Mercy Street recap: The Belle Alliance
Southern belles are supposed to be flirtatious, beautiful, and coy. Note that the term “clever” isn’t usually included in that description, but Emma is that and more this episode, revealing that she’s able to keep and play a part in complicated secrets.
How so? Well, a big ball — organized by Union officers to benefit army widows, much to Mrs. Green’s chagrin — proves the perfect opportunity for Frank to smuggle Tom out of the hospital, where he’s slated to soon be moved to a prison. At this point, it’s obvious that Frank is a Confederate spy; a young man with an agenda in defense of his staunch Southern beliefs. Emma blossoms under Frank’s attention; emboldened by his unwavering patriotism, she agrees to distract Union officers with a dance (or several) while Frank aids Tom’s escape. This proves easy, as she and Alice flirt, bat their eyelashes and kick up their skirts in a round of dances with the Union soldiers. With this, we learn an all-important rule: Never, ever underestimate a Southern belle.
However, no ball in PBS history has ever occurred totally incident free: In this case, Jimmy — Emma and Alice’s brother — promptly gets drunk and proceeds to play “Dixie’s Land” on the piano. Desperate to shut the scene down before it becomes a source of scandal, Mrs. Green (who plays her own part this episode by shaming Mr. Bullen and pulling off a grand dessert in the form of apples à la Parisienne) slaps her son, shaming him into keeping quiet. Remember, Jimmy’s sullenness comes from his belief that his father is a traitor; all this in fact when his father is, as Mrs. Green says, “protecting the family.”
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As it turns out, Mr. Green does have a plan, which consists of breaking out his finest Kentucky whiskey and asking Provost Marshall to consent to an oath reprieve. In layman’s terms, he wants to delay signing the oath, under the excuse that it would put him at odds with the community. He asks for six months, which earns laughs because the Union officers believe — just as everyone around them does — that the war will be over by that time. You and I know that’s not true, but for whatever it’s worth, Green has bought himself six month’s peace.
NEXT: Sam’s medical skills are tested
Although the matter of respect within one’s community plays a huge part in this episode — what with Mrs. Green going above and beyond to bolster her reputation as a hostess, Jimmy drinking his shame away, and Mr. Green brokering a behind-the-scenes deal — it all seemed to pale in comparison to Aurelia’s story line. In a heartbreaking scene, Aurelia got her hands on a metal rod and attempted to end her pregnancy. Bleeding effusively while the ball was taking place downstairs, she might have died if Sam hadn’t found her. He summoned Mary, who quickly sought the advice of Foster. (I should mention he was reluctantly undergoing a rudimentary form of drug rehab in his room.) But mere advice won’t be enough in this case; before long, we see Sam, Mary, and Foster huddling over Aurelia’s bleeding body. They have two options: one being to let Aurelia die, or the second, to attempt a surgery to suture and stitch up the damage done to her uterine wall.
You can guess what happens next: surgery. A shaking Foster offers Mary the surgical tools, with Mary passing them off to Sam, saying that he’s the right one to handle the complex procedure. Here, Foster is scornful and full of disdain: How on earth can someone like Sam possibly handle such a surgery? At this, the truth about Sam’s apprenticeship comes out, and Foster is absolutely incredulous. A black man with more medical training than he — a white, privilege male — has had? What novelty! Foster begins to pepper poor Sam with questions about his background and ambition, while to his credit, Sam holds the surgical tools slow and steady. Even so, when Foster offers to write Sam a recommendation letter to medical school, Sam demurs (I mean, the man is elbow-deep in blood and guts—eww). The scene, a gory blur of candelight, ends on a triumphant note, with Aurelia successfully pulling through.
The real test for Foster comes afterward, when 1) He tells Sam how to administer morphine to Aurelia, displaying obvious restraint while holding the needle of addictive fluid and 2) He successfully abstains from the stuff upon finding Mary’s hospital supply closet unlocked. But I think it’s safe to say that Foster has turned a corner, especially when he offers Mary an apology for insulting her earlier in the episode. (Why is watching a man eat humble pie always so much fun? Wait, don’t answer that.)
That positive note is echoed in a scene where Sam tells Aurelia he has a “hankering” for her; his feelings remain unchanged even with the news that she won’t be able to bear children after the trauma. This is TV romance at its best: sweet, unselfish, a beautiful bright spot in a time otherwise filled with sacrifice, death, and tears.
At the end of “The Belle Alliance,” Tom, with a gun to his head, tells Frank that he simply can’t bear the possibility of rejoining his regiment. “I can’t,” he says. “The blood, the smoke, the screaming …the darkness.” He shoots himself, and his despair reminds us of the fragility of spirit, soul, and mind.