Entry 28 (Part 1): Getting to Know Mercy Street

Mercy Street, “The New Nurse,” Season 1, Episode 1. Directed by Roxann Dawson. Written by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel.

Release Date: January 17, 2016.

We’re finally getting fully introduced to Mercy Street this week and I’m not sure how to feel about it. Unlike some other reviewers, I haven’t seen all 6 episodes, so my thoughts here are only based on the premiere, “The New Nurse.” There are certainly some promising aspects but the episode didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped. The good news is the history’s pretty solid, which isn’t surprising given the list of historical consultants. The bad news is it played a little flat. 

Most of you probably know the show’s major details, so I’ll summarize the episode quickly. In short, “The New Nurse” restricts the action to a 24 hour period, as the titular nurse, Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), spends her first day on the job in Alexandria. After briefly meeting with Dorothea Dix (Cherry Jones), Phinney is dispatched to Mansion House—a hotel recently converted into a hospital. The bulk of the episode is spent moving through a number of intertwining vignettes allowing Phinney, and us, to meet the series’s broad cast of characters. It looks like the most significant of them will be Emma Green (Hannah James), daughter of the hotel’s southern slaveholding owner (played by Gary Cole, the boss from Office Space; “yeah, I’m gonna need you to stop bringing wounded Yankees into my hotel, m’kay?”), Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor), an experienced and experimental northern surgeon from a Maryland plantation family, and Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III), a Philadelphia free black who’s working with the town’s rising contraband population.

This all sounds interesting and visceral. However, while “The New Nurse” delivers the former, it falls short on the latter. Mercy Street may be set in the Civil War, but at its core it’s a hospital drama. That’s fine, but a hospital drama, especially one set in a building literally packed with wounded soldiers, should be fast-paced, gripping, and suspenseful. Instead, “The New Nurse” seems to take its cues from 19th Century literature a little too seriously, and moves too slowly and stately.

Part of this may be the dialogue, which is sometimes well-crafted but too often reads like the writing of the period, rather than actual speech. I’ve noted before how difficult it is to craft and say convincing 19th Century conversations and Mercy Street hits or misses depending on the scene and the actor. Winstead, Radnor, and Belcher III all do pretty well, as do some of the secondary characters (I’ve always liked Peter Gerety and he’s convincing as semi-slimey Dr. Alfred Summers), but sometimes it sounds more like a bad stage melodrama than the kind of convincing historical drama we know “Golden Age” television can produce.

Some other reviewers have been annoyed by a few seemingly forced poetic lines, like “men fight and women pray” or “blood is not grey or blue, madam,” but I didn’t think they were so bad because both were well delivered (by Jones and Radnor, respectively). To me, the bigger problem is one common to 19th Century theater and the other show currently set in Alexandria, The Walking Dead: characters repeatedly and immediately telling you their primary traits and motivations, rather than revealing them in more interesting ways. We scarcely spend a minute with Phinney and Dix before they start arguing about slavery and precisely why they’re nurses. Some characters just pontificate rather than talk. Foster fits this bill, lecturing his nurses on how modern and skilled he is, precisely as his actions are already demonstrating those traits. You could argue, as some do for The Walking Dead, that the high stress situation these characters inhabit makes these conversations both realistic and necessary, but when combined with the sometimes cumbersome dialogue, it just makes me pine for the dulcet, melodious tones of Al Swearengen on Deadwood (albeit a more G-rated PBS version).

But this series will rise or fall on the amount of intrigue generated by its characters, and fortunately it’s here the show best represents the history it’s depicting. It looks like several of them will serve as proxies for real and potentially complicated historical conflicts: Phinney is an uncompromising abolitionist faced with the horrors of war and the realities of a Union cause not yet committed to emancipation, Foster is a northern professional whose plantation childhood convinced him white supremacy is justified and believes the war is solely to save the Union, Diggs is a free black interacting with former slaves and Union soldiers who simultaneously provide a road to freedom while treating African Americans as racially inferior, and Green has to cope with her loyalty to the South while surrounded by human suffering and the collapse of slavery.

I like all four of these storylines in principle but I’m not yet convinced they’ll play out satisfactorily, both historically and dramatically. One of the most frequent complaints about Lincoln was that its narrow focus obscured various other factors that led to the death of slavery, especially the contributions of African Americans. It looks like those critics are going to get their wish in the much broader ensemble of Mercy Street, but will it sacrifice succinct and clear storytelling for inclusive accuracy? We’ll have to see.

So, after one episode, I remain somewhat optimistic about Mercy Street but less so than I was before seeing it. Even if I don’t love the show, it’s solid historical foundation will at least keep it interesting, and good history on TV is always welcome.

Additional Dispatches:

  • So far the most annoying and implausible character is Anne Hastings (Tara Summers). She served with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, but this apparently only made her into a haughty, underqualified, self-righteous monster. The script makes no effort to tell you why she’s this way. I guess we’re supposed to assume everyone who worked with Nightingale is a jerk. What’s more, Dix immediately promotes Phinney to head nurse, which pisses off Hastings. We’re supposed to resent her for this, but her anger seems entirely justified. Maybe I’ll pick a “worst character” for each episode. Hopefully I won’t have to.
  • In his review for Nursing Clio, Brian Craig Miller praises the show’s production, especially the set design. He’s absolutely right, it all looks great and building realistic Civil War sets isn’t always easy, as we saw in The Conspirator.
  • Very worried about the upcoming storyline imagining a plot to blow up Abraham Lincoln. Seems like a shark waiting to be jumped.
  • Does it mention slavery?: As mentioned above, Alexandria’s contraband population is one of the series’s focal points, although they don’t get much screen time this episode until Diggs performs a secret operation near the end. The Green family also owns slaves and we spend a little time with one of them, Belinda (L. Scott Caldwell), so I hope we’ll eventually get some interactions between the slaves, contrabands, and free population in Alexandria. The transition from slave to contraband to soldiers and freedpeople is one popular culture has completely ignored.

Next Entry: Mercy Street, episode 2, “The Haversack,” and episode 3, “The Uniform.”

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8 comments

  1. Erika Holst · January 22, 2016

    In terms of the material culture of the production, I’d give it a B-. There are 1880s tables, 1890s beds, and 1850s lace collars mixed in with abandon, but other details are dead on.

    • Christian McWhirter · January 22, 2016

      That’s really interesting because so many people (myself included) are praising its set design, but you’d certainly know. I guess instead we should praise it for presenting the material culture in such a way that most of us don’t notice the anachronisms, which is really the best these sorts of productions can do most of the time.

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  4. John Fulton · January 16, 2016

    One of my biker friends once said about Sons of Anarchy, “Sure, it’s a soap opera. But it’s OUR soap opera.” I think that about sums up Mercy Street. I’ll keep watching.

    • Christian McWhirter · January 16, 2016

      Hah! True enough. The soapier aspects didn’t really bubble up much in the first episode, so we’ll have to see just how good/bad that stuff gets.

  5. Andy Hall · January 16, 2016

    So far the most annoying and implausible character is Anne Hastings (Tara Summers). She served with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, but this apparently only made her into a haughty, underqualified, self-righteous monster. The script makes no effort to tell you why she’s this way. I guess we’re supposed to assume everyone who worked with Nightingale is a jerk.

    All of those adjectives, except for underqualified, might reasonably be applied to Nightingale herself. She is (quite rightly) considered the founder of nursing as a profession, but she would never have accomplished what she did without being both headstrong and absolutely self-righteous in her approach to her work, and she demanded absolute discipline and obedience from the women she brought with her to the Crimea. So I’m not sure that one of her nurses, finding herself in the midst of (in her eyes) a bunch of disorganized amateurs, wouldn’t decide that she was there to show them how it’s done properly.

    • Christian McWhirter · January 16, 2016

      Great comment Andy and I agree entirely. The problem is the show expects you to view her as a villain because she disrespects Phinney. Of course she disrespects Phinney! She has way more nursing experience and suddenly isn’t in charge. They’re also setting her up to be an adversary for Foster because she disapproves of his methods late in the episode. The script doesn’t do a very good job telling us why she would do this either. You’d think having witnessed the brutality of the Crimean War, she’d be open to new battlefield medical procedures.

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