Period dramas are a perfect example of the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction.” Humans have been weird for as long as they’ve been around, and historical TV shows do their part in shining a light on so much of that weirdness — or at least as much can be corroborated by historians.
From political dramas to epic romances, murder mysteries and everything in between, nothing hits quite like a period drama, promising the escape of a bygone era and being transported out of our own timeline for an hour or two.
’90s and ’00s period dramas are the most soothing form of escapism I’ve ever known
Plenty of these shows are streaming on one service or the other, so here’s a list of the best period dramas most people can watch right now, listed in order of their time period. It’s like going to history class, except a lot of it is made up and it’s also just television.
1. Rome, 49 BCE
Take it way back to the days of Pompey, Caesar, and all the intrigues of ancient Rome with Rome. This show made waves when it aired on HBO for its crazy high production value and constant appearances by historical characters that made it feel more like an Assassin’s Creed game than a TV show, and takes place at the perfect time to start off a chronological viewing of the best period dramas currently streaming. Hail, Caesar! — Alexis Nedd
How to watch: Rome is now streaming on Max.
2. Vikings, 793 – 900 and Vikings: Valhalla, 1002 – 1066
Credit: Bernard Walsh / Netflix
Vikings tells the story of legendary Norse hero and king Ragnar Lothbrok, his illustrious sons, and the beginning of the Viking Age. Taking its inspiration from historical events, Vikings sees Ragnar (Travel Himmel) fight, raid, and plunder to gain power, and then have to battle to keep it. An accomplished warrior and creative strategist with a uniquely philosophical approach to the world, Ragnar is a fascinating, honorable, and brutal leader. Full of exciting fight scenes, captivating lore, and fantastic characters — Ragnar’s shield-maiden wife Lagertha, played by Katheryn Winnick, is an audience favorite — Vikings is a gripping, compelling watch for fans of both history and adventure alike. And also, braids. Vikings is a BIG show for fans of elaborate braids.
Taking place 100 years after the end of Vikings, its sequel series Vikings: Valhalla chronicles the end of the Viking Age. When the English king destroys all viking settlements in England, some that have thrived since the age of Ragnar, vikings from Norway to Denmark come together to seek retribution. — Kristina Grosspietsch
How to watch: Vikings is now streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime. Vikings: Valhalla is now streaming on Netflix.
3. The Last Kingdom, 866-920
If you’re still grumbling to yourself about the final season of Game of Thrones and need a new medieval series to cleanse your palate, The Last Kingdom will certainly do the trick. Adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction novels The Saxon Series, The Last Kingdom concerns itself in the tumultuous period of Britain’s past when the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons were in constant territorial conflict.
Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon) is an Anglo-Saxon warrior who, as a boy, was ripped from his ancestral home and raised by Danes. Because of his unique position hailing from both cultures, as well as his impressive battle prowess, Uhtred finds himself a key player in King Alfred’s quest to unite the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
With a sparkling cast of fresh faces (David Dawson, Eliza Butterworth, Millie Brady, to name a few), thrilling battle sequences, and an endless parade of fantastic Viking braids, this exciting investigation of civility, savagery, and honor will leave you energized and ready for more. To Bebbanburg!!! * — K.G.
How to watch: The Last Kingdom is now streaming on Netflix.
4. Marco Polo, late 1200s
Credit: Phil Bray / Netflix
Most people know Marco Polo from screaming his name in a pool every summer, but the actual guy was pretty cool too. Marco Polo is a Netflix original that dramatizes the 13th century Italian explorer’s time serving as a liaison to Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis and the first Mongol ruler to conquer all of China. It’s a lot more diverse than most period dramas, with a fantastic main cast of east and south Asian actors that wage war, dress in a lot of flowing silks, and backstab the crap out of each other in the Khan’s duplicitous court. — A.N.
How to watch: Marco Polo is now streaming on Netflix.
5. Medici: Masters of Florence, 1429–1440s
Medici: Masters of Florence
For anyone wondering what Richard Madden got up to between dying on Game of Thrones and being cast in a Marvel movie, it was Medici: Masters of Florence. This show’s a little all over the place, not least because Dustin Hoffman plays Lorenzo de Medici with a heavy Brooklyn accent but hey, there’s plagues and banks and a lot of great CGI shots of Renaissance Florence. — A.N.
How to watch: Medici: Masters of Florence is now streaming on Netflix.
6. The Borgias, 1492–1503
Pope Alexander XI is a polarizing figure in Vatican history, with some saying he was the most immoral, lecherous man to ever sit the throne of Saint Peter. The Borgias tells the story of Pope Alexander’s rise and rule from his perspective as well of that of his scheming bastard children. It’s a very loose interpretation of events, with potentially 100 percent more hitmen and incest than what really happened, but what else would anyone really want from a show about a 15th century Pope’s kids? Father of the church indeed. — A.N.
How to watch: The Borgias is now streaming on Paramount+ and Showtime.
7. The Tudors, 1526–1547
Divorced, beheaded, died…and so on. That’s it. That’s the show. Without the wild success of The Tudors in 2007, the current wave of sexified royal history TV shows may never have happened. For that we thank The Tudors, and also for being one of Henry Cavill’s first high-profile roles (as the Duke of Suffolk) and giving every casting director on the planet the idea to cast Natalie Dormer as a cool, sneaky queen. That’s right, Anne Boleyn was the original Margaery Tyrell. — A.N.
How to watch: The Tudors is now streaming on Prime Video, Paramount+, and Showtime.
8. Wolf Hall, 1529 – 1536
Mark Rylance is an outright wonder in this meaty historical series that follows Sir Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power during the reign of Henry VIII. Despite his humble origins, Cromwell ascended to the right hand of the king by facilitating the ruler’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn — a feat his predecessor, Cardinal Wolsey, failed to accomplish. This is a highly political drama. He must manipulate, coax, and coerce to get the king what he wants, while protecting his own interests. The stakes are high for everyone at Henry VIII’s court. One wrong move, and you could find yourself without a head.
Based on Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, this BBC series is intelligent, complex, and thoroughly riveting — and it features many familiar faces from your other favorite British shows: Damian Lewis, Claire Foy, Tom Holland, Jonathan Pryce, the list goes on! — K.G.
How to watch: Wolf Hall is now streaming on the Amazon Prime PBS Masterpiece Channel.
9. Gunpowder, 1605
Credit: Robert Viglasky / HBO
Kit Harington’s other HBO series is Gunpowder, a miniseries that follows the legendary events of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot to blow up the British houses of parliament. Harington plays Fawkes, whose political and social motivation form the backdrop of his character. Even though pretty much everyone knows how this one ends — there is a literal holiday in England commemorating it — Gunpowder puts a fresh face to the story of Fawkes’ treason and serves as a more than decent window into the past. — A.N.
How to watch: Gunpowder is now streaming on Max.
10. Versailles, 1660s
Credit: BBC / Canal+
Some period dramas tell the story of a particular event in history; Versailles tells the story of a place. In the mid-1600s, King Louis VIV had an idea to expand the French royal family’s hunting lodge into a palace the likes of which the world had never seen before. His vision, along with the dramatic foibles of his court, form the plot of Versailles, which shoots on location at the standing palace as well as several other era-appropriate chateaux in France. Come for the architecture porn, stay for the super dark royal secrets. — A.N.
How to watch: Versailles is now streaming on Netflix
11. The Great, mid-1700s
Does The Great faithfully follow the true story of Catherine the Great’s infamous coup against her husband Tsar Peter III? No. Is it a hilarious, wacky interpretation of Catherine’s story, complete with frog guns, the invention of bowling, slapfights aplenty and an imperial ton of vodka? Yes, absolutely yes.
The Great is a fantastic Hulu Original comedy series draped with all the trappings of a big budget period story, and it’s well worth a watch for fans of writer Tony McNamara’s Oscar-winning The Favourite. * — A.N.
How to watch: The Great is now streaming on Hulu.
12. Outlander, mid to late 1700s
Look, we all wish we could be transported back in time and swept off our feet by a dashing Scotsman fighting for the rights of his people by day and loving us passionately by night, right? But lucky for Claire Randall, an English, former WWII military nurse who touches some pagan stones and is popped back to 1743 (not a great time in Scottish-English relations), that is exactly what happens! Headstrong and refusing to bow to the cultural expectations for women of the time, Claire quickly catches the eye of Jamie Fraser, a tough and tender Highland warrior, and so begins a sweeping romance that spans continents and centuries.
Based on Diana Gabaldon’s hugely popular novel series, Outlander dances through a vaguely historical timeline, but with Caitríona Balfe and Sam Heughan radiating with chemistry in the lead roles, the show’s most memorable quality is the ardent love story at its heart. And did we mention it has a killer score? — K.G.
How to watch: Outlander is now streaming on Netflix and Starz.
13. Harlots, 1760s-ish
Most of the shows on this list are about known historical figures, but Harlots is about the women history would rather forget. It stages a mob drama between two rival bordellos — one serving the wealthy upper class men of Georgian London and the other striving to improve its financial and social position. Sex work has always been a part of human civilization, and Harlots provides an entertaining and incisive look at a place and time when women had two options: get married, or be a harlot. — A.N.
How to watch: Harlots is now streaming on Hulu.
14. Catherine the Great, 1770-1796
Catherine the Great
Credit: Hal Shinnie / HBO
If some of these shows seem a little much to commit to, try Catherine the Great on HBO. It’s a miniseries with four episodes, and even though it probably could have done with a longer run it manages to be satisfying in between feeling overstuffed. Helen Mirren plays the last Tsarina of Russia, whose status as the most powerful woman in Europe was revolutionary in her time — and whose legacy is a complicated mix of sexually provocative rumors and undeniable imperial success. — A.N.
How to watch: Catherine the Great is now streaming on HBO.
15. Pride and Prejudice, early 1800s
Credit: Moviestore / Shutterstock
No list of period dramas would be complete without this, the quintessential Regency romance against which all other period romances are compared (and ultimately found wanting). We’re talking, of course, of the 1995 BBC TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Colin Firth is iconic as the brooding, simmering, quietly passionate Mr. Darcy, and Jennifer Ehle sparkles as our heroine, the bold and brazen Elizabeth Bennet.
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This version of Pride and Prejudice takes the time necessary to fully honor the delightful details from its source material. We see the entire journey of Elizabeth and Darcy’s love story, from immediate dislike at a town dance, to barbed banter at Netherfield Hall, and finally — well, we won’t ruin it if you haven’t seen it. Jane Austen’s legendary romance inspired a thousand modern retellings (Bridget Jones’ Diary straight up recast Firth as their Darcy. When it ain’t broke…), but this is the adaptation that does the most loyal justice to her words. You feel transported to the era, endeared to the characters, and as convinced as they are that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — K.G.
How to watch: Pride and Prejudice is now streaming on Hulu and BritBox.
16. Bridgerton, early 1800s and Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, 1761 – 1817
Credit: Liam Daniel / Netflix
Do you want your period romances to have a little less pomp and a little more sex? Shonda Rimes is here for you. A Regency romance filled with classical pop covers, Bridgerton hinges around the titular family, which has a plethora of kids approaching marrying age. Season 1 follows the eldest daughter Daphne’s (Phoebe Dynevor) debut and subsequent love story, while Season 2 sees her brother Anthony (An absolute cad! A veritable rake! Played by Jonathan Bailey!) attempt to find himself a suitable wife. All these matches happen under the watchful, indomitable eye of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), who herself earned a spectacular spinoff in 2023, and the judgmental commentary of anonymous gossip columnist Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews).
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Based on Julia Quinn’s popular novels, Bridgerton has all the trappings of a sweeping period romance: suppressed emotions, longing glances, oppressive societal expectations, gorgeous costumes, and dance scenes dripping with hidden meaning. But it adds to the mix a refreshingly modern sexual intimacy and a cheerful willingness to pander — and that’s what makes it so completely irresistible.
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, is a lavish, ebullient triumph with a thread of sadness that lends gravitas and complexity to the entire Bridgerton world. Further evidence that Shonda Rhimes just doesn’t miss. * — K.G.
How to watch: Bridgerton is now streaming on Netflix, as is Queen Charlotte.
17. Victoria, 1838–1851
Credit: ITV / PBS
Following the life of Queen Victoria as played by Jenna Coleman, this ITV show manages to cover a lot of ground. In just three seasons it’s gone from the young queen’s coronation to her marriage (and several children) with the love of her life, Prince Albert, played by Tom Hughes. Queen Victoria holds the record for the second-longest reign as monarch in the UK (the first is the current 68-and-counting years of Queen Elizabeth II), so there’s plenty of stories in her history to fill several more seasons. — A.N.
How to watch: Victoria is now streaming on Prime Video and PBS.
18. Alias Grace, 1840s
Credit: Jan Thijs / Netflix
Based on celebrated author Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, Alias Grace is an engrossing psychological mystery. A fictionalized telling of a real-life 1843 murder, the mini-series investigates the sanity and guilt of convicted murderer Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), imprisoned for 15 years with no memory of the incident. Psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) evaluates Grace and becomes more connected to his subject the more he learns about her past.
Written by Sarah Polley (Women Talking) and directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho), this 2017 adaptation honors its source material with aplomb. The cast, which includes Anna Paquin, sparkles, and the tension is palpable. An addicting and eviscerating watch. * — K.G.
How to watch: Alias Grace is now streaming on Netflix.
19. Cranford, 1840s
While many period dramas focus on the adventures and romances of the aristocracy, Cranford keeps its attention on a small village community in northwest England. Over the course of a few years, the series follows the ups and downs of a group of middle class spinsters and widows, led imperiously by the Jenkyns sisters (Dames Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins). There are joys and sorrows to be had as new loves and losses hit the village. But nothing upsets the community more than the terrifying rumors that a novel technological innovation will be built in Cranford — a railroad! Can you imagine the SCANDAL?! The town gossip, played by Imelda Staunton, certainly has a sharp word or two to say about it.
It’s a warm, poignant, and lovely limited series with an equally pleasant followup, Return to Cranford, that adds Jodie Whittaker, Tom Hiddleston, and Michelle Dockery to the storied cast. — K.G.
How to watch: Cranford is now streaming on BritBox.
20. The Empress, mid-1800s
The year is 1853, and Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria is looking for a wife! The headstrong Elisabeth “Sisi” of Bavaria (Devrim Lingnau) accompanies her demure sister Helene (Elisa Schlott) to meet Franz (Philip Froissant), as Helene has been groomed to wed the young monarch. Much to everyone’s surprise, Franz is completely taken with Sisi’s rebellious, self-assured, and unpredictable nature — but will the traditional empire fall for her as well?
The Empress is a sumptuous German period drama, full of ornate costumes, courtly maneuvering, and longing glances from opposite sides of a perfectly manicured garden. Don’t let the subtitles hold you back: This addicting, swoonworthy love story was one of the most popular non-English series of 2022. * — K.G.
How to watch: The Empress is now streaming on Netflix.
21. The Underground Railroad, mid-1800s
Credit: Amazon Studios
Like most of Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ work, The Underground Railroad is both haunting and beautiful. Based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel, the series follows Cora (The Woman King’s Thuso Mbedu) on a fearless journey to find freedom. In the real world, the Underground Railroad was a clandestine trail of safe houses that enslaved people used to escape the American South. Here, it’s an actual underground railroad.
This bit of magical realism only expands from there, showing us an alternate history of the United States of America, one where the oppression of Black people in many southern states is amplified 10-fold. Brutal, emotional, and a true work of art, The Underground Railroad will often leave you astounded both by the power of the performances and the strength of the message. — K.G.
How to watch: The Underground Railroad is now streaming on Prime Video.
22. Miss Scarlet and the Duke, mid-1800s
In Victorian London, no one dares imagine a woman could be a private investigator — but like Enola Holmes, Eliza Scarlet (Kate Phillips) is determined to change minds. The daughter of a detective, will stop at nothing to achieve that dream, even if that means blatantly ignoring the warnings of her childhood friend and handsome police detective inspector, William “Duke” Wellington (Stuart Martin). If only figuring out her feelings for William wasn’t the singular mystery Miss Scarlet has yet been able to solve!
Fun, fast-paced, and cheeky, Miss Scarlet and the Duke is an addictive period crime drama with sophisticated mysteries. The set details, costumes, and cinematography are all slick and stylish. This is a top-notch series well worth the additional PBS masterpiece subscription. — K.G.
How to watch: Miss Scarlet and the Duke is now streaming on the Amazon Prime PBS Masterpiece channel.
23. Mr. Sunshine, early 1871 – 1907
Credit: Jisun Park
Written by Kim Eun-sook and directed by Lee Eung-bok, Mr. Sunshine is a moving epic that sheds light on a turbulent time in Korea’s history. Over one season of 24 episodes, the series deftly tackles complex themes like class, sexism, and the immigrant experience, smoothly pairing historical realism with a heady romance.
The film follows Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun), a man born into slavery in Korea until he escapes to the United States in 1871 and joined the Marine Corps. Years later, he returns to Korea and falls in love with Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri), the daughter of an aristocrat who has been betrothed to nobleman Kim Hui-seong (Byun Yo-han) since she was a child. Eugene also learns his birth country is in danger of being annexed by Japan and is determined to do everything in his power to fight it.
Whether you love Korean dramas or just can’t get enough of period pieces, Mr. Sunshine is the watch for you. — K.G.
How to watch: Mr. Sunshine is now streaming on Netflix.
24. Downton Abbey, 1912-1925
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/Focus/Kobal/Shutterstock
Of course no period drama list is complete without Downton Abbey, another on this list to revolve around primarily fictional characters. While the noble Crawley family of the Downton Estate, as well as their staff, have their own share of drama in the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century, their stories regularly intersect with real historical and political events of their time — including the sinking of the Titanic, the Teapot Dome scandal, and the rumored rakishness of a certain British prince who would only briefly be king. And of course, there’s two movies once you’re done. — A.N.
How to watch: Downton Abbey is now streaming on Prime Video and BritBox.
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25. Peaky Blinders, 1919 – 1930s
Credit: BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd./Robert Viglasky
Set across the ’20s and ’30s in Birmingham, England, Peaky Blinders is a brutal, violent, and deeply affecting show that will swallow you whole, with a raucous soundtrack, a fantastic cast (RIP Helen McCrory), and stunning cinematography.
Cillian Murphy is captivating as Tommy Shelby, troubled head of the Peaky Blinders gang, known for sticking razors in their caps for slitting throats. He’s a thinker, and his elaborate plans, be they for money, family, or revenge, will always keep you gasping — as will the very real trauma Tommy and his brother silently shoulder from their horrific experience as trench diggers in WWI.
You’ll be shocked by how quickly you’ll find yourself rooting for these murderers, smugglers, and thieves — proof positive of the elegant writing behind this absolutely superb series. * — K.G.
How to watch: Peaky Blinders is now streaming on Netflix.
26. The Durrells, 1930s
It is impossible to be sad while watching The Durrells (known just as The Durrells in Corfu in the U.S.). In 1935, a few years after the death of her husband, Louisa Durrell abruptly moves herself and her three children to the small Greek island of Corfu in search of a simpler, and less expensive, life. Facing culture shock, a language barrier, a lack of electricity, and very few marketable skills, the family comes together to make a home for themselves on this remote paradise.
The Durrells is a warm and impossibly endearing series. The Mediterranean landscape is spectacular, the conflicts affable, and the characters deeply lovable. Keely Dawes sparkles as Louisa, and Josh O’Connor practically pops off the screen as the oldest Durrell child, Larry, a writer and bon vivant. The series is based on naturalist Gerrald Durrell’s memoirs recounting his childhood on Corfu, where his love for animals was nurtured and cultivated as he cared for many interesting local creatures at their home. Yes, that means that every episode not only has humor and charm, but cute animals to boot. — K.G.
How to watch: The Durrells is now streaming on Prime Video.
27. All Creatures Great and Small, 1930s
Credit: Channel 5
An adaptation of Alf Wight’s memoirs written under the pen name James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small is an impossibly cozy and comforting series about a trio of 1930s Yorkshire veterinarians. James (Nicholas Ralph) is a newcomer to the small rural community, joining longtime vet Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West) and his wayward brother Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) at Siegfried’s practice. Residents are wary of James, but soon the skill and care he shows their furry friends wins them over. It also catches the eye of Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton), a local farmer’s daughter who’s engaged to someone else. Uh oh!
Light, engaging, and positively polite, All Creatures Great and Small is a perfect way to unwind after the end of a long day. Its stakes are seldom higher than “we really hope our cow is pregnant!”, and its trials and tribulations never darken the scenic Yorkshire skies for too long. — K.G.
How to watch: All Creatures Great and Small is now streaming on the Amazon Prime PBS Masterpiece Channel.
28. Transatlantic, 1940s
Credit: Anika Molnar
The year is 1940. France has been invaded by Germany, and all out war is imminent. But hope remains at the Hotel Splendide in Marseille, where a scrappy, ambitious org called the Emergency Rescue Committee is corralling all its resources, legal and…not so legal, to evacuate artists, writers, and thinkers wanted by the Nazis. Led by Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs), Varian Fry (Cory Michael Smith), and Albert Albert Hirschman (Lucas Englander), the ERC refuses to abandon their mission, even as the stakes grow ever higher for them and their charges.
Transatlantic is a stylish and captivating drama is based on a remarkable true story. The Emergency Rescue Committee helped find safe passage for Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, and countless other dissenters targeted by the Nazis for the audacity of their ideas. Created by Anna Winger (Unorthodox) and Daniel Hendler, and adapted from Julie Orringer’s original historical fiction novel The Flight Portfolio, Transatlantic is an affecting and scenic mini-series with a sensational international cast. * — K.G.
How to watch: Transatlantic is now streaming on Netflix.
29. The Crown, 1947–1976
Credit: Robert Viglasky/Netflix
As weird as it feels to designate a show about living people as “historical,” The Crown technically counts for this list. It’s a deliciously dramatized portrayal of life in Buckingham Palace, running from the ’50s in Season 1 and the time of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation to, as of Season 5, Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s divorce in the early ’90s. Real-life palace intrigue and a peek behind the royal scandals that dominated headlines in their time are this show’s bread and butter, so go ahead and sit down for some tea. — A.N.
How to watch: The Crown is now streaming on Netflix.
30. Call the Midwife, 1950s – 1960s
Credit: BBC / Neal Street Productions / Olly Courtenay
Though its cast and main characters have changed over its remarkable 12 seasons and counting, Call the Midwife’s warmth and brightness remain as steadfast as the nuns and caregivers the series follows. In Poplar, a poor neighborhood in post-WWII London, a group of young, modern midwives work alongside the nuns of Nonnatus House to provide medical attention and maternity care to a woefully underserved community. The show tackles a range of big issues, including abortion, racism, healthcare inequality, faith, and more, with profound empathy and kindness. Many of its best episodes feature very real medical headlines from the era, concerning the likes of polio, the introduction of the birth control pill, and the shock of discovering the adverse effects of thalidomide, a common medication at the time.
Narrated by Vanessa Redgrave, with a rotating cast list that features some of England’s acting greats (Jenny Agutter, Judy Parfitt, Pam Ferris, Miranda Hart, Emerald Fennell, Fenella Woolgar, and more), Call the Midwife is an charming, emotional drama that always ends on a life-affirming, optimistic note. — K.G.
How to watch: Call the Midwife is now streaming on Netflix.