Mercy Street Episodes 4-5

I am more than a little behind in my recap/review of Mercy Street, but I’ll make an effort to get to the end of this season (there were six episodes) by the end of this week. Time will tell if that actually happens.

And there will be spoilers. You are hereby warned.

Episode 4 picks up on and runs with a thread that was only hinted at earlier: the efforts of the ladies of the Green family to help the Confederate effort in whatever way they can. It’s easy to forget the role that women played in wars throughout history, and I don’t just mean on the home-front waving their flags. There were simple efforts like sewing socks and shirts for the boys, but when organized (by such groups as the United States Christian Commission and the United States Sanitary Commission), these efforts proved to be of no small importance to the war overall. First of all, notice the “United States” in the name of both organizations. There was certainly organization in the South, but it wasn’t at quite the same level as in the North. Second, these organizations rallied incredible amounts of supplies, medical and otherwise, for the troops. The armies in general were much better-provisioned than in previous wars (thanks to railroads, industrialized production, and a more mature government than, say, the Continental Congress, which had to beg for money from the colonies to feed the Continental Army). Third, think about the word “sanitary” and what that means in a military context. During the Civil War, disease was still by far the biggest killer of soldiers, but following Florence Nightingale’s efforts during the Crimean War in the 1850’s, people were beginning to wake up to the necessity of good sanitation and cleanliness.

(As an aside, I quite like Nurse Mary’s repeated, half-goading references to Miss Nightingale when she’s speaking with Nurse Hastings, who made such a big deal of having trained under Miss Nightingale.)

But of course, we don’t see the young Green ladies, Emma and Alice, knitting socks or sewing shirts. We see them throwing a ball for the Yankees, in the name of the Confederate cause. Which seems illogical, except that they’re trying to distract the Yankees so that Frank Stringfellow, a charming but dangerous young man who’s part of the Knights of the Golden Circle (it’s real!), can help Tom escape. (Tom is Alice’s beau and has been suffering from “soldier’s heart”.) He’s a prisoner of war as well as a patient at the Mansion House hospital, and pretty soon he’ll be shipped off to a prison camp–definitely not somewhere I’d like to be. So the girls dance, and Frank helps Tom to escape, quite effectively bullshitting a guard who hears them as they break out through the water-closet window (and, yes, well-appointed homes did have indoor plumbing). The two of them don’t make it too far before they’re pursued. Tom takes out his pistol and, partly because of the demons in his mind and maybe partly because he thinks it’ll help Frank get away, he shoots himself in the head.

I like the touch of the Knights of the Golden Circle. I like the drama of the escape. I like the girls’ agency and loyalty to their cause (albeit a bad one). I like that they didn’t blink at the deceit. Women really did engage is these sorts of derring-do. It’s often the Southern ladies who are remembered: Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow come to mind. In spite of that, Tom’s escape was anticlimactic. We go through his escape and the girls’ ball just  to have Tom kill himself. He could have died with quite a bit less climbing out of water closet windows.

The other major storyline of the episode is Aurelia’s predicament. The nasty Simon Bullen has lied to her and taken advantage of/raped her, and now she’s with child. Understandably driven a little mad by this, she first tries a medicine to get rid of the child, then she takes a metal rod and, well . . . you can imagine. It doesn’t end well; she does a lot of damage to herself. And, locked away up in his room by Nurse Mary, Doctor Foster–the only doctor in the place who can be trusted to help Aurelia–is in Civil War-era rehab. He’s still shaky from the withdrawal from morphine, so it falls to Sam–Aurelia’s love interest–to do the surgery, with Dr. Foster’s guidance. Thus we have not only drug addiction (and recovery) and obstetric surgery in this episode, we also have mental illness. Quite a bit of medical stuff shoved in there for us.

(Also, I liked Dr. Foster’s growing respect for Sam.)

The upshot of this comes in the next episode, when Sam is overcome with absolutely justified righteous anger at Bullen. He confronts Bullen, shouts him down, and physically attacks him. Of course, Bullen isn’t going to just let this go. Some Yankee soldiers are skulking around the hospital to collect their dead brother’s body, and they claim that some of the brother’s belongings are missing, so Bullen pins the theft on Sam. Clever enough, and easy enough to see coming (for the viewer, I mean). It’s these Yankee soldiers who very nearly lynch Sam (Dr. Foster intervenes). And I think this is an important point: there was rampant racism in the North. Though attitudes were changing, and the war would help change them even more, Northerners weren’t necessarily against violence and intimidation of blacks. They weren’t necessarily against slavery or for black rights of any kind. It’s also important to note that this was early in the war, and the war’s aim was much less clearly the abolition of slavery (some would never accept that–some knew it from the beginning).  Sam–wisely–leaves, presumably for another state.

The other storyline, of Emma’s efforts and Tom’s death, proceeds with Frank telling a gallant lie to Emma. He tells her that Tom died bravely drawing off their Yankee pursuers, and Emma believes him. But when she learns the truth, she tells him firmly that she isn’t a child who needs to be protected from the truth. So he gives her the truth: he’s a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle–a fact which will have further payoff in the next episode.

Meanwhile, there’s a long-simmering subplot about Emma’s father and the loyalty oath. Southerners in occupied territory were required to sign the oath, and naturally many resisted. Mr.Green has been trying to wheedle out of it to the best of his ability by cozying up to Yankee officers and hemming-and-hawing. When they bring Tom’s body to be buried, they are confronted by Union soldiers who try to stop them from burying the body (because it’s an unauthorized gathering and unauthorized burial). For the first time, Mr. Green stands up to the soldiers and tells them to shoot him if they dare. They let the mourners bury the body, but a little later, Mr. Green is arrested for his intransigence. This seems to me a pretty good representation of dilemmas faced by the people of any occupied land (the Southerners considered it an occupation). No, we may not have much sympathy for their cause, but on a human level, it’s interesting to see their struggles–and I greatly appreciate how varied those struggles are for all these characters.

We end episode 5 with the real pièce de résistance: we see Frank in the dead of the night, talking with some mustachioed fellow who, as the conversation moves along is apparently an actor (hm) and is working as an agent for the Southern cause (hmm) and who wants to help Frank kill President Lincoln (hmmmm), who happens to be making a visit soon to the Mansion House hospital . . . and he wants to do it by blowing up the hospital (remember, remember, the 5th of November? Or The Crater?).

On a historical note, President and Mrs. Lincoln really did visit many hospitals (Washington City was littered with them, as was Alexandria). In fact, Lincoln spent much of his time at the Old Soldiers Home north and west of the White House. John Wilkes Booth–who, if you didn’t guess was the mystery person whom Frank was talking to and who, of course, murdered Lincoln in April 1865–even planned to kidnap Lincoln on his usual route to and from the Soldiers Home. Mary Lincoln gets a bad rap, but she actually spent a lot of time with wounded and sick soldiers, cheering them up and writing letters for them.

Overall, I loved these two episodes. As mentioned, I deeply appreciate the way the writers have sketched out a wider reality–not just battles and killing, but also a ball and petty jealousies in a hospital, and a wounded deserter, and a free black woman whose life isn’t all rainbows and sunshine, and civilians balancing devotion to a cause with the exigency of the moment . . . Yes, there’s a bit of melodrama (they’re going to blow up the hospital with Lincoln in it?), and there may be one or two subplots too many, but I am really enjoying this show.

On that note, I will close and come back at some later date to recap/review the final episode of season 1 of Mercy Street.

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