Taking Stock of Mercy Street
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.