“Murdoch Mysteries” is a Canadian Television show, based on the Detective Murdoch series of novels by Maureen Jennings. Ms. Jennings is also the creator of the TV-series adaption, which centers on William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson), an eccentric, enlightenment inclined detective, who solves murders in the late 19th Century Toronto. This mystery series features detailed portrayals of the ideologies, scientific developments as well as harsh injustices of the time area. The characters are colorful, strongly three-dimensional people in addition of being very likeable. Murdoch himself is a man of science and logic yet still a devoted catholic, with a big heart and passion for justice despite his sometimes rigid opinions. Constable George Crabtree (Jonny Harris) is a faithful, eager helper with a fondness for flights of fancy (which often predict inventions and the nomenclature of our times) and, at times, supernatural explanations. He also tends towards the rambling, sliding from silly to brilliant ideas. Inspector Brackenreid, Murdoch’s superior, is a Yorkshire man who’s a bit rough around the edges while simultaneously being a lover of high culture. Beginning with a bit of skepticism to Murdoch’s methods at first Brackenreid slowly comes to subtly recognize Murdoch’s gift in crime solving. And then there’s Dr. Julia Ogden (Helene Joy), the one responsible for post mortem examination of the dead (coroner and forensic examiner combined) as well as being the shows voice of reason. Dr. Ogden’s character is one of the most extraordinary female characters featured a long time on Television. She’s not only strong, tolerant and smart, but also is one of the few characters who address the subject of Abortion on Television in a remarkable fresh and frank way.
The first episode where Dr. Ogden shows her strong belief in tolerance is in the episode “Till Death Do US Part”, season one of the series. In this episode a murdered man who was about to get married is reveled to be homosexual. Murdoch reacts to this fact in disgust and starts on how immoral and wrong such a personal trait is. Dr. Ogden is quick to scold Murdoch for this un-thought through prejudice and through solid arguments gets Murdoch to reconsider his judgment. Dr. Ogden’s self-sufficiency is made most clear in season two in the episode “Snakes and Ladders” where Dr. Ogden saves herself from a serial killer, showing she doesn’t need a man to rescue her. She is also later in the episode shown to be a little shaken by the incident, giving a great realistic twist to her strong persona: She’s strong, but still human. Being attacked by a murderer does shake her up a little and haunts her thoughts making the heroic also the human. “Murdoch Mysteries” builds Dr. Ogden as a fighter, but not stereotypically the tough, breaking the trope that strong women are emotionless and cold. The subtlety of Dr.Ogden´s shock from the meant-to-be-fatal attack also averts the additional stereotype of a woman who can’t control her emotions properly.
In the episode “Hangman” from season three, Dr. Ogden expresses difficulty to accept the Death Penalty as something good, stating to Murdoch that she finds it difficult to understand why it is a necessary punishment. All of these personality traits in Dr. Ogden are interesting. However the most fascinating aspect of Dr. Ogden’s character is her past, and how she relates to it.
The below discussion (related to the issue of abortion) will follow the episode “Shades Of Grey” from season two, and will contain major spoilers for this episode.
“Shades Of Grey” begins with Murdoch investigating a possible murder prompted by the discovery of young nude woman’s body in a ditch. The Case accumulates in Murdoch discovering that the young victim is a working girl by the name of Lily Dunn, who had been impregnated by her sexually predatory boss and fired for it. Desperate to get rid of her child, she had ingested a poison in hopes it would make her abort. The process instead leads to her death. It is made clear in the episode that Lily died mostly because she couldn’t have a legal abortion. (Abortions were outlawed in Canada in 1869 and would remain completely illegal there until mild legalization in 1973. Fully legalized Abortion did not become law in Canada until the late 80’s.) It is then later revealed that Julia Ogden herself, when younger, had an illegal abortion. She explains to Murdoch, who dislikes the idea of abortion, that she did it in order to continue her studies towards becoming a doctor. Having the baby would have made it difficult, if not impossible, to do so. Murdoch is shocked, and since he has recently started a relationship with Dr. Ogden, he is torn in whether he should stay committed to her or not. He asks then if she regrets her actions. Her answer is a calm “No”.
It is unusual for a fictional television series to feature a female character that has had an abortion and not regret her decision. Even in films the topic is quite taboo, especially in non-European films. That Dr. Ogden states clearly she doesn’t regret her decision, the episode portrays an honest truth about choosing to not keep a child: it is sometimes the right thing for the person making the decision to do. In Dr. Ogden’s case, she knows she couldn’t handle a child right then, nor would the society surrounding her allow this in the context of her medical schooling (to say the least!). So she chooses not to continue the pregnancy, which obviously turns to her favor, since she was then able complete her studies and become a highly competent doctor.
The episode also highlights the dangers of making abortions illegal. Dr. Ogden, who had to make an illegal and therefore an unsafe abortion, nearly died in the process. This was a major problem for the out of wedlock (and especially those who were not part of the upper class) women who found themselves pregnant during the 19th and 20th century in Canada and continued as a horror until the changes within the law occurred.
It is also a problem in today’s world. In 2009, a study done by The Guttmacher Institute calculated that 70, 000 women a year die from illegal abortions. Women who take illegal abortions also face the danger of becoming maimed or sterilized. This is also mentioned in “Murdoch Mysteries”; Dr. Ogden survives her illegal abortion, but becomes sterile from it. The show clearly states that giving women the right to choose is important, and illegalizing abortion is a problem for everyone. This episode of Murdoch Mysteries makes no bones about being on the side of women in this catastrophe.
While watching “Shades of Grey”, I couldn’t help but think of the Pro-life movement in the US (and other countries too). At the moment there seems to be resurgence in a vocal part of the communities of the world for reinstating the illegality of abortion (and maybe even conception!)- entirely and without qualm. In counties such as Nicaragua, this is already the case, putting many women’s lives at risk, from such diverse complications as obstructed labor to cancer. A study done by Amnesty International in 2010 even showed that this complete ban abortion has a harsh and dangerous impact on young girls. “Shades Of Grey” made makes us think of the actual cost that the anti-abortion movements call for – to send us back to days where women die or are put in high risk for their lives? In reality this is merely to control the “species of human” called women and to circumvent them moving freely in society (as Ogden is able to do in becoming a Doctor).
Dr. Julia Ogden as a character is a moral conscience of the show “Murdoch Mysteries”. She is a modern woman, whose ideals make her a good role model for both women and men. But her message of being proud of her decision over her body and standing up for women’s reproductive rights is the most outstanding part of her character. Her character has an important message that one should take seriously.
For an article on how Abortion is depicted in Hollywood, read Katherine Butler’s excellent column from “ecosalon”.
For a recommendation on a film depicting an illegal abortion, I highly recommend Cristian Mungiu’s superb “4 moths three weeks and 2 days”.
For a few causes of women who died do to illegal and unsafe abortions, go here.
Note: “Murdoch Mysteries” is one of the few Canadian shows with a major international following, with fifth season in production. Alas, the fifth season has been announced to be the last one, which has disappointed many fans.
Update to the note: There has also been a promise of a sixth season, yay! Read about it here and on Maureen Jennings homepage here.