Mercy Street, Episode 1

I might not blog about every episode of the new PBS drama Mercy Street, but I’ll at least blog the first episode, which aired a week ago today. As background, Mercy Street is set (sometime) in 1862 in a hotel converted to a military hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. Our protagonist (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is Mary Phinney, a young widow who has come to volunteer as a nurse at the hospital. We in short order meet Dr. Jedediah Foster, who is slightly abrasive but willing to take risks and who comes from a slave-holding background in spite of being a Union doctor. We also meet Dr. Byron Hale, a more by-the-books doctor who clashes with Dr. Foster. The owners of the converted hotel are also hanging around town, though most every other Southern sympathizer has fled and/or joined the war effort. Most prominently, we meet Emma Green, a young woman who, in spite of being quite inexperienced with, well, everything, seems intelligent enough and has a desire to help where she can.

I’ll start with a few notes on historical stuff. I won’t be critiquing the costuming, which looks fine to me but which I’ve seen some real hard-core enthusiasts pick apart. I’ll just comment on things that a casual viewer might have missed.

First, we open with Mary Phinney waiting to be seen by Dorothea Dix. Miss Dix, a real person, is known largely for her advocacy for the mentally ill but was also Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War. And, as depicted, she had certain standards. She would only appoint women who were over 35 years old and rather plain-looking (which would preclude our heroine, Mary Phinney, on both counts). This was, as is implied in Mercy Street, to keep eligible young women from the potential hazards of being surrounded by so many young men (and perhaps the men from being tempted by pretty young women). By hiring and firing nurses for her own reasons, Miss Dix irritated Army doctors, who would have preferred to choose their own staff. She did great work, but because she was so inflexible in pushing her own people and point of view, her work was eventually eclipsed and superseded by other organizations.

Also, a note on the first scene: we are told we are in “Washington City, 1862”. (Mary meets Miss Dix in the city before being assigned to the Mansion House hospital across the Potomac River in Alexandria.) This is correct: in the early-to-mid 19th century, the usual term was Washington City. The District of Columbia was still fairly sparsely populated (the war would transform the city practically overnight), and Washington City itself only filled a small part of the federal District. Georgetown filled another sector of it, and the rest was mostly empty. (Alexandria had been part of the original 10-miles-square diamond that comprised the District, but the Virginia section of the District retroceded back to Virginia in 1847, leaving the half-complete square shape we know and love today.) At the time of the Civil War, the federal city was called “Washington City” almost exclusively.

Mary and Miss Dix then have an exchange about whether slavery is a moral or political issue (I believe Miss Dix is trying to draw Mary out, but it isn’t exactly clear). It’s an interesting discussion, because it illuminates the Victorian notion that women weren’t supposed to discuss politics, but if they couched their arguments in moral terms, then they might be able to make themselves heard. Slavery was one of those issues where it was, if not desirable, sometimes grudgingly admitted that women might comment, but only on a moral basis.

The one thing I didn’t like about this discussion (and the point comes up again later in the show) is Mary’s insistence that “emancipation is upon us”. Well. Not really. It’s quite a stretch to say that in mid-1862 the end of slavery seemed nigh. Sure, many people were hopeful and working for the end of slavery, and, yes, Abraham Lincoln would soon write the Emancipation Proclamation (and issue it in September). However. The implication of Mary’s words is that the public and political opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of the abolition of slavery, and it simply wasn’t. Even when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, it met with some heavy resistance, and it didn’t really do much effective good. At this stage in the war, it wasn’t clear to many people that the war was entwined with slavery, no less that slavery was effectively done. For Mary to state that slavery was clearly on its way out at this point is either something of a misunderstanding of how attitudes changed during the war or an indication that Mary is woefully misinformed about things.

Alexandria, when Mary gets there, is depicted as almost a Wild West town. This is fairly accurate, actually; the Union Army had moved in, so thousands of ill-behaved young men descended on the city. It didn’t help that they knew the town was full of Southerners and Southern sympathizers. They didn’t have much patience to spare on the enemy. There are some pretty wild tales of the lawlessness of the place at this time.

Now, as we get further in the episode, we see some great examples of Civil War medicine, which is pretty fun. We see a plaster cast being placed on a broken leg, we see a hypodermic needle (with morphine!), and we see an artery being tied off (by a former slave–cool in itself). I liked that after the artery was tied off, the former slave who did the operation, Samuel Diggs, comments that the doctor should tug on the silk thread that would protrude from the healing wound. The thread would rot and come away when the wound was healed. This is called a ligature (as Samuel tells us), and it’s something I learned about at the Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD. We also see a case of “soldier’s heart”, which is portrayed as something like heart palpitations. I know that soldiers’ heart COULD manifest itself in the form of heart problems, but “soldier’s heart” was mainly used as an early term for what appears to have been PTSD–that is, for soldiers who were overwhelmed by the horrors they’d seen.

One of the best parts of the episode, I think, is the wounded soldier who claims he’s eighteen but eventually admits to being fifteen. He’s in a battered uniform, and his father was killed beside him in battle. The American flag he’s holding was glued to his hands by dried blood. (Why did no one try to soften the dried blood to take away the flag?) He’s badly wounded, and Mary starts to write a letter for him back to his family. I liked this sequence mostly for the letter, which was a bit intense. Luckily, the writers wisely had the characters comment on the intensity of the letter, breaking the tension a bit. The poor boy dies before the end of the episode, his letter unfinished. (A bit confusingly, Mary goes back to finish the letter, though it actually wasn’t clear earlier that she hadn’t finished it and it’s unclear how she could possibly recall the boy’s every word.)

As Mary’s first day at the hospital comes to an end, she has a conversation with Dr. Foster by the light of a lamp. The discussion opened up the world a bit by giving it some depth. Most Civil War-era stories are very dualistic: the good North, the evil South, or evil slave-holders, victimized slaves/valiant abolitionists. Sometimes, there’s a dash of the romance of the “lost” culture of the “gracious” Antebellum South (you know, the Gone with the Wind vision). But in most stories, the intricacies of the inter-sectional ties are ignored. Families and friends were divided in loyalties in ways that simply aren’t acknowledged. And, as the disagreement over treatment of Confederate soldiers demonstrates, there was more than one way for a person to demonstrate moral failure. In this exchange, Mary challenges Dr. Foster for having racist views, and he challenges her for not wanting to treat wounded soldiers just because they’re Confederates. They both have a blind spot, and that’s interesting.

This episode had some great moments, and the fact that they’re tackling this setting and subject is a major point in the show’s favor with me. I would have liked to see a bit more life to the episode. It felt a bit like they were hitting particular marks, and though the acting was decent, it also felt by-the-book. While we are introduced to a cadre of characters (maybe one or two too many) and are efficiently informed of their situations, the characters themselves didn’t necessarily emerge quite yet from the cocoon of their situations. Mary, for instance is “the spunky nurse who’s recently widowed”, but I didn’t get much sense of her beyond that.

My first thought is that a bit of humor would go a long way. It’s the surest way to let your audience connect with a character. I know that Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches was source material for the writers. I wish they had taken note of the gentle humor Alcott used to get her readers closer to herself and the men she tended. (On a side note, I also recently finished reading the memoirs of a WW1 nurse, Olive Dent, and she, too, made liberal use of humor to help introduce us to the sometimes-grizzly world of a wartime nurse.)

Overall, though, a wonderful start to a really exciting series. I’m looking forward to tonight’s episode, too.

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