PBS’s Mercy Street: Series Premiere “The New Nurse” Offers More Than Blue and Gray’s Anatomy

PBS’s Mercy Street: Series Premiere “The New Nurse” Offers More Than Blue and Gray’s Anatomy

Screenshot 2016-01-10 at 7.23.20 PMMercy Street, Ridley Scott’s, fresh, compelling six-part drama captures the gritty, dangerous experience of medical caregiving during the Civil War. The series debuts January 17th on PBS, immediately following Downton Abbey. Set inside Mansion House Hotel, a makeshift hospital in Alexandria, Virginia in 1862, Mercy Street is narrated from the perspective of two nurses, Boston abolitionist, Mary Phinney (aka Baroness von Olnhausen), and Emma Green, the daughter of the hotel’s owner.

The first episode captures the intense resistance and suspicion female nurses faced when they entered wartime field hospitals. Before taking over operations at Mansion House, Phinney endures a sharp interrogation from Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Nurses for the U.S., and then faces jeers from the male medical staff. Like Louisa May Alcott in Hospital Sketches, Phinney spends much of her time doing menial cleaning tasks, and like Alcott, Phinney perseveres. This episode’s depictions of nurses’ trials reflects the expertise of the show’s stellar team of historical consultants, including Anya Jabour, Jane E. Schultz, and Shauna Devine.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Phinney and McKinley Belcher as Samuel Diggs, Antony Platt, PBS.

The show’s other main characters complement Phinney and Green, including Dr. Jedediah Foster, a wisecracking proponent of new medical techniques and advocate of the cause of Union salvation rather than abolition and Samuel Diggs, a Philadelphian of color with a mysterious past and brilliant surgical skills. The stories of contraband slaves unfold in the background in a complex interwoven subplot reminiscent of the Crawley family’s servants in Downton Abbey.

Hannah James as Emma Green, Antony Platt, PBS.

Despite well-developed plotlines, some of the characters fall prey to goofy stereotypes. Foster yells “hoopskirt!” and “von Outhousen!”at Green and Phinney, reflecting a grumpy misogyny that seems at times overblown. Green initially floats through scenes with a flower basket and a frilly white dress, resembling a close cousin to Melanie Wilkes, but she is wrestling with the limitations of her position as an elite white woman sitting atop a crumbling society. This tension should be further developed if the show’s writers hope to avoid making Green into another stereotypically shallow Southern belle.

“Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Phinney and Josh Radnor as Jedediah Foster,” Antony Platt, PBS.

In its early stages, the show provides a fascinating look at the war beginning in its second year, before the Union’s Peninsula Campaign and the United States Sanitary Commission began to officially train nurses. Outside Mansion House Hospital, the violence was escalating and society was being radically transformed. Emancipation was yet uncertain, and the Union Army was faltering. It will be entertaining to watch Mercy Street’s characters develop as the war intensifies and to think about the real-life people they represent. Mansion House’s “McDreamy” Dr. Foster’s sharp tongue and medical brinkmanship could cut both ways. How and where did Diggs learn to yield a scalpel? Phinney’s idealism might yet be tested, as was Alcott’s. And Green’s fluffy white dress will surely be soiled–her hands dirtied by the unfolding bloodshed.

We’ll be watching the show alongside you and would love to hear your thoughts! Tweet us @JCWE1.

5 Replies to “PBS’s Mercy Street: Series Premiere “The New Nurse” Offers More Than Blue and Gray’s Anatomy”

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