“Mercy Street” Takes on Civil War Nursing in New PBS Period Drama

Fans of period dramas, get excited, because PBS has a new series about the Civil War that (at least in its premiere) does not disappoint. Mercy Street is set in Alexandria, Virginia, will have six episodes, and is based on memoirs and letters from people who worked at the actual Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria. Unlike most Civil War stories that often focus on the fighting white men, Mercy Street focuses on two white female protagonists, and some of the free black people who work in the hospital. Mary Phinney is a young widow from New England who has come to Virginia in hopes of putting her nursing skills to use. Emma Green is a Southern belle whose family owns the hotel that has now become a hospital. Samuel Diggs was born free in the North and has impressive medical skills that are ignored because of the color of his skin.

Are you hooked yet?

The story begins with Mary’s arrival in Alexandria, after being appointed Head Nurse at the newly opened Mansion House Hospital, a former hotel that has been claimed by the Union Army, who refuse to pay rent to its owner, James Green, Sr., unless he declares allegiance to the Union. Her presence is not particularly welcome, as the concept of nursing is still fairly new, but she is soon put to work as an extra set of hands is always needed. Being so close to the front line, Mansion House Hospital has also taken in some Confederate soldiers but they are not treated with equal care and concern. Emma Green comes to the hospital looking for news of her beau, and ends up staying when she sees the men being ignored, but her concern catches the attention of civilian doctor Jed Foster, and he argues with Mary about the men needing equal care, while she argues with him about her abolitionist beliefs. Later, Samuel Diggs saves a man’s life and Mary covers for him by telling Dr. Foster that she was the one who performed the procedure.

Mary Phinney (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead)
Mary Phinney (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead)

The first episode of Mercy Street struggled to introduce all of its characters and subplots and was not as smooth as it could have been. There were a few scenes trying to introduce Samuel and his love interest Aurelia that felt forced into the sequence of events, as though the writers were trying to reassure us early on that this show was not just about the white people. Samuel didn’t really come to life as a fully realized character until his moment with Mary where he saved a man’s life.

Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant) and Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III) stop to flirt
Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant) and Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III) stop to flirt

The subplot of the Green family starting to sell coffins as a way to make money while the army uses their hotel without paying rent felt like it was introduced in a much more natural fashion. The interactions between Mary and Emma in the hospital were also very powerful and well-written, as well as the argument between Mary and Dr. Foster showing where both of them have room to grow and teach each other. I expect that the number of moments that felt forced will diminish as each of the characters and subplots come into their own.

Emma Green (Hannah James) making her way coldly past the Union soliders in her family's house
Emma Green (Hannah James) making her way coldly past the Union soldiers in her family’s house

And of course, one of the most important aspects when it comes to a good period drama is the research. With Mercy Street they not only had to work to make period-appropriate clothing and furnishings, but they also had to work with medical history experts to make sure that the actors were doing everything from holding a scalpel to tying a ligature appropriately. The careful research in Mercy Street shows, and it is one of the show’s high points.

The premiere episode “The New Nurse” made for an exciting start to Mercy Street, and I will certainly be tuning in in the weeks to come. Mercy Street airs on Sunday nights at 10P.M. on PBS, after Downton Abbey. Will you be joining me in watching?

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