Mercy Street, season 2, episode 2 review: This ain’t your typical Civil War fiction!

Alice Green’s flirting/spying has sho’nuff got her family in a mess!

Oh boy, the Green family is all up in some kinda trouble now! Episode two of PBS’s Civil War series Mercy Street was another solid offering that has me highly hopeful. Sadly, the contraband camp took a backseat, but we still got a great scene involving the inner thoughts of a fugitive slave (though the writers made a blunder in regards to his slave status). Nurse Phinney is in pretty bad shape, and the new hospital director is a martinet that practices phrenology and is possibly suffering from PTSD. But the big development was in the Green household, where a Union soldier has been killed and the family has to cover the crime, little knowing that Pinkerton has them in his sights.

Mercy Street took on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) among Civil War soldiers last season, as we saw Alice Green’s love interest commit suicide. Now, it appears the new leader of the hospital, Major Clayton McBurney (who, like many of the characters, is based loosely on a real person), clearly has issues. Besides being a hard nosed sorta guy that will likely try to squash Dr. Foster’s tendency to rely on experimental or cutting edge procedures, he is carrying a facial wound and emotional baggage from a horrific experience at First Manassas. (He also happens to be a phrenologist, so we got treated to a scene in which he practices the widely accepted but goofy antebellum craft on Nurse Phinney, coming to a low opinion of her mental faculties. Nice stuff, writers!). The combo of his OCD habits with PTSD make him an odd duck and a foil for our doctors and nurses, and I wonder how he will react to southern girl Emma Green’s increased responsibilities in the facility. But I hope the show doesn’t turn him into a caricature, using him instead to develop a complex and meaningful look at Civil War PTSD, or even OCD, when neither was understood at the time.

Apparently McBurney is such a lousy doctor that while examining Phinney’s head he didn’t notice she had a dangerously high temperature. After she passed out, the staff went into action, with Foster eventually placing her whole body in a tub of ice water. I still hope that her condition won’t distract the show from the epidemic brewing in the contraband camp, but these scenes did reveal a couple of things. Foster is resistant to diagnosing her with typhoid (it might still turn out to be smallpox) because he’s afraid it will get her sent to isolation outside the hospital, and also that Emma Green is clearly coming to admire Phinney. This is an interesting dynamic–the daughter of a slaveholder bonding with a Boston abolitionist. Will this make for intriguing conversation as their friendship grows? (This week, Emma first heard about Frederick Douglass from a soldier from Concord MA. who claimed he was inspired by him to fight against slavery). Might Emma evolve in even more ways that she already is?

Meanwhile, out in the contraband camp, Charlotte Jenkins is working to help blacks transition into free laborers by teaching the concept of working by clock time. I trust we are going to see more of her educational activities in future episodes. The big development was that free black  man Samuel Diggs finally talked to the runaway slave man that is the father of Aurelia’s child and her husband. Samuel had tried to avoid this, because as we know, he helped her escape to Boston with her child so that he could soon follow her there and make a life together.

The scene between the two men gave this episode its most interesting dialogue, as the runaway slave rejected the label of contraband because it “is a thing, not a person.” (Take note, this is a prime reason we should stop using the word when discussing runaways during the war, unless, of course, directly quoting a source). Further, he explains, “a slave owns nothing except what is in his heart. That’s all I got. Love for my wife and my boy. Freedom means no more pain from the whip, but losing them is a pain I ain’t never going to get free from.” Excellent. This is perhaps more powerful dialogue than was ever uttered in the Roots remake. He says this as we see old whip marks on his back, and together they are a nice history lesson. Too often when people think about the evils of slavery, they immediately think of whippings, and our TVs and movies reinforce this by always featuring a brutal whipping scene when portraying slavery. Yet the thing that slaves feared most was the separation of family, which in the end was perhaps slavery’s greatest cruelty, not the whippings.

One historical quibble about this excellent scene however: Samuel tells the runaway that he is now free, but that isn’t the case at the time the episode is set in (early July, 1862). The runaway was living on a farm in Tennessee when his owner fled the ravages of war, leaving his slaves behind. This was a common occurrence, creating a heavy flow of slaves into Union lines. However, unless an enslaved person had been impressed into working for the Confederacy (or had a spouse or parents that had), they had not yet become free, although they were often sheltered behind Union lines (Congress passed a law to protect such runaways, but it was not uniformly enforced). Thus, the man’s status at this point was ambiguous, although in the show’s timeline this is about to change thanks to the Second Confiscation Act. In fact, the legislation was largely required in order to end the ambiguity. Hopefully, the rest of the season will deal more accurately with the war’s policy transition to emancipation.

But the episode’s big stunner involved the Green family, and particularly Alice’s spying activities. She managed to lift the papers she was directed to steal from an officer living in her occupied house, but now she’s intent on helping the hunted Frank Stringfellow escape town. This requires the password to get by Union picket guards, and papers to create a fake identity for Frank. Using her considerable charms (kudos to actress AnnaSophia Robb, she may be using an accent that is more Scarlett O’Hara than it is northern Virginia, but she plays the southern coquette to the hilt), she manages to get the password from the Union officer, but gets caught looking for the papers. This results in a near rape (ugh, here we go with the evil Yankee trope again), but she is saved by the timely arrival of her family. Her father almost kills the soldier, but her brother argues that they must finish the deed so that they can hide the body and convince officials that he was a deserter.

Apart from the sheer drama of all this, it is the Green family story-line that I hope takes this show into some really interesting directions. Pinkerton already has his eye on the family, and this event will likely sharpen his focus. As established in a shot early in the episode, he is also aware that Belinda is a slave in the Green household who is now working in the hospital. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, as I wrote last week in my review for Muster, that this leads Pinkerton to try and garner information from the enslaved woman (which the real life Pinkerton frequently did), allowing the show to reveal that even the apparently most “loyal” slaves harbored freedom desires and were willing to help the Union cause.

PTSD, the transition of the war and the lives of the enslaved to emancipation, and the activities of African Americans in supporting the Union and subverting the Confederacy are not the normal stories we see in Civil War fiction and movies. Thus episode two of Mercy Street once again shows that it is not your typical war story. As I wrote last week in my review for Muster, it is how well the show develops and interprets these aspects of the war, not the battle scenes of most war dramas, that will determine its ultimate value. I am still optimistic.


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