(Before I get to the episode, may I just say that Laura Linney's introductions would be more effective if delivered with less...melodrama? Better writing would help, not to mention more accurate writing [e.g., the mistaken i.d. of Flora Finching with Dickens' wife]. Also, a note to PBS: the preview included a massive plot spoiler for anyone who hasn't read the novel. For crying out loud...)
This cluster of episodes drew out the thematic connections beween Merdle, Mr. Dorrit, and Mrs. Clennam, all of whom are trapped in figurative prisons of their own making. Fittingly enough, while the viewer could still play "spot the prison bars" (fences, window panes), Dorrit and Merdle in particular repeatedly appeared as isolated figures in a hostile or unwelcoming crowd; each man suffers psychological battering from High Society's demands, whether it's Mr. Dorrit's growing paranoia about his genteel position (now manifesting itself in increasingly eccentric and even violent ways) or Mr. Merdle's glum and apparently inexplicable dismay at every reference to his success. Both men, that is, squirm under the pressure of social fictions about their identity--except that in Mr.Dorrit's case, most of the fictions in question are in fact projections of his own psychological collapse. As in the novel, though, Mr. Merdle remains a cipher; we overhear Mr. Dorrit's delusions, but have only incidental access to Mr. Merdle's (as when, for example, he asks if people are trying to take money out of the bank). However, there is no sign of Mr. Merdle's famous self-handcuffing action. (Incidentally, note the disapproving butler, whose performance comes just shy of outright disrespect. The sniggering, class-conscious servant is a Dickensian motif.)
It struck me that although many of the installments have involved consumption of some sort or another, it was most obvious this time around. Amy disappoints her family because she is a terrible consumer: consistently attracted to some form of productive work, emotional or otherwise, she cannot accustom herself to the work involved in the "life of leisure," which is all about conspicuous consumption. All of her pleasures relate to work or the memory of work; she can enjoy her uncle's music, a remnant of his professional career, but cannot master the conversational lingo of art appreciation (which, as it happens, has little to do with the art). In effect, Amy flunks "accomplishments," those amateur feminine niceties that advertise her non-working--and thus genteel--status. Unlike her sister, who advertises herself through loud makeup and equally loud clothing, Amy quietly refuses to turn herself into something to be devoured on the marriage market. But consumption manifests itself in other ways as well, especially in the repeated dinner parties and, of course, the men whose lives appear to be sucked out of them once they enter Mr. Merdle's bank. By the end of the episode, just about every man with cash has willingly thrown himself into Mr. Merdle's Sarlacc pit.