January 24, 2016

Mercy Street: "The New Nurse"

Mercy Street, a new scripted drama on PBS, sets out to tell an untold story of the Civil War.  In a makeshift hospital in the Union occupied Southern city of Alexandria, Virginia, doctors and nurses tend to the wounded soldiers - from both sides - at a time when and in a place where efficiency was prized over quality of care. Around every corner we see an amputee, and morphine is still "experimental."

Here, doctors and nurses, rather than soldiers, are the war's voice. But the series uses cinematography, as much as its characters, to tell the story. This is especially evident in the deliberate use of color and light to enhance the mood. In one scene, young Southern belle Emma (Hannah James) glides through a filthy brown alley in a billowing white gown, matching parasol extended above her. Her clean dress symbolically shows us her innocence. As you might expect from a PBS drama, the costumes and sets are exquisite, and they serve to show the audience what the characters see.

Southern Belle Emma Green (Hannah James).
Source: pbs.org
Similarly, the script endeavors to tell the audience what the characters believe. We are offered pithy explanations of the social mores of the time: "Men fight and women pray." And arguments surrounding complex questions about what lies at the root of the war: "Pardon me, but aren't we fighting to free men of color? Isn't that what this war is about?" asks one character. "No, it's about preserving the Republic. Even Lincoln says so," responds another.

Of course, history is written by the victors, and no 21st century retelling of the War Between the States can escape the knowledge of a Northern victory, nor the moral rightness of the abolitionists. But from its first episode,  Mercy Street takes pains to present sympathetic characters from both the North and South. Likewise, there are villains on both sides. For example, smarmy Dr. Byron Hale (Norbert Leo Butz) may be a Union man, but he's not a man who's side you'd otherwise take. The series presents Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the titular "new nurse," as de-facto heroine, and our eyes through the episode. She fancies herself an enlightened abolitionist, but even she is hesitant to allow the free black man Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III) to tend to a dying Union soldier, despite the fact that Diggs has the expertise to save the man's life.

Dr. Foster (Radnor) confronts Nurse Mary (Winstead).
Source: pbs.org
It is through Mary, then, that we as an audience are pre-emptively chastised for our preconceptions of right and wrong. Mary is loath to treat the Confederate soldiers, who she sees only as adversary. "Are there no sinning Yankees in these beds?" Emma asks her, "Atrocities are only ever committed by the enemy?" Mary tells Dr. Jedediah Foster that she finds his views on race "unenlightened." But this Union doctor, who grew up on a slave-holding plantation, finds her treatment of the Confederate soldiers equally offensive. "Blood is not gray or blue, madam. It is all one color." "The New Nurse" makes it clear that Mercy Street will not shy away from issues of race, but I expect it will address them within the complex socio-political context of the 1860s.

Speaking of Dr. Foster, I will admit that it was the screenshot of a bearded Josh Radnor that drew me to this show. How would this How I Met Your Mother alum fare in an historical drama, I wondered? Turns out, he fares quite well. Perhaps not at first, but with a second viewing of the episode, I realized with some amount of surprise that thoughts of HIMYM had left my head. Dr. Foster has all the sincerity but none of the naïveté of Ted Mosby. Moreover, if Mercy Street makes time for romance, Radnor is a ready made leading man.

The show's pace is steady and deliberate. It gives both the viewer and the characters a chance to reflect on what's happening inside the hospital walls. It is at once tender, as in the scene where Mary takes down a letter dictated by a 15-year-old soldier to his mother and sisters, and tragic, as in the scene where that same soldier dies, still clinging to the flag he promised his father he'd not let touch the ground. As if to emphasize the futility of war, a bugle plays the young boy a funeral dirge while soldiers outside the window celebrate a victory on the battlefield.

The six-part series Mercy Street airs Sunday nights at 10 PM on PBS.

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