So, I’m finally getting around to putting down some thoughts about the final episode of season 1 of Mercy Street, the PBS drama about a Civil War hospital in Alexandria (I already recapped episode 1, episodes 2-3, and episodes 4-5).
We left off with the hospital preparing itself for a visit from the president and First Lady. The Knights of the Golden Circle are preparing for the visit, too, but they don’t want to welcome the Lincolns. They want to blow them and the entire hospital to Kingdom Come.
We start with a bit of drama about Doctor Foster being promoted. Doctor Hale and Nurse Hastings have been conniving all along to get rid of that terrible, no good, very bad, clearly-more-talented-and-therefore-unbearable Doctor Foster. I found it all a bit unnecessary. Also unnecessary was the scene a bit later where Nurse Hastings gets so drunk that she’s literally falling all over herself. It seemed pretty far from the conniving, fake-it-’til-you-make-it-even-if-you-are-less-skilled attitude she’s shown previously.
But we quickly move on, to the decrepit prison where Mr. Green is being held. Last episode, he stood up to some soldiers who were trying to keep him from properly burying Tom (the soldier with PTSD who killed himself). That defiance got him thrown into jail. There are a few interesting points here. The sign in front of the building says, “Price, Birch, and Co., Dealers in Slaves.” So what we’re seeing is one of Alexandria’s slave pens, repurposed as a prison (though, where are all the other prisoners?). Before the Civil War, the capital city had a rather unusual relationship to the Peculiar Institution. The District was essentially ruled by Congress, for better and for worse–but mostly for worse. Congress had left the town as a squalid backwater, almost entirely unpaved, unlit, and with terrible sanitation. You see, Congressmen were never in town long enough to care about the state of the city. They had their own constituents to look out for, but sadly Washington City had no constituents to advocate for them (a situation that persists–to some extent–to this very day).
On the other hand, because Congress directly governed the District, it could, theoretically, abolish slavery (or just the slave trade) there. As a small jurisdiction, it could be a guinea pig (there was compensated emancipation in the District; slave owners were paid to give up their slaves; this was not copied elsewhere). With the Compromise of 1850 came the end of the slave trade it DC. Previous to this, there were “slave pens” all across the city: these were the holding cells for slaves ready to be sold, and/or places slaves could be held for “safekeeping” while their masters were in town. (Here’s an interesting history of slavery on and around the National Mall.) There were slave pens attached to fine hotels for their patrons’ convenience. There were even slave pens within sight of the Capitol building itself. This all came to an end with the Compromise of 1850. Slavery was still legal in the District, but the slaves pen were banished . . . aaaalllll the way across the river to Alexandria. Such a long way!
Something else to note here: there was a loyalty oath, and people were arrested for not signing it. In fact, many people were arrested and held without trial for having suspect political views; habeus corpus was suspended by President Lincoln. Although it was a wartime measure to tamp down some of the most vociferous criticism (much of which was dangerously close to treason, and some of which was treason outright), the president was heavily criticized for the measure. It’s still often criticized today. Whatever the case, a lot of people were thrown into squalid, overcrowded jails for political reasons–which sounds pretty awful until you realize that everything about the war was politically motivated, and when you realize that there were Copperheads (Democrats who wanted to give the South what the South wanted) who were willing to rend the Union in two. They were more than happy to allow the South to go its own way and to continue enslaving the black population. They were actively agitating to end the United States.
Near the end of the episode, Mrs. Green cries over a letter telling her that Mr. Green is being moved to the Old Capitol Prison, which was a real, and really notorious, prison at the time.
A little late, we have an argument between Doctors Hale and Foster about the use of anesthesia. It’s true that some doctors didn’t believe in the efficacy of anesthesia, but it seems a pretty extreme and unusual position for Dr. Hale to say the pain is “good” for the soldier. We later see Doctor Hale bribing the steward, the evil Mr. Bullen, to sell off all the chloroform in hopes of making Doctor Foster look bad. I’m not entirely sure what the plan is (how does missing chloroform make Doctor Foster look bad? it makes Bullen look bad), and the analogy to Fort Sumter (made by Hale) doesn’t make any sense. But we see Bullen and Hale for the crappy characters they are. Bullen even calls Hale “kind of a weasel.”
Next, we see the women of the Green family come together to concoct a plan for getting Mr. Green out of prison (legally, by influencing people), while James Jr looks on uselessly (he is sort of a sullen lump on a log). Of course, none of their efforts bear fruit: Emily goes to see Frank, who puts her off at first then tells her mysteriously and emphatically to meet him at 4:00 sharp; Alice and Mrs. Green go to see the provost marshal, but there’s a new man in that position who’s apparently less susceptible to their feminine charms, so they go home empty-handed (so to speak); and James Jr, deciding to be less of a lump on a log, makes a deal with some sketchy Rebel operatives. He plans to smuggle supplies south in coffins, but it looks like he’s probably being played by these fellows.
We get some more of the romantic subtext between Nurse Mary and Doctor Foster and between Emma and Chaplain Hopkins (and later between Aurelia and Sam). And meanwhile, Frank and his buddies are setting up barrels of explosives in the basement of the Mansion House hospital. Mr. Bullen comes across them, and they mortally wound him. Aurelia, who’s been recovering under Nurse Mary’s care from an abortion gone wrong, comes across him and lets him die there alone. Of course, I was yelling at him to tell her that there were men with explosives in the basement, but he just croaks at her as she takes the money she’s owed and leaves. Which is what he deserves, but it annoyed me a little that the only man who could alert people about the plot just lays there and croaks uselessly, just so the drama of the explosion is drawn out. I mean, we know the place won’t blow; Lincoln didn’t die in 1862. Why have Aurelia come across him, aside form the chance to give him a piece of her mind, if no use is going to made of what he knows?
Still, I loved seeing Sam come back for Aurelia–with her son! And this time, the drama isn’t drawn out. She and her son have a beautiful reunion, thanks to that wonderful, handsome, loyal Samuel Diggs.
Meanwhile, we see Frank lighting the fuse for the explosives and the crowd gathering to greet Lincoln, and we cut over to Alice swearing allegiance to the Knights of the Golden Circle. Then we see Frank watching the crowd and seeing Emma there. So he runs–slow mo!–to put out the fuse before he can blow up Lincoln and Emma along with him. We also have intercut scenes of Nurse Mary at the side of a dying deserter. And . . .
So now that I’ve seen the entire first season, I have to say I’m really impressed. I loved the historical content, I enjoyed the varied story-lines and characters, and I thought the writers did a wonderful job of portraying a world where people didn’t have one of two possible viewpoints and where people from the same viewpoint might still have disagreements. There are divided loyalties, multiple motivations, and personal antipathies that have to do with differences in personality more than differences in politics. I like the cues the writers took from history, without being too “on the nose” about it. I especially commend them for telling the story of ordinary people dealing with war. There are so many movies and documentaries about the big names, but war affects everyone, and many of those smaller stories are worth telling, too.
Still, I had some issues. Nurse Mary is a little more wooden than other characters, and as our main protagonist, I would have liked a little more zest to her. Many of the characters are over-the-top, e.g. Nurse Hastings and her scheming. Plot points and character stoyr beats are easy to see coming, e.g. Frank having to abort the plan in order to save Emma. And there were some moments where it felt like they were playing up minor dramas too much, e.g. that moment when the officer in charge (Doctor Summers) pricks his finger and Nurse Mary has to chop off the tip of it. I’ve heard some complaints about historical inaccuracy, but I’m more impressed by what they got right than what they got wrong (in fact, I didn’t notice any obvious inaccuracies, though some dialogue was a bit off).
The ending of the season didn’t seem to quite come to a finish. I know these are storylines they plan to continue into the next season (God willing), but it didn’t feel quite like things were wrapped up properly for the season. It felt like a song where the last note doesn’t cue us that the song is over, and that final note just hangs in the air.
These are, to me, relatively minor issues, and I loved the series. I really, really hope there’s more of Mercy Street! The more historically based drama on TV, the better.