlessly positive outlook.

    All Creatures sets the scene for this season’s crisis in the final minutes of last year’s Christmas special. As James, his fiancée Helen (Rachel Shenton), Tristan, and Siegfried celebrate the holiday and Tristan’s passing of his veterinary exams, Mrs. Hall looks out the window and sees a British military plane flying low overhead. The pained look on her face (not to mention the calendar flipping to 1939) says it all: This perfect life they’ve created is at risk, even if the others don’t yet realize it.

    Accordingly, Season 3 opens with another military plane looping around the countryside. But unlike Mrs. Hall, who lived through the Great War and saw its grim effect on her husband, James looks on in awe; he even pulls his car over and gets out to wave at the pilot. Though the men are exempt from military service (veterinarians were among the many reserved occupations in World War II), James’ admiration for the soldiers gathering in the Darrowby village square quickly becomes apparent, and it poses an immediate concern for the other characters.

    Whereas James’ storylines in Seasons 1 and 2 were primarily about proving himself — first to Siegfried, and then to Helen — he enters the spring of 1939 confident in his abilities, but dogged by conflicting allegiances. This plays out when he reluctantly agrees to test an entire herd of cattle for tuberculosis just hours before his wedding, a decision that sends him scrambling down the aisle in mismatched shoes. As Britain inches closer to war, questions of duty ring louder in James’ head. Is he needed most at home with Helen and Siegfried, who has just made him a partner in the business, or would he be better utilized abroad, where he could help curb the threat of fascism posed by the Germans? Does committing to one mean abandoning the other?

    In an unexpected twist, James’ flip-flopping makes him the problem child in Skeldale House, with Siegfried and Helen delivering long, persuasive monologues about the value of his work in the Dales, particularly his new TB testing venture. This shift in attention frees up Tristan to assume the role of the responsible, level-headed veterinarian, and, shockingly, he rises to the occasion. In the surest sign that All Creatures has grown up, the lovable scamp starts becoming his own man, embarking upon a new, adult relationship and even questioning whether he actually wants to be a vet. Woodhouse’s devilishly charming performance has always been a delight, and this new material lets him prove his dramatic range. His interplay with West — which culminates in two heated confrontations, followed by an emotional resolution — arguably makes him an actor to keep in mind come year end (it’s never too early to start thinking about the best performances of the year).

    The feeling of impending change also manifests in Mrs. Hall’s story. She has discussed her complicated relationship with her son Edward (Conor Deane) in the past, but in Season 3, she finally sees him in person for the first time in years. Their meeting is understandably fraught — viewers will recall that she turned Edward in to the police for stealing from her former employer — but it affords Mrs. Hall a rare opportunity for vulnerability, one that pushes her to reconsider what her life might look like beyond the walls of Skeldale House. The act of interrogating her own wants and needs doesn’t come naturally, since she spends practically every second of the day caring for others, and it’s exciting to see this new side of her emerge. Like Woodhouse, Madeley embraces her character’s journey of self-discovery, turning out a moving performance of a woman coming into her own in middle-age. (However, the Fans United Against Gerald might be disheartened when they see how she channels that newfound confidence.)

    This isn’t to suggest that All Creatures Great and Small has gotten dreary. The show’s visuals are as lush as ever; its animal-centric B-plots are just as uplifting; and Mrs. Hall’s one-liners are just as well-timed. Viewers who have come to expect a rich drama about humanity’s inherent goodness won’t be disappointed, but they will be encouraged to ask what “good” looks like for each of these characters. No matter how delightful All Creatures may be, after two seasons of consistency and predictability, there’s some fun in not knowing the answer.

    All Creatures Great and Small Season 3 premieres Sunday, January 8 on PBS. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: All Creatures Great and Small, PBS, Anna Madeley, Callum Woodhouse, Nicholas Ralph, Rachel Shenton, Samuel West