History and scripted drama collide in the season finale
Credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Grab your Southern-style biscuits and Yankee baked beans because it’s time to settle into the very last episode of Mercy Street. It was an hour that somehow felt slower than previous episodes, but not in a bad way: By taking immense care to flesh out some of the personality traits we’ve seen from characters throughout the season, we’re left with an immense sense of the way the Civil War has and forever will shape their behaviors, loyalties, sensibilities, and affections. Sure, the hour included some token dramatic tones – a tear running down the cheek here, a pat of the hand there – but all in all, the series spun an exciting, history-driven story with more success than expected.

“The Diabolical Plot” kicked off by Mary having a dream where she and Miss Dix have a serious conversation about disappointment, healing and mercy within the walls of the eerily empty hospital. It’s a technique that the show hasn’t used before, and the sequence paves the way for Mary to dig deep about what she considers her greatest successes and failures at the hospital. Brusquely awakened from her much-needed nap by Matron Brannan, Mary turns her attention to some hospital reform and asks every nurse to give her regular progress reports about their patients. Coming off last week’s interactions with Bullen, it’s obvious that Mary feels strongly about pursuing her way of nursing without concession to him or any of the other bullies who might stand in her way (ahem, Nurse Hastings).

Also taking a staunch position at the top of the episode was Dr. Foster, who turns down the executive officer position despite Dr. Summer’s counsel that “it’d be good for your career.” Foster however, remains adamant up until the point that Dr. Summers says that he can have influence over employee decisions. The notion of finally being able to fire nasty Silas Bullen is apt enticement, though no action can be taken until after Lincoln’s visit. (It’s all about keeping up appearances, you see.)

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Though Bullen has some idea of Foster’s disdain, it’s not until a grouchy, grumpy Dr. Hale approaches him about holding back some chloroform – his way of rebelling against Foster’s mandate that all surgeries incorporate use of the sedative – that we get a sense of how evil engenders evil; it’s a metaphor for the greater action that has pit men vs. men in our nation’s civil war. “Think of chloroform as our own Fort Sumnter,” Hale tells Bullen. Theirs is action that affects innocents, and once Foster gets wind of the plan, he turns irate.

‘There is no room for doctors like you,” Foster says bitterly, as Dr. Summers literally and figuratively stands between his two primary doctors. Though Summers doesn’t fire Hale, he does give him the ultimate warning, telling him to make an adjustment in his manners and comportment – and soon.

NEXT: You’ll never guess who hits the bottle hard

The exercise of self-restraint and altruism comes up again when Nurse Hastings turns to the brandy bottle over her frustration with Dr. Hale. For all intents and purposes, she has reached the highest position she can in the hospital; in Hale, she sees her only chance at realizing her not-so-hidden ambition. She has the backbone he lacks, she reasons; you gets the sense that if she had been a man, she might have been at the forefront at this battle, and not in the background as an anonymous nurse. This is her bitterness; a bitter drink which literally renders her drunk. Here a bit of comedy ensues: Hastings is alternately vicious with Mary (“Unhand me! I’ll not have your viper paws upon me!”) and flirtation with Foster (whom she calls her Sir Galahad), Hastings walks backward into a literal corner, where she trips over a bed and a blur of bloomers and petticoats. This is the ultimate embarrassment, and one that sends her to her room, where she remains sight unseen for the remainder of the hour.

Also going off the deep end this episode? Alice Green, whose sweet Southern charm seems to have given way to a fierce determination to “do her part” for the cause. Frustrated by what she sees as her mother’s passiveness in helping her father be freed of prison, Alice seeks out Frank at the dentist’s office (“I want to be of use”) and later, we see her swear allegiance to the Knights of the Golden Circle. Meanwhile, Emma’s loyalty to her father and patriotism take her on a very different path when she decides to act on Chaplain Hopkins’ advice to approach Lincoln about her father’s predicament. This is a beautiful, unexpected moment: Emma is in tears over her father’s imprisonment, frustrated by what she sees as a clear dysfunction in government. “You cannot create a union by force,” she says, crying. This brings out all the feels from Hopkins, who wipes away her tears in a rare moment of intimacy that might just be a hint of things to come.

And where has Aurelia been this entire time, you ask? Well, she’s recovered — yay! — and equipped with information about a black community in Boston via Mary, is ready to take off to start the rest of her life as a free woman. There’s just the matter of getting the salary she’s owed from Bullen. In an ironic twist (although let’s face it, it’s not irony if it’s scripted television) she finds him wounded and bleeding from the mouth in the hospital basement. Frank and members of the Knights, so as to remove any impediment to their plans to blow up the hospital, have jumped him. (They eventually unspool a fuse for future detonation in the dentist’s office.) In any case, Bullen is vulnerable and it’d be understandable if Aurelia, standing over him as she does, wanted to exact revenge. But she doesn’t: Instead, she takes from his wallet exactly the amount of money she’s owed — “no more, and no less” she says — and walks away.

One might almost envy Aurelia her calm assurance here. With little other than a small charm from Mary with which to start her new life, Aurelia is remarkably confident about the future. Little does she know that Sam is doing his best to help kick-start that future, by heading down south to find her son and mother in hopes of reuniting them. There’s some drama when Sam, with Aurelia’s family in tow, finds her cabin empty, but luckily, he sees a scrap of paper advertising the Alexandria ferry that serves as a hint to her whereabouts. (Smart and sexy? Double swoon.) Aurelia’s already boarded when Sam & co flag her down; what ensues is a beautiful, tear-filled reunion that embodies the beautiful future that might be made possible for all African-Americans with slavery’s end.

Though Aurelia’s future seems bright, the same can’t be said for James Green, who refuses to sign the oath and as such, remains in prison. He tells his son that it’s his duty to protect the family but Jimmy — stubborn, foolish and childish — refuses to understand his responsibilities, and instead, makes plans to smuggle illegal goods south with the use of the family’s coffin company. His pride hurt, Jimmy would have left town (he had his bags packed and a letter left for his mother) were it not for the news that his father’s being moved to a different prison. Will this finally bring out the maturity that we’ve yet to see from Jimmy? That’s a lingering question, especially as the last scene sees Jimmy sign the very same oath his father would not.

NEXT: Frank takes the fall (literally)

With so much having occurred during the hour — Emma and the Chaplain’s lovey dovey moment, James’ prison sentence, Jimmy’s new position as head of the Green family, Alice’s allegiance to the Knights, and Mary’s strengthened resolve to nurse as she sees fit, even to a deserter like Philip Starks — everything nearly fades into the background with the last scene, when Frank lights the fuse that’s meant to blow up the hospital and kill the visiting Lincolns. Though Frank seems to be experiencing a bit of inner turmoil when it comes to his role in John Wilkes Booth’s scheme, he carries out his part of the plan without a hitch.

That is, until he sees Emma in line on the hospital lawn, part of the crowd waiting to meet Lincoln. Now, he had asked her to meet him at 4 p.m. away from the hospital as a way to ensure her safety, one imagines, but seeing her there is a shock, one that snaps him into action. He runs back to the dental office, where he jumps onto the live fuse chest first, putting out the flames by sheer bodily force.

Now, while Frank’s action may have saved Emma — and by extension, Abraham Lincoln — there’s no telling what the future holds. That’s abundantly clear to Mary, who’s excused herself from the crowd greeting Lincoln by staying inside with Philip. He’s dying, hallucinating that Mary is his dear wife Hetty, and Mary doesn’t tell him otherwise. Tearful Mary is compassionate to the very end, her faithful nursing to him a symbol of what she hopes to provide all soldiers who find themselves at the hospital. This doesn’t go unnoticed by Foster, who perhaps for the first time, fully understands Mary’s empathy. “You did all you could,” he says, stroking away her tears, and then cupping her face. Her hand — rough from the work she’s taken upon herself — finds her way into his, a sweet symbol of their joint resolve to create a hospital that’s better than they originally found it, and a hint of a possible romance to come.

Though the season was a short six episodes, few, if any historical series I’ve ever seen effortlessly blended past events with scripted drama in a way that both entertains and informs. Far more than a story about a Southern belle and a hard-nosed Northern nurse, Mercy Street helped shed some light on how unions were formed and bonds were broken, how loyalties were tested and how real-life events transpired beyond the battlefield.

Though PBS hasn’t yet ordered a second season, there’s definitely plenty of fodder to tackle in future episodes. What kinds of activities will Alice become involved with as a member of the Knights? Will Frank eventually tell Emma about his aborted assassination plan? Will Emma ever get her audience with Lincoln? Will the series see her fall in love with Chaplain Hopkins? How will James Green fare in prison? Will his son’s actions help or hurt him? Will Mary and Foster be able to rid the hospital of bad employees and equally bad influences (ahem Hale and Hastings), and create a smooth-running hospital that serves Union and Confederate soldiers equally? And will the possibility of a romantic relationship help or hinder that goal? There are so many lingering questions — let’s hope we fans get answers in the form of a season 2!

Episode Recaps

Mercy Street
2016 TV mini-series
  • TV Show
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