In case you haven’t heard yet, PBS is featuring a new historical mini-series set during the American Civil War! It’s called Mercy Street and the first episode premiered last Sunday.
In this beginning presentation – The New Nurse – the viewers are introduced to the cast of characters who are interacting at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, during the spring of 1862. The new nurse arrives – sent by “Dragon Dix” – and we follow her through the day as she tries to learn her role, avoid too many confrontations with the surgeons, and overcome prejudices. (A summary with no major spoilers!)
There are many historical scenes enacted in this first episode, and I was surprise at the authenticity in the program. Quotes, clothing, medical scenarios, and civilian impressions were masterful and the cast of character leaves me anxious to view the next episode.
“Ooh, that’s a real quote!” I thought as I watched the new nurse – Mary Phinney – make a comment as she was attempted to clean a very dirty soldier. It might be Mary Phinney saying it, but her line comes directly from Louisa May Alcott’s experiences in Hospital Sketches. Also, I believe Nurse Hastings quotes directly from Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing during her “instructive lecture.” To a Civil War diary/primary source fanatic, it was fun to recognize the quotes. I wonder how many other lines were “real”, but I just haven’t studied them yet…
Maybe it’s only because I’m a girl and maybe it’s because I love the little details of pretty dresses and dashing uniforms, but I always note costuming in historical productions. While other films have fallen short in the clothing attempts, I was pleasantly surprised by Mercy Street. Now, I’m sure some “stitch Nazi” (that’s a re-enactor’s term for someone who’s obsessed with perfect, perfect, perfect clothing) will find problems, but to a semi-educated viewer it looked really good. The shoulder seams were off the shoulder on the ladies’ dresses, the pinner aprons were excellent, the men’s waistcoats were fantastic in material and pattern…and, hey, the exhausted wounded soldiers actually had dirty uniforms. Bravo!
Now, to be honest, Mercy Street is not for the fainthearted in medical scenarios. There are a couple parts that are realistically gory. (Gross!) Other situations were only heard or announced. (I didn’t feel well when I thought about the announced surgery on a dislocated eye socket – for better or worse, I have a vivid imagination.) That disclaimer having been said, though, the medical stuff looks excellent and authentic. Bone saws are sharpened, morphine is injected as a new procedure, chloroform is administered, an artery is tied after being found with a tenaculum, and a plaster cast is applied to an injured leg. Yes, these details and brief views of wounds are going to make the viewer grimace, but it’s authentic. War and its aftermath are not beautiful.
I’m really impressed with the active role of civilians in this presentation. Not only is a New England matron volunteering as a nurse, but a Southern family, civilian contract surgeon, and African American hospital workers are featured in this introduction episode. It was brief, minor scene, but I liked when Emma Green goes to the hospital in her hoopskirt with her parasol and basket of flowers. Naïve and very young? Yes…yet her march down the alleyway crowded with Yankees was brave, ladylike, and very Southern. Anticipating more conflict between the civilians and military in the coming episodes…
The cast of characters in Mercy Street is wonderful. Civilians, Military, Medical, Contraband, Free African Americans – all working together or conflicting with each other. The confrontations felt real; the conflict is there and just beginning. I could thoroughly sympathize with the characters and feel their struggles. Many different viewpoints are also shown, and I hope that will provoke some good questions in the minds of the viewing public – at least leave them with the impression that there’s not always one clear-cut reason for actions.
Overall, I was very pleased with the first episode of Mercy Street and would highly recommend this beginning presentation. I sincerely hope the next episodes continue to show the high quality authenticity in words, mannerisms, appearance, and actions. If the series continues like this, it just might be the presentation I’ve been waiting years to find – something historically accurate, realistic, and with plenty of emotion.