PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Mercy Street: Season 1, Episode 6 - "The Diabolical Plot"

Sean Fennell

Mercy Street wraps up its first season in a somewhat underwhelming fashion.

Mercy Street

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Josh Radnor, McKinley Belcher III, Hannah James, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 6 - "The Diabolical Plot"
Network: PBS
Air Date: 2016-02-21

Mercy Street is an ensemble drama that struggles with focus. This isn't a fatal flaw, or even something unusual, but falls in line with what many new shows go through before they know exactly what they have.

At times, Mercy Street feels like a romantic drama centered on two complicated characters: Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor). Other times, it feels like a drama dealing with the nature of "free" slaves existing in the Union states, and how this freedom often isn’t as concrete as history would have you believe. It even serves as a rumination on the futility of trying to characterize the Civil War as a battle of good vs. evil, when there’s enough of both in the Union and the Confederate camps. It's still unclear whether PBS will pick up Mercy Street for another season. If it does, the show will likely have to stick to some of these strands more diligently if it’s going to become a truly great period-piece drama.

One of the more interesting aspects of the series, which the writers continued to flesh out in the season finale, was the Green family’s ever-changing role as host of the Union Army hospital. At the end of last week’s episode, Mr. Green (Gary Cole) was taken by the northerners for refusing to cooperate and sign the loyalty oath required to live in Union-operated land. Now that Green Sr. is holed up in a former slave prison, it’s up to his son James Green Jr. (Brad Koed) to both run the family business and fight to free his father.

Green Jr. has been one of the most intriguing characters of the series solely because of his unpredictability and stupidity. He’s ashamed he’s not fighting with the confederates, so each decision he makes is rooted in feelings of inadequacy and a need to prove himself to other men.

His first plan as the patriarch of the Green family to make a deal with Dr. Alfred Summers (Peter Gerety) to help the Confederate Army properly bury Union soldiers by sending coffins for them to use on the battlefield. Summers sees right through this, immediately asking what this arrangement does for Green. When Green Jr. says all he wants is a good word for his father, Summers buys it. So do we, until we see Junior discussing his deal with Confederate sympathizers.

Apparently, his real plan is to send supplies across enemy lines via the coffins. The real surprise here isn’t that Junior's willing to risk everything for the confederate cause; it's that it isn't a bad plan. A fact made all the more depressing when his father immediately shoots it down as unnecessarily risky and irresponsible, and admonishes his son to step up for once in his life and become the man of the house. Green Sr.'s plan to overtly shame and embarrass his son is of questionable strategy, considering his son’s probably the only person left in Alexandria with the power to free him from the prison before it is too late.

While the Greens now seem planted on their side of the significant battle going on throughout the country, Dr. Foster and Dr. Hale (Norbert Leo Butz) are locked in what feels like a much more trivial disagreement. It starts when Summers offers Foster the position of Executive Officer -- a position coveted by both Hale and his conniving associate, Nurse Hastings (Tara Summers). Despite Foster's initial wariness, he eventually takes the position, knowing that the power could very easily come in handy when he meets with any significant obstacles in the hospital.

It doesn’t take long for Foster's concerns to come to fruition, as Hale and Foster begin a battle over the correct use of chloroform. We know that Foster's in the right here; giving a patient relief prior to surgery is not only morally but medically correct, but Hale’s so stubborn in his belief that we can tell this will be an up-hill battle. Hale soon makes a deal with the Mercy-Street devil himself, Mr. Silas Bullen (Wade Williams), who agrees to withhold the available chloroform from the hospital under the guise of limited rations. This is ultimately one of the episodes more inconsequential plot lines, one that promises to be resolved by the hour’s end and does little to change the already established status quo.

Mary Phinney, on the other hand, does set in motion a consequential arc when she first suggests to Aurelia (Shalita Grant) that she leave Alexandria, and Virginia altogether, in search of greener pastures in Boston, where she knows of a free community of former slaves. Aurelia is hesitant, still hoping to one day be reunited with her son, despite her knowledge that Bullen never had any intention of helping facilitate this reunion.

This plot line was the first hint Mercy Street made in this episode of not truly knowing exactly where, if or how the series was to continue. Last week we saw Foster send Samuel (McKinley Belcher II) away for his own safety, and here Mary's doing the same with Aurelia. At this point, I wondered if the series was dead-set on giving these unhappy “second-class citizens” a hopeful end to their story, while still allowing for one or both of them to make a return somewhere down the line. This idea was both substantiated and shattered by episode’s end when Samuel returns with Aurelia’s son, allowing for a moment of pure happiness as the two are reunited, just as Aurelia was set to sail to Boston forever.

When Mary isn't helping orchestrate Aurelia’s escape, she’s seeing to her new favorite patient, the deserter who first showed up last week. Initially, it was unclear the importance of the man who we know so little about, but soon it was obvious he represents something much more to Mary than a wounded soldier slowly moving his way toward death. He is, instead, a kind of surrogate for Mary's already deceased husband, whom she admits she was not there for during his final moments. Despite his flaws and his desertion, Mary's determined not to make the same mistake again, even missing the arrival of the President and First Lady to witness the man’s ultimate demise, finally putting to rest the man she loved.

One of the most disappointing aspects of this week’s episode was the fact that the Lincoln assassination plot, the one the show built-up so quickly, yet effectively, last week, ended in such whimper. The tension builds throughout the episode, as we’re given glimpses of the plan -- Frank (Jack Falahee) getting confirmation, smuggling explosives through the supply closet, telling Emma (Hannah James) to meet him after it was over -- but when it was finally time for the plan to go into effect, little attention was given to the immense significant this operation would have on the country.

We could easily assume, unless they were willing to drastically change history, that Mr. Lincoln was not going to die in the Mercy Street hospital, but some kind of explosion seem imminent. Instead, Frank chooses to extinguish the flame and abandon the plan all because Emma refuses to leave the hospital. Choosing love over ideology is all well and good, but the Frank we’d seen up to this point seemed unlikely to choose this path, making this change of heart anticlimactic.

Season one of Mercy Street has shown potential. The creators, Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel, were able to weave an intricate world that almost always felt fully formed, compelling and important. It also, like any first season, had its share of missteps, relying on characters and storylines that began to lose steam as soon as they left the station -- I'm looking at you, Dr. Hale and Nurse Hastings. My bet is that PBS, who showed a lot of confidence in this show going in, will likely give it at least another season to find its footing. If so, I’ll be excited to see the direction they go, and how they get there.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.