TV Review: Mercy Street Ep. 3, “The Uniform”

Mercy StreetSummary

Mary Phinney and Emma Green continue their fight over equal treatment for Union and Confederate prisoners while Drs. Foster and Hale remain antagonistic toward each other over their medical methods–especially now that Dr. Foster has entered the army and outranks Hale.  Meanwhile, Mr. Green contemplates signing the Oath of Allegiance to save his business even as Confederate spies infiltrate the city to uncover Union army secrets.


Attempting to write a summary for this episode made clear just how scattered the plot line can seem.  While Downtown Abbey manages its large cast by giving each character a defined plot arc throughout the season and Call the Midwife balances its cast by, perhaps counter-intuitively, focusing on the stories of each week’s patients and then tying that story back to the personal lives of the midwives, Mercy Street remains a confused mass of characters bumping into and out of each other’s lives.

I think Mercy Street would be better served by using Call the Midwife as a model.  Currently we know nothing of the patients in the hospital except for Tom–and we only know him because he’s Alice’s beau.  The others remain remarkably invisible in a show meant to illuminate the medical practices of the Civil War.  To generate drama, then, the show ignores all the characters already present and instead chooses to introduce new ones each week–the runaway slave who barely receives screen time, Dr. Foster’s wife who appears only to leave, Dr. Foster’s mother who brings with her a list of grievances that remain ambiguous since she has not enough time to elaborate on her and her son’s apparently bitter backstory.

The insertion of these characters each week comes across as forced and usually does little to illuminate the lives of our main characters, as apparently they are meant to do.  Yes, now we know Dr. Foster’s wife left the state and his mother is upset he supports the Union.  But throwing this information at viewers does not bring Dr. Foster alive.  But watching Dr. Foster interact with his patients, watching him get to know them and try to save them, and sometimes fail–that would make me believe in Dr. Foster and in what he’s doing.

Only three episodes remain and, sadly, I am not convinced that is enough time for me to come to know and love the characters as I wish I could.  The introduction of a Confederate spy seems to indicate that the show is going to use espionage as its source of drama as it builds toward the finale, instead of focusing on the hospital life it is allegedly committed to portraying.  This is a choice I admit I do not understand.  Hospital nurses experienced more than enough drama in their wards.  I really wanted to see their world come to life, but, since this show is so ill-paced, I worry that it won’t receive enough positive attention to try to redeem itself in a second season.

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