Mary Phinney has recently arrived to serve as head nurse at the hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia. With little nursing experience, she must learn to navigate hospital politics as the doctors argue over performing experimental techniques, the only other nurse resents her presence, and the headstrong Emma Green demands equal treatment for the Confederate patients.
Mercy Street struggles to balance its large cast of characters as it heads into the second episode of the season. As if the show did not already contain enough drama, from Nurse Hastings’ attempts to undermine Mary Phinney to Emma’s decision to lie about the presence in the ward of her sister Alice’s fiance, the show decides to add even more threads to the narrative. While some add to the complexity of the topics raised, others take away from the power the more interesting narrative arcs could wield.
With so large a cast of characters, it seems odd that already the show introduces more. A new medical student arrives apparently solely for an attempt at comic relief–he knows little about medicine and faints at his first sight of blood. Slaves who work for Emma’s father are introduced and named, only so viewers can learn more about Mr. Green’s stance on slavery (he believes it’s outdated and not relevant to tradesmen such as himself). The story of the slaves themselves, however, gets buried under the issue of how slavery affects their owner.
And Dr. Foster? Did anyone realize he has a wife? We know immediately upon seeing her, however, that we aren’t supposed to sympathize with the way she’s had to live in an occupied town while her husband sleeps at the hospital after feeding his morphine addiction. Her desire to move out West like her husband promised her he would in four days? It’s selfish–we can tell she’s selfish because she wears nice clothes and has a fancy updo; nice women like Mary, after all, dress conservatively and don’t care much for their appearances–other than somehow managing to look really beautiful after not eating for a day and sleeping on the floor.
This trope of women who like clothes and makeup needs to go, but it’s been serving this show since the start, when Mary explicitly tells Emma to grow up and wear plainer outfits when she visits the hospital. Serviceable for nursing, yes. But a sign of greater maturity? I don’t know. And now it’s become shorthand for women we aren’t supposed to like, which is a pity because, even though agreeing her husband can continue on at the hospital would be a noble and charitable thing for Mrs. Foster to do, can we really blame the reaction of a woman who thought she was going to escape the horror of war being told only four days in advance that she won’t have that opportunity?
After all these random insertions, the show also adds some heavy-handed flirting on the part of Nurse Hastings toward Dr. Foster. Since we learned only minutes earlier that she’s having a well-known, erm, relationship with Dr. Hastings, this is inexplicable and extremely uncomfortable. Her feud with Mary and her pompous behavior are enough to make audiences dislike her.
All this detracts from a real addition to the story–the scene where Aurelia, attempting to gather information about free papers, is assaulted by the grimy Mr. Bullen. Her story is real and poignant–and she makes readers feel the horrors of slavery when she tells Sam that she’s done things, terrible things, because she had no choice. Her powerlessness in society is the real issue the show should be addressing–not Nurse Hastings’ awkward fumblings toward Dr. Foster.
Maybe the show feels crunched by having to cover so much in only six episodes, but it could do better telling the story of this hospital if it tried to do less. Then maybe we could really look at the lives of the freed slaves in a Union-occupied town, the experiences of men in hospitals where modern medicine was just beginning to catch up to their wounds, and the lives of the men and women who served those wounded. Right now the show seems a bit of mess. And that’s a shame considering how much great material is has to work with.