A Civil War-era makeover lends some edge to this talent-filled PBS medical drama
Credit: Antony Platt/PBS
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Do you count yourself a longtime fan of history-heavy films? Are you obsessed with period drama? Maybe you’re the type who’s never missed a single series premiere on PBS. In any case, somehow you’ve found yourself settled in with Mercy Street, a Civil War-set medical drama that’s the first original American series to premiere on PBS in years.

For the record, it’s rare to come across a sophisticated American version of the series typically set on the other side of the pond. Whether it’s PBS’ Mr. Selfridge, Call the Midwife, or Downton Abbey, UK-based dramas usually veer toward the riveting and respectful without being resorting to saccharine or silly over-the-top tactics. The Brits have a track record of getting it right — and we love them for it. Americans on the other hand? As far as stateside-set historical shows, we have AMC’s Revolutionary War drama Turn and FX’s Reagan-era series The Americans; both excellent but not exactly in keeping with PBS’ style of dramatic production.

That said, getting Mercy Street made — and on air — seems to be a minor miracle meant especially for fans of the period-set soap: It’s beautifully shot and painstakingly designed, with a large cast, which includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Hannah James, Gary Cole, Josh Radnor, AnnaSophia Robb, Jack Falahee, and McKinley Belcher III. (The Martian director Ridley Scott and former ER showrunner David Zabel executive produced the six-part series.)

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Deftly blending elements of a medical drama with a war-set period piece, Mercy Street revolves around a pair of volunteer nurses in the form of abolitionist-leaning Northener Mary Phinney (Winstead) and Southern belle-slash-Confederate sympathizer Emma Green (James). This is no fluffy story about love lost and crumpled crinolines. That much is clear in the opening scene, where Winstead interviews with testy hospital director Miss Dorthea Dix (Cherry Jones).

“Slavery is not a political question. It is a moral argument,” she says in response to a loaded question about where she stands on slavery. “I only mean to say, emancipation is upon us.”

This dignified, steadfast response — honestly, the woman never seems to flinch, an asset given the primitive nature of medicine at the time — earns her a spot as head nurse at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, a Union-occupied border town divided between Yankee and Confederate loyalties. But Mary’s mission isn’t political: She’s charged with providing her services during a bloody war to Union Army doctors who “do not like women, or nurses,” warns Miss Dix.

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At Mansion House Hospital — a converted hotel owned by the Greens, a wealthy Confederate family — we’re promptly introduced to this very type of physician. Dr. Byron Hale (Norbert Leo Butz) is condescending, brusque, and thickly bearded. He butts heads with nearly everyone, including fellow physician Jedediah Foster (Radnor), a Baltimore-bred surgeon who’s both brilliant and brooding. (Sidenote: Despite his easy chemistry with Mary, the man is married. Sigh.) Grey’s Anatomy this is not: Medical procedures are primitive and bloody, ranging from setting broken bones and sawing off limbs sans anesthesia. It’s not as gory as The Knick, but stomach wrenching in a way that should make viewers very thankful for modern medicine and current hygienic standards.

Additional conflict comes in the form of haughty Nurse Hastings (Tara Summers), who trained with Florence Nightingale during the Crimea War. Personality-driven rifts certainly don’t make it easy for Mary to fit in, determined as she is to create a life for herself inside the army infirmary. Still, she’s afforded some amount of freedom given her status as a — without a husband or father to answer to, Mary is able to act independently.

Independence is a privilege that Emma might never experience for herself. She and her giggly sister (Robb) live a closeted life and are expected to be frothy and flighty, the perfect Southern sweethearts. To some extent, Emma lives up the standard, but whether she knows it or not, she longs for more and ends up at Mercy Street as a volunteer. Will Emma be able to earn the respect of a skeptical-seeming Mary? Can she learn to think for herself beyond her father (Cole)’s double-dealing politics? As the war enters its darkest phase, Emma’s situation makes the period’s position on sex and womanhood all the more poignant.

Thoughtful too, is Mercy Street’s treatment of slavery. Enter Samuel Diggs (Belcher), a free black man who’s largely regarded as invisible, or worse, inferior. But that isn’t the case: He’s highly trained in medicine, a skill he must keep secret. It’s a reminder that he lacks the privileges his white counterparts enjoy; even his relationship with a beautiful woman reminds us his life is always beyond his control — it’s dictated by boundaries willfully set by others.

Slow-moving, but stirring, Mercy Street is a rich depiction of the dramatic social and cultural shifts taking place across the antebellum America. With a series of burning questions to help guide the course of the six-episode series — Will Mary’s edge prove a boon to the backward hospital? Will she and Jed become a couple? Can Emma develop a backbone? Will Belcher rise above his circumstances and challenge the status quo? — Mercy Street is a worthy addition to Sunday night viewing schedules.

We wrote a react for the premiere of Mercy Street, which means we’ll just be checking in occasionally, but if this is a show you’d like to read about each week, please let us know! You can email chat@ew.com with your feedback and suggestions.

Episode Recaps

Mercy Street
2016 TV mini-series
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