'Little Women' Recap Part 2 & 3: Good Day Good Wives

Credit: Courtesy of MASTERPIECE on PBS, BBC, and Playground
Photo Credit: Courtesy of MASTERPIECE on PBS, BBC, and Playground

PBS puts the back two-thirds of the Little Women miniseries together as a modernized two-hour movie.

Jo: In his pocket Marmee! Isn't that a dreadful state of things!?"

Last week's episode of Little Women ended right where it should, about one third of the way through the story, with Marmee running to Washington to tend to her ailing husband, leaving the girls alone to cope. That first hour as an adaptation wasn't bad, but it got frustrating at points where it handwaved in the directions of modernization: The odd opening, Jo's very firm line about wanting to be born a boy, vague hints of Beth being autistic in a time when there wasn't a word for it. But the series doesn't actually have the nerve to really follow through with any of that, because to do so would stray from the heart of the story.

Strangely enough, the back two-thirds of the series fare better because there are no winks at modernity at all, there are merely changes to bring the story into the acceptable range of what an audience wants their heroines to do in 2018. For instance, since the story needs the passage of time to feel real while Marmee is gone, rather than having the girls sits around writing "Letters," they backtrack to Amy's Valley of Humiliation over the pickled limes and Meg's trip to the Moffat's home and Vanity Fair. (Meg's dress is pretty divine, though in order not to show her as petty or greedy, they condense it to one party.) Then events shoot forward again pushing headlong into Little Women's other famous sequence, Beth's contraction of Scarlet Fever at the Hummels.

Credit: Courtesy of MASTERPIECE on PBS, BBC, and Playground

But this is not a parable about what happens to the virtuous sister when others are lazy, as that would make Meg, Jo, and Amy look bad. There's also a modernized level of terror added to this version that most don't possess, by first having Mr. Lawrence disclose just how deadly the illness is, and then actually having Beth act out her fever delusions, instead of peacefully lying comatose in bed so others can hover over her. (Once again, Gambon is amazingly emotionally affecting for such a small part. I cried more over the shutting of the piano lid than Jo's whispers to Beth.) 

There's also heavy editing of Meg's life lessons, starting with Aunt March settling the question of her engagement to Brooke, and then montaging through the three-year gap that separates "Little Women" and "Good Wives." This being television, the wedding isn't a casual affair. Meg does wear a white wedding gown, instead of the "everyday" dress she wears in the book in a pious insistence that a wedding is another day. The girls are all in their finest with floral wreaths, and obviously bridesmaids. The refusal of Mr. Lawrence's alcohol is cut wholesale. I suppose the puritanism of the original simply wouldn't work as well in 2018, though they do keep the ridiculous "the first kiss goes to Marmee" bit. Frankly, the best part is Aunt March eating crow and handing over the pearls to Meg with an entreaty of her pardon. Angela Lansbury *is* the reason to watch this, y'all. 

Mr. March: To converse on any other subject can only be a joy to me.

And that's about it for Meg. Her "Domestic Experiences" hilariously montage through her jelly making failures, skip the budgetary mistakes altogether, and no one bothers with the "On The Shelf" chapter at all, as none of that would fly today. They just go right to the part the book was too prim and proper to show: Her pregnancy with Daisy and Demi. (They even show her giving birth, which the original story would *never* have done.)  Amy is also pushed out of the way, with  Jo and Amy's "Calls" reduced to a single visit to Aunt March and Aunt Carrol, which leads directly to "Consequences" and the trip to Europe to pursue her artistic abilities. The show makes it seem like Jo's inability to be polite gets her shut out of being included in the opportunity, but the book makes it clear Aunt March already was planning this trip and never thought it a good notion to take her. 

That leaves the show to put Jo's modern-esque career woman persona and "Literary Lessons" front and center, though the outcome is reduced to a single line in a time-jump. Beth continues to be mostly sick. Laurie's behavior and "Tender Troubles" spur Jo to run away to New York City to work as a governess and have life experiences while living in a boarding house. Of course, this is the introduction of Professor Bhaer who has a bear, a kindly sort of face, and styling that suggests he's the 1870s variation of a self-righteous, mansplaining hipster. He even buys them tickets to a Philosopher's Symposium. 

Credit: Courtesy of MASTERPIECE on PBS, BBC, and Playground​

​Jo is, of course, instantly infatuated by him, his singing in German, and his kindliness towards children. (His elephant impression is questionable.) At least they get rid of most of his Godly rantings stuff from "A Friend", but sadly they leave in his negging on the writings in newspapers, which is Jo's side hustle in New York City. The biggest modernization comes here, instead of following the original story where Jo immediately hates herself for writing these stories because Bhaer dispises them and burns her work. Here, she stands up for herself and her writing, making him feel like a total idiot. There's no "attempting to write wholesome" nonsense that makes Bhaer proud of her either.

Instead, she just leaves New York and goes home to Beth.

Jo: I don't believe in that sort of love and I don't intend to try.

Interspersed with "Jo's Journal" and her budding not-actually-a-relationship-yet, a few postcards from Amy's "Our Foreign Correspondent" stories arrive as well, most of which focus on how Amy is reading Jo's stories that are printed up in the newspaper. This is swiftly followed by Laurie's "Heartache," which drives him to Europe as well. (They had him grow his hair out so he's extra 2018 hot, too.) Oh look, there's Amy! Suddenly the flirting between Laurie and Amy, which got a surprisingly early nod in the "Amy's Will" scene works more like foreshadowing since there's precious little time to get "New Impressions" or "Learning To Forget," including their adorable "boat themed" engagement, though it's paper boats, not rowing. (And yes, they stick to Amy and Laurie revealing in "Surprises" they were married off-screen in Europe.)

Credit: Courtesy of MASTERPIECE on PBS, BBC, and Playground

"Beth's Secret" comes out as she gets taken to the ocean before dying, and she passes away and into "The Valley of the Shadow," leaving Jo "All Alone" which pushes her to finally have her first massive success with a piece of writing, massive enough that Professor Bhaer even sees it in New York. Meanwhile, Aunt March has a stroke and prepares to die ahead of Bhaer's arrival, but he's not far behind, carrying the necessary prop for "Under The Umbrella" and everything.

The series closes in "Harvest Time" as the book does, with Jo and Bhaer married and ensconced in Plumfield, which Aunt March helpfully bequeathed to Jo. Technically a school for boys, Daisy and Demi both attend, though Amy's sickly daughter Bess does not. Jo's own sons, Rob and Teddy, are also students too. Everyone is at peace, at least that is until the next adaptation of Little Women comes round in September, to a theater near you.