Episode Four of the PBS drama, “Mercy Street” was another strong installment. There is so much that I could write about and almost all if it is good. I have exercised restraint and tried my best to be mercifully brief in this blog post.
Four episodes into the show the montage and theme music that plays during the series’ opening credits elicits joyful anticipation for what is to come. Early on we see Surgeon Jedediah Foster’s experiencing withdrawal while attempting to conquer morphine addiction. What is viewed proved to be powerful television thanks to actor Josh Radnor. The audience suffered along with both Foster and nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who cares for him and suffers his verbal abuse as a result.
It is as a consequence of a later scene in which Dr. Foster has a big part that I am forced to “call shenanigans.” Foster is shown to talk Samuel Diggs, (played by McKinley Belcher) a free black laborer working for another surgeon, through a most complex and difficult operation that saves the life of contraband laundress Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant). I am no medical historian. I do know, however, that internal surgery of any kind was very rare at this time in history. Civil War surgeons mainly just amputated. It is why they were often called “Sawbones.” The scene was therefore historically implausible. I realize, of course, that “Mercy Street” is a drama and not a documentary. Nonetheless, since the program appears to be going for the title of most historically accurate Civil War-period drama ever produced, I feel the scene in question detracts from the credibility of the series.
The Green Family
Most interesting in this episode is the evolving story of the Green family. In the show’s premier we learn that the family’s luxury hotel, Mansion House has been seized by the Union and become an army hospital. In this fourth installment, the Confederate sympathizing Greens learn that their house will be temporarily commandeered for a Union Army ball dance. In what was a fascinating commentary on human psychology, the Green’s are seen to be angered by what they see as a personal affront and simultaneously driven by pride to impress their “guests” and help put on the best ball possible.
Gary Cole as James Green
It is while the ball takes place that Green patriarch James has a scene that is likely to be central to the overall story ark of the series. In my reviews of other episodes of the program, I mentioned that the authenticity of the cast’s accents was impressive. In this scene, as well as his others in this installment, actor Gary Cole’s Virginia accent falls short of the mark when he gives voice to James Green.
Hannah James as Emma Green
Also important to the ball storyline is nurse Emma Green. In my other reviews of the show’s episodes I singled out the thespian I felt put in the best performance. This time around it was Hannah James as Emma.
Period Dresses in Full Color
Emma dons one of a number of beautifully feminine ball gowns seen in the installment. I have written before about the authentic look of the middle and upper-class dresses worn in the series in my other reviews. It was not until I was able to feast my eyes on the ball gowns that it occurred to me that what has really struck me was that I have been able to see in full color dresses that I had only known from black-and-white period photographs.
Emma’ mother, Jane Green (Donna Murphy), delivers a line during the ball that sums up one of the central themes of the episode. “A man’s true duty is to protect his family,” she tells her son. The comment speaks to the Green’s attempt to adjust to life under what the family looks at as a Union “enemy” and “occupying” force. It is also a concept that we have to a significant degree abandoned in 2016. This is unfortunate since peer reviewed research studies show that 95% of the problems we face in the U.S. can be traced to parents who do not take responsibility for their children.
The installment’s concentration on the Greens allows me to bring up an aspect of the show that has been ever-present in the program. The entertainment industry typically depicts Southerners as universally dumb, ignorant and villainous caricatures. The Southerners of “Mercy Street” are shown to be people of their time who say the things they say and do the things they do because of the world in which they lived and the society in which they were born and raised. In this way, they are not different than “Mercy Street’s” Northerners. They are also no different than us. We can relate to the show’s characters and this is one reason why the series has been a hit.
PTSD Then and Now
In the episode’s closing moments, Confederate private Tom Fairfax (played by Cameron Monaghan) commits suicide. He is suffering from what we today know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and would rather die than return to the battlefield. The installment obviously drew a powerful parallel between Civil War soldiers and the PTSD and high suicide rate of U.S. Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans.
My personal favorite program character, Frank Stringfellow (Jack Falahee) the exciting Confederate spy and scout, was up to more cloak and dagger activities. He engineers Tom Fairfax ‘s escape from the Mercy Street hosital only to witness Tom’s shooting himself in the head.
I yearn to see more of Stringfellow in the last two episodes of the series. I do not imagine I will be disappointed. I am likewise eager to learn what became of Myron Parker, Jr’s character Miles after he liberated himself and walked away from his master. After four enjoyable episodes, I am confident I will not be displeased by the remainder of the series regardless.
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