Mercy Street: Season 1, Episode 4 - "The Belle Alliance"

Sean Fennell

Mercy Street hits its stride with the various and earned twists and turns of its fourth episode.

Mercy Street

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: McKinley Belcher III, Shalita Grant, Suzanne Bertish, Norbert Leo Butz, L. Scott Caldwell, Gary Cole, Peter Gerety, Hannah James
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 4 - "The Belle Alliance"
Network: PBS
Air date: 2016-02-07

Much has been made in recent years about the forceful shift in television drama from a landscape of almost entirely episodic series, to one in which serialized drama is king. In a world of binge-watching and season catch-up sessions, this makes perfect sense. Creators must cater to how we watch television in the current age, but they also must be careful to not overplay their hand and sacrifice story in an attempt to make their whole story strictly serialized.

In the first couple episodes of PBS's new drama Mercy Street, the creative team seemed to do just that. Sure, early episodes of every drama struggle with this due to the fact that they must both introduce plot lines and characters while still having some episode-contained narrative arcs, but Mercy Street had done a poor job of balancing story versus exposition. This left viewers with three episodes that, while effectively giving us a myriad of interesting characters, gave us little in the way of discernible plot. "What is episode three about?", "What happened to Nurse Phinney in episode two?" These were questions left unanswerable unless you gave a full synopsis of the hour, and even then, the lines between when episode two ended and episode three began would become muddled.

Episode four, "The Belle Alliance", thankfully bucks this trend completely, and gives me substantial hope for the future of this promising, if flawed, series. "The Belle Alliance" is definitively about "The Ball". The Ball is a dance that Green family, much to their chagrin, is forced to hold in their home for the Union soldiers. The entirety of the episode leads up to the dance, and the events that take place in and around the celebration is the best half-hour the show has yet had to offer.

But first, we must check in our favorite Morphine addict, Dr. Jedidiah Foster (Josh Radnor), who begins the episode locked in his room fighting withdrawal symptoms with the help of the "angel", Nurse Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The sequences we see in Foster's room contain many of the familiar scenes we’ve come to expect from addict withdrawal, including acts of deception, outbursts of cruelty, and the tearful acceptance of futility. Phinney, as she has been since the series opening moments, is as strong and resolute as she is kind and nurturing.

Our other young heroine, Emma Green (Hannah James), is doing far less hospital work and far more conniving than she seemed capable before of this week’s episode. The number one suspect to blame for this change of heart is, you guessed it, a man. Her childhood hubby, and avid dentist impersonator, Frank Stringfellow (Jack Falahee) first arrived last week, and didn't wait long to begin knocking off unsuspecting Union soldiers. He also doesn’t wait long this week to put into motion his plan to break out his childhood friend Tom (Cameron Monaghan) before he’s sent to a Union prison camp.

It’s clear at this point that Mr. Stringfellow is making a pretty good case for Mercy Street's most Machiavellian character. Many people in this war-ridden world are somewhat ambivalent about their side of the battle. Frank isn't, and seems willing to go to any lengths to snatch victory from his enemies. His plan, which is not exactly Danny Ocean-level complex, is set to carry out on, you guessed it, the night of the Union ball.

Another character hell-bent on bringing down the Yankees is the limping, indignant James Green Jr (Brad Koed), who's once again exasperated by his father's lack of Southern patriotism. Although this is largely a retread of themes we have seen crop up again and again throughout the first three episodes of the series, we do get some quality moments from one of the series most unlikable buffoons, the best of which ends with James Jr. face down in the mud after being slapped by his mother. Whether his constant embarrassment will continue, or whether it will lead him to more drastic measures remains to be seen, but I can’t help but see a little of Ziggy Sobotka in Mercy Street's disenchanted son.

Perhaps the series' most downtrodden character, the abused and neglected Aurelia (Shalita Grant), continues her spiral of misfortune when her attempt at self-induced abortion leaves her covered in blood and grasping to life while the rest of the hospital is busy at the ball. With that, Dr. Foster is allowed out of his drug-induced hiatus and forced to once again play the hero-surgeon, this time with the help Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III), whose hands are unsurprisingly steadier than those of a recovering addict. Predictably, the two pull off the difficult surgery and save the young girl’s life, but the most important development of this sequence is how open Foster, the avowed pro-slavery southerner, is to the idea of Samuel as a legitimate man of medicine. He goes so far as to give him the surgical reigns, and even offers to write Diggs a recommendation so that Diggs might study medicine more officially.

While all this is going on, Frank’s plan is coming to fruition, as Emma and her sister Alice (AnnaSophia Robb) distract the two guards whose duty it is to watch Tom’s wing of the hospital. After a few minor hiccups, the two are on their way when Tom’s elation at his newfound freedom is quickly overtaken by his obvious -- to the modern viewer -- case of extreme PTSD. It's almost as if Tom doesn’t realize that this breakout only means he’ll more quickly be fighting on the front lines, and once again be in the midst of the blood and the screams and the slaughter that have left him so shaken. This realization comes flooding into his fractured mind and before we, or Frank, know what's happening, Tom's laying his a pool of his own blood with a fresh bullet hole through the back of the head. It's the most shocking moment of Mercy Street thus far, a moment of emotional and physical carnage that felt earned, and truly left me wanting more.





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