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Television

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
Amazon

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.

5

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