Entry 28 (Part 3): A Ball, a Lynching, and a Prostitute

Mercy Street, “The Belle Alliance” & “The Dead Room,” Season 1, Episodes 4 & 5. Directed by Jeremy Webb. Written by Lisa Wolfinger, David Zabel, Jason Richman, and Rob Hanning.

Release Dates: February 7 & 14, 2016.

We’re in the home stretch with Mercy Street and I think it’s safe to say the show won’t live up to the potential I envisioned before its premiere or the high bar set by “The Uniform.” I can say this because the last episode will finally deliver the fake Abraham Lincoln assassination plot (horribly foreshadowed at the end of “The Dead Room”) that historians have been dreading. The show still has its moments and there’s a very good Civil War drama lurking just under the surface, but something’s keeping this show from clicking with me and—if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are to be believed—lots of other historians.

In general, I think Mercy Street‘s problem is it’s still trying to do too much—historically, thematically, and tonally. Like “The Haversack,” these last two episodes veer wildly in tone; going from Hastings and Hale snidely plotting to Aurelia botching her self-abortion in “The Belle Alliance,” and Foster comically distracting the Inspector General with a prostitute to Union soldiers vividly lynching Diggs in “The Dead Room.” There’s a clear effort to balance the show’s soap opera elements with historical reality, but that’s a careful balancing act and I’d say the soapier aspects are winning. There have been some very good historical moments, but we’re getting more convoluted plotting and fraught relationships than characters thriving in a historical sandbox, like they did in “The New Nurse” and “The Uniform.” That’s how you end up with Frank implausibly teaming up with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Lincoln about three years before Booth actually decided to kill the president. This existential threat to the hospital (Booth wants to blow it up with Lincoln inside) is there to bring everyone’s storylines to a heightened conclusion, rather than allow that to happen in less soapy way within the actual historical context.

There also just seems to be too much going on in Mercy Street. It wants to tell a lot of stories and that’s admirable, but it’s hard to get invested in too many of them when the show jumps around so often. Staging dramas with this many threads is difficult and, when done successfully, it can result in transcendent stuff (see: Deadwood), but Mercy Street is uneven and we spend more time with certain characters than we’d like (Hastings and Hale) and less time with characters who seem to have more to offer (Chaplain Hopkins). PBS hasn’t greenlit a second season yet. If it does, I think Mercy Street would benefit from more focused storytelling, with much more screen time for Foster and Phinney, who anchor the show and are dynamic enough for all the show’s storylines to come from their perspective without losing much context. Then again, the show seems to succeed about 50% of the time, so maybe some minor fine-tuning is all it needs. After all, this is its first season.

So, let’s briefly get into the two episodes at hand. “The Belle Alliance” primarily focuses on a ball held at the Green home for Union soldiers and a plot hatched by Frank to snatch Tom out of the hospital. There’s also the aforementioned Aurelia self-abortion and Foster’s morphine detox after Phinney’s confrontation with him in “The Uniform.” There’s another good scene between them here, in which Foster cannot steady his hand while operating on Aurelia due to withdrawal and Diggs has to complete the surgery. This provides a satisfying culmination of multiple plots involving the series’ best characters. The ball was OK, especially the way Mrs. Green (Donna Murphy) struggles to exert her authority over a household filled with Union soldiers and contrabands. The episode’s conclusion with Tom shooting himself rather than return to the front is powerful, but I just didn’t find myself as invested as I had been in the previous episode.

“The Dead Room” had more problems despite the writers clearly trying to provide thematic unity like they did in “The Uniform.” Here, the script focuses on how every character uses deception and that ways that both helps and hurts everyone else. Honor culture plays a big role, as a soldier hides his desertion brand, Summers has Phinney privately amputate his finger so no one realizes he messed up an operation, and even the Inspector General’s dalliance with a prostitute. Other characters lie to promote their cause, especially regarding Tom’s fate, as Union soldiers claim they killed him running away and Frank claims Tom fought bravely until the end. Finally, we have lies purely meant to harm, most notably Bullen making several Union soldiers believe Diggs stole their deceased brother’s care package which almost get Diggs lynched before Foster rescues him.

But all of these aspects don’t quite come together as nicely as they did in “The Uniform.” In part, this is because the episode’s two climaxes—the lynching and Tom’s funeral—both play on stereotypes of Union soldiers as total jerks. I know there were plenty of jerks in both armies, but Mercy Street goes so far out of its way to characterize the episode’s new crop of Yankees as racist oppressors that some viewers have started to wonder if it’s borrowing a little from the Lost Cause. By sabotaging Tom’s funeral and trying to kill Diggs, these soldiers reveal themselves as purely conquerors, with little regard for the people they’re occupying or the African Americans they’re charged with protecting. Again, I know this sort of thing happened all the time, but these last two scenes were so over the top, they lost their emotional impact. Add Frank’s meeting with Booth, and I’m not going into the finale with much confidence.

Additional Dispatches:

  • I came down with a terrible cold yesterday and am currently in a Nyquil-induced haze. Forgive me if this post is a little more rambling than usual.
  • It was clear from the beginning that Mercy Street was going to copy some of Downton Abbey‘s elements, but I’m becoming increasingly concerned with where it’s going with Phinney and Foster’s relationship. Clearly, they want us to start shipping on them but (as with the original shippers Mulder and Scully) these characters have such a good rapport that I’m far more interested in watching them build a friendship around mutual respect and shared trauma than I am in seeing them make out.
  • A couple of good uses of music in “The Belle Alliance.” Green’s son (Brad Koed) tries to play “Dixie” on the family piano during the ball before his mother quickly shuts him down. Performing pro-Confederate songs to Union soldiers in formal settings was one of the most common ways white southerners symbolically protested their occupation. The use of “The Girl I Left Behind Me” at the end of the episode, as Frank dealt with Tom’s body and the Greens danced at the ball, was also effective.
  • Farewell to Diggs. He was a good character and the writers did a good job using him to show the limits of freedom for 19th Century African Americans. I think we can all assume that, if the show keeps going, he’ll eventually turn up in Union blue.

Next Entry: Mercy Street, episode 6, “The Diabolical Plot.”

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