Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Mercy Street on PBS

I have found myself totally captivated by Mercy Street on PBS. Based on real events, this six-part series follows the lives of nurse volunteers on opposite sides of the Civil War conflict. This medical drama is set at the Mansion House Hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Mary Phinney, a New England widow who is sent by Dorothea Dix to be the Head Nurse at Mansion House. Her arrival upsets Nurse Anne Hastings (Tara Summers) who worked with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War and has much more field experience than Phinney. To suddenly find herself reporting to this newcomer does not sit well. It also doesn't sit well with Dr. Byron Hale (Norbert Leo Butz), an egotistical yet insecure Army surgeon who is intimidated by civilian contract surgeon, Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor), with whom Phinney seems to get along well.

Emma Green, played by newcomer Hannah James, is the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Alexandria. That changes with the war. She finds her family's luxurious hotel turned into a hospital and the family business and home occupied by the Union Army.

Appalled by the treatment of Confederate soldiers at Mansion House, Emma becomes a volunteer and rallies strongly for their needs to be met. She and Phinney are at odds, but they seem to admire each other for their desire to help people.

Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher) is a free laborer employed by Dr. Summers. Since he's lived with a doctor he's picked up some medical knowledge and ability that is unknown to most of the residents of Mansion House. He cares for Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant), who is a contraband working as a laundress at the hospital. Aurelia is eager to keep him at arm's length, as her mind is on someone else important to her.

This exciting cast of fictional and historical characters draws you into their world and the conflict that divided a nation. Through triumphs and tragedies these people deliver day in and day out; they give when they don't seem to have anything left to give.

With a 21st century lens we can see how wrong slavery is; but in the 1860s this was a way of life for Southerners, who saw Yankees as interfering where they didn't belong. The issues Mercy Street depicts are many--some that plague us til this day. It also deals with the difficulty of so many diverse personalities living and working together under one roof.

One thing I believe is true for most of the characters is that they are stumbling around trying to figure out where they belong. What happens to Emma and her younger sister Alice will change them forever--just like it did in real life. Mary Phinney has lost a husband and now finds purpose as a nurse at Mansion House, but most men don't want her there--especially the Chief Surgeon.

My one and only complaint about this excellent series is that it is so gory. Mercy Street captures the horrors of war and all the blood and gore that goes with it. If they would have curbed that back, it would be perfect.

I look forward to the final two episodes. If you have Amazon Prime you can watch the past episodes for free. The show is also available on DVD.

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