Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Taking Stock of Mercy Street

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on February 23, 2016

On Sunday evening PBS aired the final episode of the first season of Mercy Street. I haven’t heard whether the series will be picked up for more episodes, but since the first six only carried the viewer through the late spring or early summer of 1862, there’s a lot of the war left to go. Spoilers follow.

Episode 6, “The Diabolical Plot,” wraps up a number of story lines that had been building during the season. The corrupt and abusive steward, Bullen (Wade Williams), meets an end that should be satisfying to everyone. There’s a saying in Texas, “he needed killing,” and that certainly applies to Bullen. Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant), although bearing no personal responsibility for Bullen’s fate, at least has the satisfaction of seeing his end and can take some comfort in the certain knowledge that he will not take advantage of anyone else, like he did her. Aurelia’s last-second reunion with her mother, her son Gabriel, and Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III), is more than a little contrived, but a happy resolution to her plot line nonetheless.

In retrospect, I worried too much about Ann Hastings (Tara Summers); over the six episodes of the first season she’s become quite a comic figure, prodding her paramour, Dr. Hale, into increasingly ridiculous grabs at power within the hospital. Hastings’ downward spiral from a dangerous, scheming conspirator to comic relief comes to a head in Episode 6 — there is alcohol involved — but the scene plays out wonderfully. One gets the impression that, in the course of developing the script, the writers made a conscious decision midway through to change the role of Ann Hastings’ character in the ensemble.

The “diabolical plot” that comes to a climax in this last episode would have better been left out altogether, although as Christian McWhirter notes over at Civil War Pop, the producers have pointed out that such a plot did actually take place, although it happened before the time frame of the series, and didn’t involve either John Wilkes Booth or Abraham Lincoln.

The producers have left some open plot threads for a possible follow-on season. James Green, Sr. (Gary Cole) has been hauled off the the Old Capitol Prison in Washington (also based loosely on real events), and his daughter Alice (AnnaSophia Robb) has taken up with the Knights of the Golden Circle. The storylines of Aurelia Johnson and Samuel Diggs have come to a neat resolution for now, but it’s highly unlikely that they will be absent from a second season; presumably with Bullen dead and Dr. Foster (Josh Radnor) now with increased authority over the hospital, both of these characters will find their way back to Mansion House.

While one of the great strengths of this series has been that it’s grounded in real characters and events, but that will probably change fairly dramatically if it gets picked up for another season. Like HBO’s Rome, which was similarly based on historical figures and events, as Mercy Street continues it will become increasingly necessary to bring in new characters and increasingly (or wholly) fictional plot lines, in order to keep the story percolating along. That’s the nature of a serial drama, so we shouldn’t be surprised when that happens.

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16 Responses

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  1. Bob Nelson said, on February 23, 2016 at 11:33 am

    It started off as a drama with some fair prospects for an intriguing story line and I for one was quite impressed with the first few episodes. But now it has turned into just another soap opera ala “The Good Wife,” “Downton Abbey,” “Madame Secretary” and others. I think the writing and acting/dramatic impact have tailed off the past few weeks and some of the plot twists have been just plain silly. I agree with your comment that if it is picked up for another season that there will be more fictional plots and new characters, but then that’s what happens to all soap operas. It’s no “West Wing,” that’s for sure.

    • Scott Ledridge said, on February 23, 2016 at 2:56 pm

      Hale and Hastings have become comedic relief. I keep hoping for a more serious turn in their characters. (But, I’ll admit Hale’s delivery has gotten a few laughs from me.)

  2. Bob Nelson said, on February 23, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    The attempt to blow up the hospital is factual. On January 9, 1862, a barrel of powder and projectiles (mostly nails) along with a length of fuse leading to a nearby stable were found. Go to http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/blogs/mercy-street-revealed/the-diabolical-plot-ripped-from-the-headlines/ to read an account from the January 10 “Alexandria Gazette” entitled “The Mansion House Affair.” As for Lincoln’s visit, it is known that Lincoln and his wife often visited the hospitals around Washington City. Although there is not proof that it happened, the producers of the show say it is “probable” that Lincoln visited the Mansion House during its use as a hospital.

  3. Shoshana Bee said, on February 23, 2016 at 11:08 pm

    Your “he needed killing,” was similar to the “That sorta stupid can only be cured with lead poisoning” that I grew up with (queue up a dumb kid(me) wondering how to get ’em to eat paint) I agree with all that you have written, but I would like to add a combo of observation/question: I was very moved by the ending with Nurse Mary standing in for her patient’s wife at the time of his death. It was a poignant nod to an earlier conversation revealing she had not been there when her husband passed. I am not sure if the scene was really that moving, or whether it was the fact that when I was younger, and my dad was dying, the nurses used to sit with him and treat him with great TLC. It brought back memories, for sure.

    • Andy Hall said, on February 23, 2016 at 11:14 pm

      Thanks for the observation. I’ve really said very little over these posts about Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Mary Phinney, because she’s a character that I can’t much get my head around. She’s much more reserved than most of the others, and has grown a great deal over these episodes.

      • Shoshana Bee said, on February 24, 2016 at 2:31 am

        Interesting: Nurse Mary is my favorite of the characters:) She is the boat that rights itself no matter the wind or wave, whilst the rest of the characters seem awash in emotional chaos..I believe that Mary’s stoic demeanor belies a greater depth borne of loss and pain; however, such a facade cannot be maintained indefinitely. If the show continues, it will probably develop a more stable Dr. Foster and a more expressive Nurse Mary.

  4. James F. Epperson said, on February 24, 2016 at 8:01 am

    I’m enjoying it greatly!

  5. Scott Ledridge said, on March 5, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    Mr. Hall, are you aware of this show debuting this week?

    http://wgnamerica.com/series/underground

    It has Aldis Hodge in it, who is also in Turn. In fact, the whole cast looks pretty strong.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 5, 2016 at 5:16 pm

      I had heard of it, but haven’t been following closely. Thanks for the suggestion.

  6. Foxessa said, on March 6, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    This was very poor writing, poor characterization and preposterous plotting. A shame, since there was so much to work with that would have made for easy, but realistic, drama, instead of this implausible melodrama. Why they chose to take that path who knows. But the clue is probably in the way so many scripted production teams of failed historical drama see things: — it is all about the seeing, the visualizations (though still, far too clean and tidy!) and pride in getting all the material details right. But they don’t get the emotional and historical stakes involved and they insist on treating all that like b-scripting, all cliched tropes that wore out long ago.
    .

  7. Foxessa said, on March 6, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    Very poor stuff. The production team, as happens almost always with historical drama, is all about seeing, not the stakes of the events, the connections among them or emotional reality. It’s all about the details of the buttons and so on. My take here.

  8. woodrowfan said, on April 7, 2016 at 6:55 pm

    Finally got caught up (via Netflix). Not bad, not great, but not bad. I liked “Copper” better but enjoyed it. Hopefully if there is a season two the writing will improve. I do like that Alice and Emma are heading in different directions.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 7, 2016 at 11:36 pm

      It’s one of the better things I’ve seen lately on the electric picture machine. Granted, that’s a low bar, but still. . . .

  9. Rob Baker said, on July 2, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    Update – it has been renewed for a second season. This pleases me. I generally liked the series and AnnaSophia Robb is easy on the eyes.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 2, 2016 at 8:53 pm

      You’re just a sucker for that accent, Rob.

      • Rob Baker said, on July 2, 2016 at 8:55 pm

        More like the eyes, I’m from Appalachia remember. Not a fan of the bourgeois tone of the planter class.


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