All Creatures Great and Small (2020) s02e03 – We Can But Hope

“All Creatures Great and Small” gets away with a certain amount of sentimentality and near saccharinity because it’s about people caring about their animals’ suffering. The show’s about folks at their most empathetic (right or wrong), and that emotionality can cover a whole bunch. However, this episode veers away from that comfort zone as Nicholas Ralph finds himself losing the Kobayashi Maru. New widow Amy Nuttall has a herd of sick cows, and there’s nothing to be done about it. So Ralph decides to advise Nuttall to sell her farm (to one of the other men in the village, who don’t think a woman can cut it) and spends the episode distressed over how to do so. He keeps hoping Nuttall will realize the seriousness of her predicament, and he won’t have to mention it.

Except Ralph does mention it to other people, specifically Rachel Shenton, which leads to an argument on their first dress-up date. They go to the very fancy restaurant (where Shenton used to go with her rich ex-fiancé), and the whole thing goes so wrong the episode skips the presumably terrible second half of the date. It’s peculiar since there’s an entire comic subplot about Ralph’s muddy shoes leading up to the dinner, with Shenton’s little sister, Imogen Clawson, and dad, Tony Pitts, getting involved. It’s a particularly nice scene for Clawson and Pitts, who haven’t had a lot of just family time, not in service of a plotline.

Skipping the second half of the date makes sense by the end of the episode, when Hope gins together a happy ending. The episode’s got a first-time scripter, Chloë Mi Lin Ewart, who’s charged with resolving a plot thread the show started in the first episode. Ewart’s also got the task of introducing Diana Rigg’s replacement, Patricia Hodge. Rigg passed away between seasons. The whole episode feels like it’s buried its lede, Hodge. Hodge’s part is far more verbose than Rigg’s; she plays it with an overabundance of personality. Of course, she’s suddenly got to compensate for the character having a comedic lack of decorum. It’s an unfair comparison—there’s only one Diana Rigg—but it’s also not a good recasting, which the show tries disguising with comedy.

Hodge might play better if the other ending weren’t so trite and vice versa. The show can get away with these lackluster moments, but two missteps in a row—at the end of the episode—are unfortunate. It’s the first unsuccessful “All Creatures Great and Small.” It’s also easily the most ambitious episode so far, both pragmatically and intentionally. If the show’s going to be about Ralph’s character development, giving him rushed, thin character development will be a problem.

In addition to the farm veterinary arc, there’s a house one. Anna Madeley is still prodding Samuel West to give little brother Callum Woodhouse more responsibility in the veterinary practice (even though Woodhouse didn’t pass his exam, which means he’s not licensed or whatever). West gets Woodhouse some hens to tend; also, so West can have eggs whenever he wants them. It’s a primarily comedic arc, with the hens going over to the neighbors, with the hens bullying Hodge’s adorable Pekingese, but also with the brother character relationship thing going on. It’s the much better arc this episode. Again, a problem since the A plot isn’t just crucial for the episode or season; it’s a defining development for the series itself.

Madeley doesn’t get a lot to do. I was expecting her almost beau to return from last time; instead, she just gets to feel lonely because she doesn’t have a subplot. Her game night’s canceled because the boys either have dates or professional obligations. Speaking of dates, West has an offscreen date with his new love interest, so she does seem to be sticking around.

Even after the unsteady conclusion, the series has more than enough stockpiled goodwill. It’d just have been nice for a real pay-off for one of the show’s only big swings.