Entry 28 (Part 2): Settling Into Mercy Street

Mercy Street, “The Haversack” & “The Uniform,” Season 1, Episodes 2 & 3. Directed by Roxann Dawson. Written by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel.

Release Dates: January 24 & 31, 2016.

So, we’re halfway through Mercy Street and I’m still not sure how I feel about the show. This is partially because I think it’s trying to do too many things, and this inevitably makes it a little uneven. The history remains impressively solid and the lead performances are getting stronger (particularly Winstead and Radnor), but the production is still struggling to find the right tone. This is especially evident in the second episode, “The Haversack,” which veers wildly from almost whimsical comedy to harsh realism. “The Uniform” is much better on all counts and ranks as the best episode so far. Hopefully, this is a sign that Mercy Street has found its groove and realized the potential that peeked through in its first two offerings.

Some people considered my first review overly negative, so let me clear the air up front. Thus far, Mercy Street is a good, but not great, drama built on a solid historical foundation. Even “The Haversack,” which has significant problems, is still some of the best Civil War fiction filmed for TV—traditionally a weak medium for the subject. The episode develops many of the show’s central themes with skill and depth; namely PTSD, women in the public sphere, and African American freedom. Some of the characters also benefit from extended exposure. Phinney has become the all-star—seeming stereotypical and flat in “The New Nurse,” she’s now an appealing, sympathetic, and interesting protagonist. Credit this transformation to Winstead, who frequently manages to portray Phinney as simultaneously confident, conflicted, and overwhelmed.

Much of the work “The Haversack” puts in pays off in the next episode but, unfortunately, the work comes with some off tonal shifts and two-dimensional characterization. While Phinney, Foster, the Greens, Diggs, and Aurelia (Shalita Grant)—in other words, our protagonists—receive welcome depth and complication, our villains—Hastings, Hale (Norbert Leo Butz), and new addition, Bullen (Wade Williams)—remain pretty shallow. In “The Haversack,” Hastings and Hale seem to be in an entirely different show. Instead of real, fleshed-out human beings, they play like caricatures of petty, underqualified miscreants so obsessed with Phinney and Foster that we get no less than two scenes of them in a post-coital haze scheming against their perceived rivals. I get that these characters feel threatened by their colleagues, but surely they have better things to talk about after sleeping together. I think we’re supposed to find them a little comical and the musical cues support this, but placing such simplified characters within the harsh meat-grinder of Mercy Street creates a real disconnect. I almost got whiplash going from watching Hastings clumsily flirt with Foster to the horrors of Aurelia being raped by Bullen and contrabands kidnapped back into slavery. If this show wants to provide a gritty and realistic take on the Civil War, I’m all for it, but you can’t pair that with lightweight drawing room theater without making it everything seem artificial.

Indeed, if Mercy Street gets a second season, producers should look to “The Uniform” as the model for what the show can do. The episode sets a somewhat bleak but thoughtful tone right away and rarely shifts from it. Only Hastings’s continued bumbling flirtation with Foster and some of the interactions between new villain Frank Stringfellow (Jack Falahee) and Matron Brannan (Suzanne Bertish)  strike a more lighthearted note, but they work much better because they’re brief and rooted in the episode’s central themes of identity and authority. With a cast this big, episodes need to be bound together and there’s a nice thematic unity here, as almost every character wrestles with who they want to be and how their various responsibilities and burdens hinder their progress. This plays out especially well among the African American characters, who directly and subtly debate the meaning of freedom. All believe they’re free, but it becomes clear each defines this differently and has compromised themselves in some way to attain their status. There’s a little welcome messiness too, as only some of them resolve this tension, with Foster’s mother’s house slave Miles (Myron Parker, Jr.) running away and Belinda demanding James Green pay her for her services. Other conflicts are similarly well done, especially the discussion between Chaplain Hopkins (Luke Macfarlane) and Confederate PTSD patient Tom Fairfox (Cameron Monaghan), and the central storyline following Foster’s amputation of his Confederate brother’s (Dietrich Teschner) leg.

Mercy Street has had trouble balancing its dual goals of education and effective drama, but “The Uniform” finds a perfect balance—complicating its characters and plots while grounding those developments in real and believable historical circumstances. As the closing montage, showing Foster, Hale, and others facing up to their responsibilities, played over a black gospel choir singing “One Morning Soon,” I found myself looking forward to the next episode with a sense of anticipation I haven’t felt since the premiere. Here’s hoping this isn’t just the series’s Empire Strike Back dip into darkness and complexity, and instead represents development into a more coherent and interesting show.

Additional Dispatches:

  • Sorry it took me so long to get this post up. Lots on my plate right now.
  • “You heard of Mary Magdalene? She weren’t no nun” may well be my favorite pickup line ever delivered to a member of the clergy.
  • I’ve dumped on Hastings a lot, but I really don’t know what do do with Hale either. In the first two episodes, he’s mainly a source of comic villainy but suddenly he’s showing unpredictable and dangerous signs of madness—throwing knives at the wall and weeping uncontrollably. Are we supposed to take these two characters seriously or not?
  • This is a minor thing, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a highly unlikely choice for Foster’s morphine-fueled singing session. I’ve argued in my book and elsewhere that the song wasn’t actually very popular during the Civil War but, even if you buy the traditional assertion that it was the Union’s primary anthem, the show is set only 4 months after Julia Ward Howe published her lyrics in Atlantic Monthly. This is hardly enough time for the song to become so popular that Foster—clearly not the most musical or poetic guy—would have committed it to memory.
  • But additional kudos to Radnor and Winstead for their performances in that scene. In different hands, Foster could easily have come off as ridiculous and Phinney shrill. Instead, the two gave a real sense of tragedy and danger, topping even the excellently-staged amputation scene.

Next Entry: Mercy Street, episode 4, “The Belle Alliance,” and episode 5, “The Dead Room.”

 

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2 comments

  1. sbeetham · February 9, 2016

    Just catching up with your thoughts on these episodes – “Battle Hymn” was the jarring moment I noticed, also. Given the emotional fight he’d just had with his mother, I thought “Maryland, My Maryland” would have been a poignant choice.

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