Foster faces a moral crossroads, and Aurelia's future takes a dark turn

By Nina Terrero
February 03, 2016 at 09:22 PM EST
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Credit: Antony Platt/PBS
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Sometimes it really is all about the clothes. The way a pair of high heels makes you stand up a bit straighter; the way a well-cut jacket can make you feel ready to take on the world. Clothing has always been a form of expression, a way to inform the world about your status, class, or culture — and in wartime, your loyalty.

Nowhere is that made more clear than in “The Uniform,” an episode where Dr. Foster makes his choice, letting his wife go West without him as he stays behind to take on the responsibilities associated with his new role of captain. (In a nod to how genius he really is, the guy managed to ace his Army exams without any issue at all.) He didn’t join the Army strictly for the glory — Foster isn’t that type at all, though as the episode progresses, it becomes clear that Dr. Hale is — but, rather, but for the opportunity to prove to himself that he’s the kind of man he’s always thought himself to be.

That becomes abundantly clear when, moments after Dr. Foster accepts his captain’s coat, his brother appears with a severe wound to the leg. Taking him in isn’t a simple matter: Ezra is a Confederate soldier, and taking him in adds further strain to the overburdened hospital staff. Adding further friction to the mix is the appearance of Dr. Foster’s mother, a Southerner who makes her disappointment in her son abundantly clear. “There’s always a choice,” she tells her son. “Who to fight for, who to save. Our choices define us.”

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With Ezra’s leg in danger of being severely infected — he was struck by a musket bullet — Foster makes the choice to amputate his brother’s leg (against his mother’s wishes). Cue one of the bloodiest, grossest scenes ever, where Mary and Emma assist in a surgery that entails little other than a tourniquet and saw. (Yes, really). A difficult surgery even now, it’s made more complicated by the simple fact that Foster has almost no idea what he’s doing. That’s right: He’s never performed an amputation and only has a book to guide him. It’s little wonder he turns to morphine for comfort just before the surgery. But let’s be clear — though he manages to complete the surgery, morphine gets the best of him at the end of the episode, when Mary finds him high and nearly hysterical. “This is not you,” Mary tells him, with no small sense of urgency. “You can stop. You must stop.”

Here, we learn the whole story: Foster used himself as a test subject while studying drug efficacy in France. Research “became comfort, and comfort became indispensible.” But Mary — who’s clearly upset at the fact that her head doctor is a druggie — says she’ll help him heal if he wants to be clean. But will Foster believe in himself — and the man he wants to become, someone that’s strong for the Union and skilled in medicine — and make the right choice by dropping the drugs?

NEXT: Poor Aurelia can’t seem to catch a break

Experimental methods and means of treatment were further explored this episode when Emma asks Chaplain Hopkins to help Tom after a scene where he seems psychologically unhinged while interacting with Alice. Enter what was considered a rather unorthodox treatment at the time: talking. Throughout the series, one gets a sense that deep conversation among men about their emotions and feelings wasn’t a common occurrence; never mention that the term “therapy” probably wasn’t even used then. But that’s the approach the chaplain takes, talking to Tom about who he was and what his dreams were before the war over a few glasses of whiskey by the fire. Afterward, Tom does seem restored to his old self — a testament to the chaplain’s friendly nature and understanding of mental health.

Although Tom is a minority of sorts at Mansion House — he is, after all, a Confederate — he’s still afforded some amount of privilege as a white man of some financial means. The same can’t be said of Aurelia, a poor black woman whose freedom isn’t set in stone. Continually molested by disgusting Silas Bullen, she’s subject to white men and privilege and cannot escape it. Her situation becomes even worse when it’s made clear that her dizzy spells are actually pregnancy symptoms. To keep the baby is to keep ties to Bullen; to abort it seems her only hope in her path toward true freedom. But this is 1862: Abortion is something one does covertly in back alleys or with the use of mysterious teas. (Aurelia opts for the latter.) But will it work? And will Sam ever find out? One thing is obvious: Aurelia craves true freedom and will advise anyone she meets — even little Miles, Miss Foster’s slave — to run for it and make a life for themselves on their own terms. However, only time will tell whether she’ll be able to act on her own advice.

This episode also made the most of Mr. Green’s trepidation about signing a loyalty oath to Lincoln, which would align him with the Union. There’s more to this than mere ideology: Signing differentiates him from his peers and colleagues in a way that could cause long-term damage. But what about the short term? “We only need to hold out a few more months,” his son says. “This will be over for sure. Until then, we must use the business against them as a means of subversion.” Thanks to history, we know the war will cause grief and bloodshed for four long years — and with Green’s choice to tear his signed oath into pieces, it will seem a long period indeed.

The subject of casualties brings up the matter of an unexpected death. Who, you might ask? Well, that’d be Colonel, smothered in his sleep by a young man masquerading as a dentist’s assistant. The long-term consequences of the murder aren’t clear, but one thing’s for sure: The hospital will see plenty more death before the war’s end.

But during the war’s darkest days romance can bloom — a sweet reminder that life can and does continue. And in Emma’s case, love comes in the form of Frank, her sweetheart. (He’s also the Confederate spy who committed that smothering-by-pillow crime — the plot thickens!). His appearance at the hospital takes her by surprise, but how will they navigate their relationship and the way they’ve each changed since the war began? I guess we’ll have to wait for next week to find out!

Episode Recaps

Mercy Street

2016 TV mini-series
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seasons
  • 1
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  • In Season
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  • PBS

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