“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – Episode Four “1854-1856” Commentary

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – EPISODE FOUR “1854-1856” Commentary

If I had to pick one or two episodes from 1985’s “NORTH AND SOUTH” that I would view as personal favorites, one of my choices would be Episode Four. This episode provided a series of sucker punches to the audience that provided the miniseries’ narrative with a strong forward drive. 

The end of Episode Three saw the Hazard family leave their home in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1854 for a visit to the Main’s plantation in South Carolina’s low country. Episode Four picked up a week or two later with the Hazards attending a ball held by the Mains at Mont Royal, the latter’s plantation. Everything seems to be all right in the world for the two families. Both Billy Hazard and Charles Main are on furlough following two years at West Point. And even Virgilia Hazard seemed to be behaving cordially toward her hosts and their neighbors. And then . . . everything goes to pot. On the very night of the ball, Virgilia meets Grady, the slave of neighbor James Huntoon. Ashton Main, still angry at Billy for rejecting her sexual offer two years ago, makes a beeline for sister Brett’s current beau Forbes LaMotte, Madeline LaMotte’s nephew-in-law and the two engage in a sexual tryst inside the plantation’s barn. Unfortunately for Ashton, Billy walks in on her and Forbes and he swings his attention to Brett. The Hazard family’s visit ends when Virgilia becomes romantically involved with Grady before she aids his escape from slavery and South Carolina. Two weeks after the Hazards’ departure, Madeline discovers from her dying father that her dead mother was one-fourth black, making her one-eighth black.

The second half of Episode Four features Billy and Charles’ graduation from West Point in June 1856. George and Orry reconcile after the debacle following Grady’s escape two years earlier. Both discuss Billy’s marriage proposal to Brett. However, Orry is reluctant to give his approval, due to the couple’s regional differences. Billy and Brett’s continuing romance leads a jealous Ashton to sleep with some of Billy’s Northern-born friends at the cadet. Three months later, Madeline informs Orry about her father’s revelation during one of their trysts at Salvation Chapel. Orry suggests they leave South Carolina together, before her husband Justin LaMotte learns about her family secret. Unfortunately, Ashton discovers she has become pregnant, due to her sexual trysts at West Point. She seeks Madeline’s help to abort the unborn child. Madeline leads her to a free woman named Aunt Belle Nin to act as an abort Ashton’s pregnancy. Unfortunately for Madeline, she had lied to Justin about her whereabouts. And upon her return to Resolute – the LaMotte plantation – she learns that Justin had exposed her lie about meeting a friend at a Charleston hotel for lunch. Angry over her lie and unwillingness to tell the truth about her whereabouts, Justin locks Madeline in one of the manor’s bedrooms, allowing her to sustain on bread and water for several days. Madeline’s free born servant, Maum Sally, tries to free her; but Justin prevents the escape attempt and kills the older woman with a punch to the face.

Wow! Not only did a great deal occurred in Episode Four, but important factors in the narrative that drove the story forward. However, before I wax lyrical over this episode, I must point out some of the flaws. One, I found it a little ridiculous that Billy and Charles wore their West Point cadet uniforms during most of their furlough in the episode’s first half. Two, West Point was not in the habit of hosting balls on its campus following a graduation. Following the graduation ceremony, it was traditional for graduates to travel to New York City for a celebration luncheon at an elite hotel during the 19th century. And they would NOT be wearing their cadet uniforms long after the ceremony. Three, Grady told Virgilia that he had taught himself how to read. How? How does one achieve that without anyone else acting as tutor?

My biggest problem with Episode Four centered on Ashton’s trysts with several West Point graduates during the night of the Academy’s ball. I found the entire sequence rather unpleasant and sexist. Let me get something straight. Although I found Terri Garber’s portrayal of Ashton Main very entertaining and well-done, I believe that Ashton is a repellent woman. But what I found even more repellent is author John Jakes’ idea of what constitutes a villainous woman. Ashton, like a good number of his villains both female and male, tend to possess some kind of sexual perversion. In Ashton’s case, she is portrayed as sexually promiscuous. And it is this promiscuity that is allegedly a hallmark of her villainy. Episode One introduced George Hazard arriving at a New York train station in the company of two prostitutes, with whom he previously had sex. The episode makes it clear we are to view George as a young, cheerful womanizer for us to admire. Episode Four featured Ashton having pre-marital sex with Forbes LaMotte and two years later, with a handful of West Point graduates. The episode makes it clear we are to view her as a sexual pervert and morally bankrupt. For me, Ashton’s moral bankruptcy is stemmed from her racism and other elitist views, her selfishness and vindictive nature. Unless she had used her sexuality to engage in rape or some other violent behavior, I refuse to view Ashton’s sexuality as something evil. 

Despite my disgust at the portrayal of Ashton’s sexuality and other flaws found in Episode Four, I still enjoyed it very much. Once again, director Richard T. Heffron displayed his talent for big crowd scenes. This particular episode featured the dazzling Mont Royal ball sequence. Not only did Heffron and Larner did an excellent job with a carefully choreographed dance number accompanied by the tune, “Wait For the Wagon”, they managed to capture the detailed little dramas that filled the sequence – including Virgilia’s first meeting with Grady and the beginning of Ashton’s trysts with Forbes LaMotte. The other major sequence featured in Episode Four also include Billy and Charles’ graduation from West Point. George and Orry’s West Point graduation inEpisode Two merely featured a few graduates receiving diplomas and the friends congratulating their fellow classmates. Audiences get to see their younger kinsmen march in an elaborate parade for the Academy’s guests. The screenplay and Heffron’s direction also explored minor dramas that included George and Orry’s discussion about Billy and Brett at Benny Haven’s tavern and Ashton’s encounters with her cousin’s fellow Academy graduates.

But the episode featured some other delicious dramatic moments. The best include the beginning of Virgilia and Grady’s romantic relationship inside a deserted barn, during a hurricane. This scene not only benefited from Heffron’s direction, but also some outstanding performances from Kirstie Alley and Georg Stanford Brown, who created a sizzling screen chemistry together. Another outstanding dramatic scene turned out to be the breakfast scene at Mont Royal during which the Hazards and Mains learn about Grady’s escape and Virgilia’s participation in it. Heffron’s direction, along with excellent performances from Terri Garber, Jim Metzler (who was a bit hammy at times), John Stockwell, James Read and Patrick Swayze infused a great deal of delicious tension into this scene. But the stand-out performance came from Alley, who did a great job of expressing Virgilia’s lack of remorse over Grady’s escape and highly-charged words about the country’s future with slavery. The actress and Brown also shined in a well-acted scene that featured a visit from abolitionist William Still to Grady and Virgilia’s Philadelphia slum home. The scene also included a first-rate performance from Ron O’Neal as the famous abolitionist.

My article on Episode Three had commented on Garber and Genie Francis’ portrayals of the Main sisters, Ashton and Brett. However, the actresses really knocked it out of the ballpark in a conversation scene between the two sisters during the West Point graduation parade sequence. Another excellent scene featured fine performances from the two leads – Swayze and Read – as George and Orry discuss the possibilities and drawbacks of a marriage between Billy and Brett. However, the episode’s final outstanding scene displayed the brutalities of spousal abuse in the LaMotte marriage. Lesley-Anne Down, David Carradine and Olivia Cole gave superb performances during the ugly circumstances that followed Madeline’s assistance in Ashton’s abortion.

Cinematographer Stevan Larner and film editors Michael Eliot and Scott C. Eyler did excellent jobs in capturing the superficial glitter and glamour of the Mont Royal ball. Larner’s photography perfectly captured the dark squalor of Virgilia and Grady’s Philadelphia’s hovel. And once again, he worked perfectly with Heffron, Eliot and Eyler in re-creating the military color of Billy and Charles’ West Point graduation. Once again, Vicki Sánchez’s costumes impressed me. Mind you, I was not that impressed by the costumes worn by Alley, Down and Wendy Kilbourne during the Mont Royal ball sequence. Their costumes looked more Hollywood than anything close to mid-19th century gowns. And the jewelry that gowns that Genie Francis and Terri Garber wore in that sequence, along with some other costumes:

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Granted, Episode Four featured some flaws in the narrative regarding the West Point graduation sequence and a few other matters. But the episode not only featured some outstanding performances, but also plot lines that really drove it forward. Not surprising, it is one of my favorite episodes in the 1985 miniseries.

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2 Responses

  1. Hello,
    I really appreciated your well-written analysis of Episode 4 in this miniseries. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this program but I remember it well enough to respond with my own thoughts on a few things you’ve pointed out.

    You are quite correct about it being a mistake for Billy and Charles to be wearing their West Point uniforms home on furlough. As I understand it, when the cadets in those days went on furlough after two years at the Academy (the only break they got at the time), they wore a special furlough uniform. I’m guessing it was dark blue, like Union army Civil War uniforms. Anyway, it was a 9-button frock coat (a coat that came down to the knees). BTW, “frock coat” was a type of coat in the 19th Century; so civilians and military soldiers both had what were called frock coats.

    So why wasn’t the furlough uniform featured in the miniseries? My guess is either the producers of the show either didn’t know anything about them; or, most likely, they didn’t want to confuse the audience. A different uniform might make it look like Charles and Billy are no longer cadets at West Point. I would have been very impressed and surprised had this detail been included but I think its omission was just one of those TV things.
    And besides furlough uniforms, I’d also like to mention nothing that nothing was mentioned about the Corps of Cadets at West Point while George, Orry, Charles and Billy went to school there; and more than likely, some of the four should have been promoted as cadet officers in the Corps. Cadet officers were identified by chevrons on their sleeves. From what I understand, better students got rank. In those days, schools in the Northeastern US were the bestin the country. Schools in the South were not as good and the miniseries reflects this, showing Orry and Charles as needing help with their education. From watching the program, I got the idea Billy was the best student; then George. They most likely would have graduated with stripes on their jackets. Orry and Charles might have gotten a stripe or two.

    The other thing I wanted to comment on was your thought on Ashton and her sexuality being seen as evil, which you felt was sexist. I think you make an interesting point but I hesitate to say it’s sexism. I don’t mean to come off as one of those people who deny discrimination every time someone points out something they think is racist, sexist, etc.; but I think that in Ashton’s case, EVERYTHING she did was meant to be seen as villainous; I think it’s just her sexual promiscuity is what we remember the most. Anyway, the same pure evil was also the case for Justin LaMotte and Elkanah Bent. But my problem is with these characters being cast as one-dimensional. They are simply incapable of doing anything good. Real life is simply just more complex than that. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the TV series “Mad Men” which is set in the 1960s but one of the reasons I love it is because it’s very authentic in depicting people in an advertising agency office with racist and sexist attitudes. For the most part, none of the characters are pure saints or sinners. I’m not saying I enjoy seeing people being discriminatory… but knowing an office at the time was not going out of its way to hire non-Whites or promote women to higher positions, I think it would be a slap in the face to show the characters with basically modern attitudes about gender, race and class.

    • It’s not the sexist attitude toward Ashton by the characters that bothered me. I expect that in a story set in the mid 19th century. It was John Jakes’ use of Ashton’s sexuality to mark her as someone evil that really bothered me. Immensely. It was okay for the 17 year-old George Hazard to have sex with two prostitutes before leaving New York City for West Point. But Ashton’s sexual trysts with Forbes LaMotte in 1854 and with those West Point graduates some two years later is supposed to be regarded as repellent by the readers. I found that . . . sexist.

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