Depictions of the Civil War are often limited to the frontlines and generals’ quarters. However, much of the bloodshed and drama occurred off the battlefields, in hospitals such as the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, the setting of PBS’s new six-episode miniseries Mercy Street.
The period-drama, PBS’s first series set in America in nearly a decade, subverts traditional war narratives, generally told by male soldiers, and instead casts the spotlight on two female nurses, one on each side of the conflict.
Executive Producer and Co-creator Lisa Wolfinger conceived of the Civil War medical drama five years ago. She portrays the nurses that the series highlights as “strong female protagonists, feisty ladies.” In an interview with Nancy Olds for Civil War News, she described her brainchild as “M.A.S.H meets Gone with the Wind” and all-encompassing: “[Mercy Street] is about love, about war, about medicine . . . It’s about how the experience of war brings out the very best and the very worst in people.”
Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a recent widow and ardent abolitionist who has come down to Alexandria, a Union-occupied city in a Confederate state, to disseminate modern medical knowledge as well as her then-liberal beliefs. Her foil is Emma Green (Hannah James), a Southern belle and advocate for wounded Confederates. Dr. Jedediah Foster (How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor), a progressive physician with a morphine habit and mixed feelings regarding slavery, serves as a catalyst for drama while Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III), a free black man with extensive medical knowledge, helps to move medical science and racial expectations forward simultaneously, and perhaps, inextricably.
The dazzling Hannah James grew up in Madison County, Virginia. A recent graduate of the Guilford School of Acting in England, the young actress masterfully handles the difficult role of a Confederate sympathizer with a profound sense of empathy. Understanding historical dramas requires a suspension of disbelief, as it’s easy to forget that what we view as commonsense human rights were once borderline radical. I look forward to watching her character’s development.
If the aim of historical potboilers is to highlight how far society has progressed, and yet how much the human condition has stayed the same (often questioning whether our nature is at all mutable), then the new series succeeds admirably, if not boldly considering the strong feminine characters and points of view. Whether you are a armchair historian, Civil War buff, period-piece fanatic, or maybe even just a little too tired to change the channel after Downton Abbey, you do not want to miss Mercy Street which premieres this Sunday, January 17th at 10 p.m. on PBS-WETA.
Also, see http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/home/ for preview and trailers