Reviews & Ratings for
"North and South, Book II" Episode #1.4 (1986)

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Episode Four: Brutally Frank About War Reality

7/10
Author: Marcin Kukuczka from Cieszyn, Poland
20 June 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Sometimes, the best way to forget someone you lost is to help someone else." (Madeline to Michael, the boy who wonders why she helps such a family like his)

Episode Four opens at a significant moment for both the tactics of commanders and the fates of protagonists. It is May 1864 - the war brings out the worst things which are hidden behind the wings of reality. Although "the hopes of the North now fall squarely on the shoulders of General Grant, while Jefferson Davis clings to the belief that Lee will lead the South to victory" (as the prologue to the episode says), both armies surely have a supreme dream: end this hell once and for all. Yet, the essence of what war means is still ahead of them...

The Confederate men ambush a supply train. As a result, George along with other men are taken to one of the 'symbolic nests of disgusting sadism and depravity,' Libby Prison where officers, gentlemen are made into creatures 'lower than scum, lower than dirt.' At the same time, sexual violence consumes its victims raped by deserters. One of such victims would surely be Augusta (Kate McNeil) if it were not for Charles (Lewis Smith) who comes with rescue in a typical western-like moment of shooting heroism. Armies are plagued by suffering, soldiers by nightmares and nurses by nervous breakdowns...The relations between Virgilia and the administrator of the hospital Mrs Neal (played by Olivia de Havilland) gradually lead to most unpredictable actions. James Huntoon, being allured by 'patriotic destiny' and 'seat of power,' becomes a 'tool,' a mean that justifies the end for his wife Ashton and her lover Bent. Yet, some goodness does not perish whatsoever and supplies the episode with little moments of relief and hope.

In most historically weird circumstances, Orry Main is shot (while riding alone) and brought to the union field hospital. There, he does not only recover but, to our great surprise, for the first time, we see a change in the fanatical abolitionist who wishes the southerner well. They 'swap stories of their families.' Meanwhile, Madeline lives in Charleston under a different identity and helps a poor boy from the slums of Charleston who cannot even afford food nor medicine for his ill mother living in outrageous conditions. Yet, the powerful ones of the world want their price...

The noteworthy scenes of the episode include:

- the depiction of General Grant's headquarters and his skillful plan. Anthony Zerbe does a good job of portraying a man of courage and self confidence. He cannot stand complaining and allows himself a swear word at the moments of developing mind of his own. He makes a significant decision of 'raiding behind the lines' though he is aware that he cannot be 100% certain about victory - there is a clue of a genius who holds the golden mean;

- Orry-Virgilia's reconciliation, particularly his escape from the hospital 'under her guidance.' The scenes best depict the change of heart that appeared in many people at this point of war. At the moment, she does not long for cruelty and hardship but is truly sick of it all;

- the depiction of Libby Prison. Let me quote the excerpt from The Daily Richmond Enquirer (1864): "Libby takes in the captured Federals by scores, but lets none out; they are huddled up and jammed into every nook and corner; at the bathing troughs, around the cooking stoves, everywhere there is a wrangling, jostling crowd" - the scenes in NORTH AND SOUTH are not something we encounter in SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, for instance, but its more symbolic violence accurately depicts the worst treatment of human beings - Wayne Newton deserves the kudos of portraying sadistic Thomas Turner - more condensed than in the novel but both visually and psychologically memorable;

- Constance's visit at President Lincoln's concerning her request to help George get out of Libby Prison..."I don't run this war but this war runs me" - a nice contrast between care, feelings of patriotism and righteousness and the limitations that arise from politics;

However, the episode has its flaws, too, which do not reduce the value of the series considerably but appear embarrassing at single details. This refers, primarily, to the confrontation scene between Mrs Neal and Virgilia. Her nervous breakdown may be caused by the situation and various preceding plots of the administrator against her. Yes, since the administrator accused her of shortage of nurses, we have been waiting for such rift between the two. That occurs pretty authentic in the scene but...come on! what she does in this scene or how she pushes Mrs Neal may make viewer laugh rather than take it all seriously. Later, as she turns up at the Congressman's, the purely 'striptease' lustful scene may perhaps lead some feminists to utter "These men are animals" but result in a little shortage of good taste. At this moment, Virgilia's character is thoroughly sold to mere lust. She is a 'challenge' that comes and goes in male-female relationship...

There are two additional guest appearances introduced and they need a mention: aforementioned Wayne Newton as the 'beast' who runs Libby Prison (consider the way he plays his role with all symbolism) and Lee Horsley as Rafe Beaudeen, a brooding gentleman who always appears unexpectedly, at the most accurate moments. A man of vague past, vague identity, peculiar intentions. We look forward to more surprises with him...

While many of the previous episodes attempted at a balance between horror and glamor, violence and relief, blood of battles and awe of costumes, Episode Four is, perhaps, most 'packed' with gore proving to be brutally frank about war reality at multiple levels. Meanwhile, it is a very accurate depiction of the historic moment when the southern army was in rapid decline.

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