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Television

Mercy Street: Season 1, Episode 5 - "The Dead Room"

Sean Fennell

The fallout from last week's action-packed episode will shape the future of some of Mercy Street's most prominent characters.


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 5 - "The Dead Room"
Network: PBS
Air date: 2016-02-14
Amazon

Last week's installment of Mercy Street, its best so far, ended with a bang. as we saw the young, haunted Tom Fairfax (Cameron Monaghan) take his own life only moments after a successful escape from the Union hospital, an escape that he’d accomplished with help from Frank Stringfellow (Jack Falahee) and the Green sisters. Episode five, entitled “The Dead Room”, deals with the fallout of this event, and how the truth about what really happened after Tom’s escape will shape those involved going forward.

Mr. Stringfellow is quickly establishing himself as one of the more nefarious characters on Mercy Street; this is underlined when he refuses to tell Emma (Hannah James), his lover and Tom’s lifelong friend, the truth about his demise. He instead paints a portrait of heroism thwarted by the evil, cunning Union soldiers. He claims that this is only to spare Emma the horrible truth, but in reality his lie stinks of propaganda and manipulation, and Frank himself stinks of evil in its most dangerous form: ideological purpose.

This purpose is further established when he warns Emma that his mission for victory over the evil Union will only get darker in nature. In a nod to a real-world conspiracy theory, Frank claims he is now fighting for the "Knights if the Golden Circle", a secret force fighting a more covert war against the Yankees. His meeting with an unnamed actor -- possibly with the initials JWB? -- in Washington, in which he gets instructions about a plan to blow President Lincoln "to kingdom come", only further establishes Frank as someone prepared to do anything and everything to see the confederacy come out as the victor.

The always-righteous Chaplain Hopkins (Luke Mcfarlane) knows immediately that Emma had some part in Tom’s escape, and pleads with her to be wary of these types of missions, especially when the man in question was clearly not ready to reenter the war effort. He’s right, and Emma will realize this soon enough, but there’s also an underlying sexual tension during their conversations that goes far beyond hospital politics, a tension that even Frank can recognize.

The other tension-rife event last week was the near fatal self-induced abortion performed by a distraught Aurelia (Shalita Grant). Although she’s physically on the mend, Samuel (McKinley Belcher III) still can’t find it in his brave heart to give a free pass to the man that nearly caused the death of his friend and potential lover. We know it’s silly and fruitless for him to take his anger out on Bullen (Wade Williams), but I doubt a single viewer was not cheering as Bullen shook with fear at Mr. Diggs bold and emotionally explosive threats.

Even as scared as he was, it’s clear at this point that Bullen isn’t a man to be trifled with. Instead of facing Diggs man to man -- which is probably smart considering Samuel's clear physical advantage -- Bullen takes the opportunity to make Diggs the scapegoat for a case of missing cakes. Not in need of much confirmation, the three Union soldiers looking for revenge have Samuel at the end of a rope soon enough. Luckily for Samuel, Dr. Foster (Josh Radnor) recognizes this misunderstanding and is able to show up in time to save our favorite unappreciated doctor in training. Foster quickly comprehends why this happened, and pleads with Samuel to flee the city in favor of greener pastures, advice that Diggs eventually, if reluctantly, concedes is the wisest course of action.

While all this cunning is going on under the surface, the hospital staff is also dealing with, among other things, an unannounced visit from the government-appointed medical inspector, an influx of prostitutes, an injured deserter, a case of gangrene, and ever-scheming Nurse Hastings (Tara Summers).

The latter has slowly become one the worst story lines on the promising first season of Mercy Street. Hale (Norbert Leo Butz) and Hastings are a couple we’ve seen before on television: insufferable and self-serving and ultimately, inconsequential. For instance, they spend "The Dead Room" plotting to make Hale the new second in command, below only Dr. Summers, but every time Hale makes an inquiry about the position, he’s shot down and told that there are bigger fish to fry than his promotion. This is true, there are bigger fish to fry, so my question is: why we are even giving airtime to these trivial characters and their shallow desires, a question to which this episode offers no answer.

Meanwhile, Mary (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Foster seem to finally be giving substantial hints towards the romantic relationship they were all but guaranteed to engage in since the series opening moments. It’s reserved flirting -- a hand touch here and look there -- but they seem to be building a rather impressive rapport that will surely end with Foster breaking some marital vows. Never has a man asking a women to call her by her first name been so steeped in sexuality.

"The Dead Room", like its predecessor, ends with a twist that’ll likely propel much of the action on next week’s season one finale. Mr. James Green (Gary Cole), the proprietor of the hotel and the Green family patriarch, is taken into custody in the episode’s final moments for refusing to follow the law that says that no Confederate soldier be given a proper burial in Alexandria, now a Union city. Green, the most wise and tactful member of the Green family, is simply doing what he feels is right for the grieving Fairfax family. His prison time will likely shake things up, not least of all because it now puts his hot-headed, reckless son, James Jr. (Brad Koed) in charge of the family and the hotel.

PBS has not yet decided whether to renew Mercy Street for another season; much of that decision may ride on the kind of viewers they get for next week’s finale. It hasn’t been a perfect season, but what the newest PBS drama has done is create a world in which quality, important stories can be deftly told. They may not hit the mark on all of these, but the potential is there. Really ,what else can you ask for with a six-episode opening season?

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