Casualty spoilers follow.
Raw, unflinching and admirably uncompromising, tonight's Covid-focused Casualty episode was never going to be an easy watch.
After four months off air, Casualty has returned to our screens with one of its most powerful episodes to date, kicking off its brand new series with a bang. The special edition explored the pandemic through the lens of the Emergency Department staff, as they faced the toughest challenge of their careers – and lives. And by the time 55 minutes had passed, it was clear that the hospital would never be the same again.
While Dylan and Jacob both made full recoveries from the virus, Noel, devastatingly, didn't – marking an end to his 12-year stint on the show. As the dust settles in the wrung out ED, we're taking a look at the seven ways this emptive episode has set up new stories for the coming weeks – and beyond.
1. Noel's death aftermath
Casualty's much-loved receptionist Noel became the first soap character in the UK to die from coronavirus tonight – and the hospital will never be the same again.
Tony Marshall has played kind-hearted Noel since 2008, and his impactful death will, unsurprisingly, rock the ED to the core.
"Not only has Noel been a big part of the Casualty family, Tony Marshall has long been a much loved member of the behind-the-scenes Casualty family", show boss Loretta Preece told Digital Spy. "It is always sad when a much-loved character moves on but the fact that Noel was so knitted into the department and was so loved by the audience is part of what makes his death from Covid so impactful.
"The people who have died from this terrible disease this year are all people like Noel who have been treasured by colleagues and who have families who love them. The fact that Noel will never see his grandchild is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of his death. There were real tears on set as we shot Tony’s last scenes and he will be enormously missed."
2. Connie's new struggle
Tonight's episode kicked off a huge series for Connie, which will see her struggle with the devastating fallout of the difficult decisions she had to make. Retrospective scenes at the start told us that Connie was grief-stricken and guilt-ridden from the loss of one of her own, but Noel's identity as the tragic victim didn't become clear until the end.
Poignantly, tonight's emotive scenes saw Connie reflect on why she wanted to go into emergency medicine in the first place – telling Will that her father died alone in a hospital corridor abroad.
The devastating debris of the pandemic brought these painful memories back for Connie, who was then pushed to breaking point when she had to make the ultimate call on Noel's fate. This will play out in the new series, with Amanda Mealing – who plays Connie – confirming that this is the start of another dark chapter for her long-suffering alter ego.
"She takes the death of one of the team personally," Amanda said. "She takes personal responsibility for it and it weighs on her heavily."
3. Connie and Jacob torn apart – again
They've only just got back together, but cracks were starting to show already in Connie and Jacob's rekindled romance tonight. With Connie starting to crumble under pressure, she faced a tough showdown with Jacob – who wanted to address the undeniable fact that Covid was impacting people from ethnic minority groups more.
"When are we going to do something about the fact this virus is affecting people from ethnic minorities more than anyone else?" Jacob said to Connie.
"The most vulnerable roles are disproportionately filled by people from ethnic minority backgrounds," he continued. "I'm talking about the NHS, society in general – and I'm talking about Noel. Nobody is looking out for them, nobody is protecting them. Don't our lives matter? Doesn't my life matter?"
Jacob was left aghast when Connie couldn't and wouldn't offer him the support he needed, and unfortunately, their relationship will indeed be hitting the rocks again next week on the back of this.
"Connie and Jacob start strong but you'll see in the Covid episode that she won't be able to forgive herself for letting one of the team down", Amanda said. "She feels that she can't be having a good time and living the high life after what she sees as her failing. Her and Jacob will always be on and off, but Connie can't allow herself to have anything good in her life."
4. Grace's return
It's already been confirmed that Connie's 16-year old daughter Grace will be returning in the early part of the next series, with tonight's episode setting the scene for the trouble ahead.
With Connie facing a challenging few months as she comes to terms with Noel's death – and everything else that's happened – Grace's decision to move home is perhaps somewhat ill-timed.
"We've got these dramas of Connie having a teenage girl, who is not a child anymore and doesn't need teddybears", Amanda told Digital Spy. "She is going out at night and Connie is trying to keep her in check – we've got all that stuff going on. It's good fun."
5. Will's frustrations – and subsequent decision
A frustrated Will lashed out at his boss Connie in tonight's episode, questioning her on why they weren't being protected with appropriate PPE. He also went on to point out that the 'guidance' had left them unprotected for weeks, as well as highlighting the arduous, and inhumane, hours the staff were having to work.
Let's not forget that this particular scene was set at the height of the pandemic last spring, and reflected the very real and very frightening situation many of our NHS workers found themselves in.
Sadly, but not wholly surprisingly, Will's frustrations will continue into next week's episodes, where he finds himself making a life-changing decision after yet another run-in with Connie.
6. Jade's new story
Jade faced an unprecedented challenge tonight, when she struggled to communicate with her colleagues through PPE.
Jade took centre stage in a groundbreaking episode back in July, written, directed and acted by deaf writers and actors. On the back of this, the show will be continuing to explore the impact that the pandemic has had on lip readers through her in the next series.
Tonight's scenes saw Jade left frustrated when she was forced to take on a slightly different rule, prompting her kind-hearted friend Robyn to learn some basic sign language.
"Jade is a very important character to the show and we will certainly be doing more with her," show boss Loretta Preece told us recently. "We have a really interesting story for her which we are filming right now.
"The pandemic and specifically the wearing of PPE and masks has been extremely challenging for lip readers like Jade which we touched on in the Covid episode."
7. Fenisha's pregnancy reveal
Fenisha's pregnancy story is still rumbling on, but was subtly placed on the back burner tonight – allowing it to take centre stage over the coming weeks instead.
As the pandemic started to take hold of the hospital, an anxious Fenisha told Jan she needed to go home and isolate, giving a cover story as to why.
This has allowed Fenisha's baby secret to be kept under wraps for the time being, but upcoming episodes will explore the big fallout of the lies she's told Ethan as the truth begins to unravel.
Much like tonight's scenes, Casualty will be playing with time again in upcoming episodes, allowing viewers to see how Fenisha's story unfolded back in the spring and summer.
Casualty continues on Saturday, January 9 on BBC One.
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