MERCY ON US ALL
The second season of PBS’ Mercy Street is very much a continuation of the first season in that it explores the Civil War in regards to the hospital staff, both male doctors and female nurses, both pro-Union and pro-Confederate. The producers have successfully brought this part of the War alive, giving it meaning and depth.
Inspired by the actions of so many who donated their time to the injured and ill, taken mainly from memoirs of the period, the writing, direction, art direction, costuming and acting are exemplary. The costumes, as a prime example, are period accurate with a lived-in look to all of them, including those worn by the rich Southerners. The men with their beards and mustaches, reflecting the dandies of the era, and the women gorgeously displayed with parasols and lace handkerchiefs.
Mid-War in a military hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, a captured town by the Union Army, the setting is a once-fashionable hotel run by a family still dedicated to the now-failing Confederacy. The two daughters of the Green Family, Emma (Hannah James) and Alice (Anna Sophia Robb) have volunteered as a way of nursing Rebel soldiers, who were being ignored by Union doctors, but also act as spies. Their father, James (Gary Cole) and mother, Jane (Donna Murphy), have to stay visibly neutral so as not to lose their property or their freedom.
The show does surprise with the amount of petty posturing among the staff: One nurse, Anne Hastings (Tara Summers), a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s Crimea War nursing, tries to lord it over the others, and makes a grand play for one of the docs angling for a promotion, Dr. Hale (Norbert Leo Butz).
Much of the storyline was inspired by the true story of Mary Phinney the Baroness Von Olnhausen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her relationship with Dr. Foster (Josh Radnor).
There’s a chaplain, Hawkins (Luke McFarlane), several orderlies, a slimy and crooked chef, a bullying Pinkerton man, a nun, other nurses, and quite a few African-American actors, playing slaves or, in one major role, a free-born man studying to be a doctor, Samuel Diggs (McKinley Blecher III), and middle-aged Belinda (L. Scott Caldwell), a slave to Mrs. Green. The blacks’ storylines are not as prominent as the whites’ but they are powerful enough.
This is compelling storytelling, with truths about humanity no different from today. Creators Lisa Quijano Wolfinger and David Zabel, aided by writers Jason Richman and Walon Green in this season, and directors Stephen Cragg, Laura Innes and Alex Zakrzewski, give us plotlines which involve skullduggery from Confederates, including one with Jack Fallahee as a young man ready to blow up the hospital filled with troops.
It’s not particularly gripping, but its scholarly look and feel makes it mighty entertaining, and it has authenticity on its side.
photos courtesy of PBS