Entry 28 (Part 4): Autopsying Mercy Street

Mercy Street. “The Diabolical Plot,” Season 1, Episode 6. Directed by Jeremy Webb. Written by Lisa Wolfinger, David Zabel, and Jason Richman.

Release Date: February 21, 2016.

I don’t think historians or critics ever reached a consensus on Mercy Street. This is probably a good sign. It means the show was at least interesting. I generally enjoyed it but, even when I didn’t, the history was solid enough that viewers at least learned something. Yesterday’s finale generally followed this pattern, despite its fictional inclusion of Booth and Lincoln. The eponymous “Diabolical Plot” didn’t really grip me, but the episode had enough solid dramatic and historical moments to keep away the sour taste in my mouth I’d been afraid of since the storyline originally leaked. That allowed me to be objective in my evaluation of Mercy Street as a whole, and my final take is generally positive.

But first, let’s deal with the specifics of “The Diabolical Plot.” The good news is Lincoln and Booth end up playing pretty minor roles. PBS was careful to release a story noting there was, in fact, a plot to blow up Mansion House and the writers only added Booth and Lincoln to heighten the drama. That neither person makes much of an impact is good because it avoids implausible interactions between our characters and actual historical figures (although the episode spends a lot of time setting up a conversation between Emma Green and Lincoln that we never see, so maybe it’s on deck for a potential second season), but it also makes their presence completely unnecessary (especially Booth). Either way, I found myself not caring about this plot as much as I was clearly supposed to, perhaps because it ultimately centered on a crisis of conscience by Frank who I’m just not invested enough in and don’t know enough about. Since we all understood Mercy Street wasn’t really going to blow itself up, Frank’s dilemma is the only source of drama in this story and it’s just not that compelling.

The rest of the episode gives us closure on some character arcs and dangling storylines. I was surprised how obviously the writers set up a second season—the existence of which is far from a given. Aurelia gets the best moment, finding Bullen dying from a stab wound inflicted by Frank. She refuses to help him, noting how he never intended to help her reunite with her son, and then takes the money she earned working for him (I’d have robbed him entirely. The creep owed her at least that much for what he did to her all season). There was some interesting stuff with James Green imprisoned in the slave pens for disloyalty, which made him wonder if God was punishing the South for its peculiar institution (a la “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) but  this development never gets resolved, except in showing how it effects his children. An episode-ending montage reveals Jimmy signing a loyalty oath and youngest daughter Alice (AnnaSophia Robb) joining the Knights of the Golden Circle.

So, “The Diabolical Plot” is a bit of a weak finale but I’d rather my last post focus on Mercy Street‘s strengths. Consider that last year, we were recovering from another major attempt at creating a Civil War serial: Point of Honor. Comparing the two shows is like apples and oranges and really illuminates what Mercy Street has going for it. For starters, Mercy Street seamlessly weaves in types of characters and stories that other Civil War stories usually relegate to the sidelines. Phinney and the lives of Civil War nurses are so expertly rendered and central to the show, that you almost overlook how unique this is. I’ve commented previously how Civil War fiction has always been ahead of the curve in focusing on women, but those women are usually A. southern and B. glamorous. Phinney is neither (although her family is clearly wealthy) and she’s so well rounded that I continually hope against hope she and Foster won’t become an item because she’s interesting enough without a love story.

More significant is the attention paid to African Americans at different stages of reaching freedom. I don’t think we’ve seen another prominent piece of pop culture use as wide a lens to show us this much of the African American Civil War story—most memorably devoting large portions of the third episode, “The Uniform,” to how the different black characters understood their competing conceptions of freedom. What’s more, the show spends a lot of time with African American women. I mentioned in that previous post on women how Mamie remains the archetypal female black Civil War character, but Aurelia shows so much more complexity. Kudos to Shalita Grant for her excellent portrayal and I hope the character left viewers with a better understanding of the tenuous situation black women faced in 19th Century America as they tried to pursue their own freedom.

Which is to say, the great bugaboo of Civil War literature, the Lost Cause, really took its lumps on Mercy Street. Sure, the show was a little soft on its Confederate characters and sometimes went overboard depicting Yankee soldiers as jerks, but the writers generally avoided the Lost Cause traps that have ensnared Civil War narratives as recent as Point of Honor and Cold Mountain. Slavery isn’t written out of this story and its role in the war and people’s everyday lives is clearly and vividly depicted. Mercy Street also didn’t trip over one of my other pet peeves: focusing too heavily on the traditional military history of the war. Mansion House always seemed both of the war and outside it, and that’s probably how it actually felt. Other than Lincoln, no larger-than-life historical personalities made awkward cameos, and the focus remained on the characters we met back in the premiere. This combination of solid history and original Civil War storytelling is Mercy Street‘s greatest contribution and lays a strong foundation for the show moving forward. It didn’t always live up to this potential in Season 1, but Mercy Street absolutely deserves a chance to show us what it can do with more episodes.

Additional Dispatches:

  • It shouldn’t have taken all season for us to finally get a concrete disagreement between Hale and Foster about medical practice. This, rather than the petulant jockeying for position, should have been the primary conflict between the two characters.
  • Hastings got drunk and gave us her first truly entertaining scene of the season!
  • Not sure how I feel about Diggs’s extremely timely and somewhat implausible return with Gabriel. Having characters (especially black ones) come and go over long periods of time would have given us a more realistic image of the transient nature of Civil War hospitals.

Next Entry: The Twilight Zone, “Still Valley” (with special guest blogger Matthew Hulbert).



  1. kacinash · February 25, 2016

    My biggest pet peeve of Civil War in fiction when it is “soft on its Confederate characters and . . . overboard depicting Yankee soldiers as jerks” as you put it. As such, this aspect of Mercy Street was more apparent to me and something I hope is improved upon if the show continues. It felt like the writers have seen that scene between Scarlet O’Hara and the Union soldier in Gone With The Wind too many times. I could also do with a whole lot less of the soap opera villainy of Hastings and Stringfellow.I understand the writers want ~drama~ but my eyes hurt from all the rolling they did throughout the season. But over all, I enjoyed it for the reasons you specified. I think my favorite moment of the series was watching Miles take his freedom. I have also enjoyed the depiction of the toll the war took on the soldiers. I would like to see more of the patients in the future.

    • Christian McWhirter · February 25, 2016

      I think we’re generally on the same page. And I agree totally on Miles. That whole 1-episode arc was great.

  2. Pingback: Verdict on Mercy Street; the Lost Cause lives; U of Alabama’s problematic building names; Trump’s bad history lesson; Hitler’s manhood shortcomings | History Headlines

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