Lines are crossed and loyalties are tested as Nurse Mary Phinney settles in

By Nina Terrero
January 24, 2016 at 11:39 PM EST
Antony Platt/PBS
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Readers, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us last week. Due to your feedback, we will be recapping Mercy Street for the whole series.

“Which side are you on?” a Union Army officer asks of Mr. Green during Mercy Street’s second episode. “Because very soon sure, you will have to choose.” To contemporary viewers, the nature of the Civil War literally seems black and white; a simple matter of right versus wrong. But for many on Mercy Street — like Mr. Green, a Southern furniture maker who stands out from the rest of his family because of his abolitionist-leaning beliefs; Dr. Jedediah Foster, a Yankee sympathizer from a slave-holding family; Dr. Hale, a Union doctor whose passion for healing doesn’t extend to Confederate soldiers; and Nurse Hastings, a single woman scared to lose her hard-earned authority — the nature of war time blurs the lines between morals and values, creating a complex world where chaos, peace, good intention, and betrayal exist side by side.

An extraordinary example of this is Emma’s understanding of her father as a coward hesitating to swear loyalty to the Confederacy. (It’s probably a good thing she doesn’t know that he believes that slavery is a dated tradition; later scenes reveal that he stands firm in his belief that it’s a system that will soon become irrelevant for tradesmen such as himself.) Instead of retreating from her accusations however, he engages her — a surprisingly progressive move between a father and daughter during that time period. “You are young,” he tells her. “Someday you will see the world in two colors.”

Still, this doesn’t do anything but fuel Emma’s teenage rebellion, and without complicit approval from either her father or her uber-conservative mother, she heads off to the hospital, with a request from her sister to ask about Tom’s whereabouts.

In an episode that focuses on the day-to-day operations of the hospital — the lack of regular meals for patients, inadequate facilities, and general ignorance about medical practice — the introduction of disarmingly naïve Army cadet Percival Squivers serves as sort of comedic relief. A doctor-in-training, he can’t stand the sight of blood. He’s supposed to have a grasp on emerging medical principles, but he has absolutely no idea whether fresh air is good for patients. It continues like this through the entire episode, and in the process, we get a sense of how primitive and backward the running of the hospital really is.

And it doesn’t help that Dr. Hale and Nurse Hastings seem determined to keep it that way, with personal vendettas against experimentally-minded Dr. Foster and poor Nurse Phinney, who’s merely trying to manage staff as directed by Miss Dix. And did I mention she’s trying to do so on an empty stomach and after a night spent sleeping on the hospital floor?

The former is the fault of Mr. Bullen, a greasy, overbearing taskmaster who’s stingy with supplies. In a shouting match in the kitchen — where Nurse Phinney tasks him to task over regular meals and eventually slaps him — he reveals a grotesque bigotry that immediately marks him as the series’ biggest villain. This becomes all the more evident in a scene where he rapes Aurelia, a sweet woman whose only fault was that she came to him for advice on securing her free papers.

NEXT: Oh really, Dr. Foster?!

Aurelia’s disposition after the rape — distrusting, sad, and reclusive — doesn’t go unnoticed by Sam. Sure, he has a romantic interest in her, but the very attributes that make him a great doctor also make him a great friend. Though Aurelia turns him down, and doesn’t say a word about the rape, if there’s anyone who can help her heal, it’s Sam. He’s capable of so much, and if there’s anything I hope to see in the series, it’s to witness his evolution as an equal at the hospital.

That said, Dr. Foster seems to have earned a fan in Dr. Summers. A supervisor at the hospital, Dr. Summers is prone to jokes (he addresses Sam as “doctor” in a scene where Sam’s shaving him with a razor blade) but turns serious when Dr. Hale sends him a formal letter of complaint against Foster. For the record, Dr. Foster reciprocates Dr. Summer’s feelings toward him and is happy to leave the hospital once his contract is up in a week’s time, but Dr. Summers wants none of it. “ I want more,” he tells Dr. Foster. He can’t offer much – an “uncivilized environment, hopeless wounds, incompetent support, an excess of work, paltry compensation”— but there is an opportunity for Dr. Foster to create a difference by exploring new medical procedures. It’s an enticing offer and Dr. Foster’s sole hesitation is that he’s promised his wife Eliza that they’d move west to California.

That’s right: Foster has a W-I-F-E, though Nurse Summers seems to have forgotten that with her all-too-obvious flirtation. (This, despite the fact that she and Dr. Hale are lovers. Yup.) Still, Foster’s marriage seems to be a union that’s less than perfectly happy: When his wife Eliza shows up at the hospital in a later scene, she’s haughty, demanding and ready to guilt-trip him over his promise, despite the fact that he’s excited about “discovering things that could help people.” After giving a threat that he has to make up his mind by morning, Eliza retreats in a puff of petticoats and teased curls. The end of the episode features Foster getting high, eventually passing out at his desk in a drug-induced haze. He has decisions to make, but what will he choose? His wife or his career? Either way, one has to hope that he leaves drugs behind, especially as his talent is of the rare sort — experimental yet careful, progressive yet caring.

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The need for the kind of care he can offer is evident when it comes to Alice’s sweetheart Tom, who seems to suffering from PTSD. No one around him is able to diagnose him as such; only chaplain Henry Hopkins (who’s disarmingly sexy by the way) suspects the teenager of having some sort of non-physical ailment. Emma is quick to disregard such a suggestion — as an inexperienced nurse, she’s pre-disposed to view injuries in an altogether naïve light. But after an alarming moment where he’s forgotten that he gave her a bag of his belongings, an internal light bulb seems to turn on for Emma. War isn’t just a blaze of trumpets and bright uniforms: it’s about loyalty and loss, which will bring on situations unlike she’s ever experienced. As it stands, she has to break the news to Alice, who discovered Tom’s bag hidden in their home. Emma spares Alice the harsh reality of Tom’s condition, but one thing’s for sure: though Tom hasn’t died, part of him has — and might put an end to the images of wedding dresses and domestic life that dance in Alice’s head.

With that, the episode concludes where the central premise of the show began: War is ugly, sides are drawn, and people are made casualties — and sometimes the most important battles aren’t necessarily those fought on the front line.   

2016 TV mini-series
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