Mercy Street, season 2, episode three review: The mask of the enslaved, and a religious debate over slavery.

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Emma Green (Hannah James) has a dying patient on her hands, and it sets off a debate over God and emancipation

Mercy Street’s third episode was entertaining, despite stealing a page from every romance movie you’ve ever seen, and wasting two big opportunities to delve into more complex historical realities. Further, the contraband camp is sadly still taking a back seat to other story-lines, although we are learning more about Charlotte Jenkins. Still, this season is shaping up as far stronger than the first.

First the romance: Phinney’s condition is improving (the culprit is definitely typhoid), although she is having delusions of her dead father quoting lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses. McBurney is determined to get her out of the place, however, as he believes his phrenological exam last week revealed that she is too prone to falling in love, and thus a bad choice for head nurse. He arranges to have her removed, and gets Foster out of the way by sending him on a house call to a “General Schnaetzle,” an officer in Pope’s Army of Virginia that is suffering from gonorrhea (“the clap”) thanks to a camp infested with prostitutes. (This dude is not a real person, although I wonder if General Franz Sigel is the inspiration for the character. German. In Pope’s army and stationed in northern Virginia in July 1862. Clearly incompetent. Hmm). Nurse Hastings is sent along to prevent Foster from getting home in time to stop Phinney’s removal. This sets up a disturbingly comic scene involving the insertion of a catheter (accurate medical history), but also provides some much needed depth for the Hastings character. As we know, she is forever bragging about her time working with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, but her guilt over keeping the lovers apart brings her to admit something big. It seems her time with Nightingale was brief, because the famed nurse discovered that Hastings had fallen in love with one of her patients (who was later killed in battle), and thus she forced her to leave. After this revelation, Hastings encourages Foster to head back as fast as possible in order to catch Phinney before she is gone (and gives him a copy of Tennyson to give her). This leads to the aforementioned romance movie cliche, as Foster rushes home (the only thing missing is a driving rain), just in time to catch her on the docks awaiting ship transport (think airport scene). They share a tender moment (although she is still bedridden and half delirious), with him promising that he will reunite with her soon. Awwww. I have a pretty high tolerance for romance in my entertainment (I’m a softy), but less so for cliche.

I was afraid that Phinney’s condition would detract from the contraband camp, and that was definitely true this week. There were some interesting developments, however. Dr. Hale discovers Samuel’s medical knowledge when he saves the life of a white man confined in the smallpox quarantine tent, and then the doctor hires the free black man as a private tutor to help him pass his medical exams. When Samuel later explains all this to Charlotte Jenkins, she disparages the doctor, leading Samuel to remark that she is a “hard case.” She agrees, saying, “I was schooled by masters.” She then changes her dialect to that of a stereotypical subservient slave and says,  “Of course to me da was ‘massa.'” That’s excellent dialogue because it very subtlety reveals how the enslaved often wore a mask around their masters, feigning loyalty and ignorance while all the while possessing a great degree of wily common sense and desire for freedom. Charlotte fortifies this when she goes on to briefly explain why she never wanted children (fear of having a child sold away from her) and to describe how she escaped slavery back in 1853 thanks to the help of Harriet Tubman. This is an interesting character with a lot of potential. I especially hope she has a growing impact on the Green family slave, Belinda, who has been working a lot in the contraband camp and was stunned by hearing how Jenkins speaks so assertively to white people. I still have my fingers crossed that the family’s most trusted slave winds up betraying them, as this would make a powerful statement about slave resistance.

Concurrently, the Green family is dealing with the aftermath of their murder of a Union soldier. Alice finally helps Frank get behind Confederate lines, but it becomes clear that she is dealing with a heavy burden of guilt when she ponders whether God punishes those that kill, and especially when she has a near panic attack (actress AnnaSophia Robb impressively manages to dredge up some large and very real tears) when it appears that Frank is about to murder a family of Quakers that had given them shelter (he’s afraid they will turn him in for reward money). Much to her relief, and ours, he doesn’t. Meanwhile, her father and brother bury the soldier’s body in one of their warehouses outside of town, and are soon questioned by Pinkerton. They deny knowing Frank, but the detective discovers otherwise while snooping in their house. He not only finds a letter that Alice forged to make it look like the dead soldier was a deserter (Pinkerton already knows that isn’t true, because officers have no reason to desert, they can just resign!), but he conveniently finds a picture of Frank that Emma has stashed away in a drawer in her room. This whole scene was extremely lazy writing (it just so happens that the only drawer he opens is the very one we earlier saw Emma put the picture into), but it is also one of the two missed opportunities I mentioned. How much richer and historically relevant would this story be if it was Belinda that revealed to Pinkerton that Emma and Frank were an item? Come on writers, don’t let me down.

The other missed opportunity comes in this episode’s best scene. A rebel patient is soon to die, and Nurse Emma Green is charged with informing and comforting him in his last moments. The soldier rejects Union hospital Chaplain Hopkins when Emma brings him to the bedside, so Emma rounds up a local preacher with strong rebel leanings and he oversees the soldier’s passing. The good reverend then takes the opportunity to preach loudly to all the Union soldiers in the hospital, exclaiming that the rebel has died fighting for God’s will. Leaning on the pro-slavery dogma that the bible teaches that blacks are the inheritors of the “Curse of Ham” and thus forever doomed to subservience, the preacher riles up the Yankees, one of which exclaims, “WE are the army of God!” This sets off a debate between the rebel preacher and the Union chaplain (whom Emma clearly admires, much to the chagrin of her mother), who responds with Christ’s injunction to “do unto others . . . ” This is an exciting scene to watch, because it reveals in microcosm the pro-slavery vs abolitionist debate, both of which relied on scripture to fortify their positions (Curse of Ham vs Do unto others). By extension, it reveals the dichotomy that Lincoln discussed in his second inaugural address, that both sides felt their cause to be holy. From an historical perspective, this is good stuff, and perhaps even more so because it is an attack on the Lost Cause myth that the South’s cause was not rooted in the protection of slavery. Unlike so many southerners today, Confederates had no shame in openly admitting the white supremacist reasons for their secession. Nay, like the reverend, they boldly proclaimed it, painting it as God’s will.

As awesome as this scene is, however, it is a missed opportunity to accurately depict the varied opinions of Union soldiers on slavery and its relation to the war. It seems that all the soldiers in the room agree with the chaplain that slavery is an evil that they are fighting to destroy. If this had been a room filled with Massachusetts soldiers, they perhaps might have reached such a consensus, but it is not an accurate depiction of the diversity of Union soldier sentiments. The scene takes place in mid-to-late July, 1862 (a reference to the 1st battle of Murfreesboro tells us that), at a moment when the nation was hotly debating whether or not the war had thus far revealed the Union could not be saved without emancipating the slaves so as to deprive the South of their aid and to add their strength to the North. It would have been interesting to have seen this debate take place among the soldiers during this scene. One could have expressed abolitionist sentiments, while another could have insisted he was not fighting to end slavery, only to save the Union. And then another could have pointed out that saving the Union required freeing the slaves (for the reasons aforementioned). This would have been a powerful and accurate depiction of the opinions of Union soldiers, and of the whole North, especially at that moment in time. As it stands, it is a good scene, but could have been a great one.

All things considered, however, Mercy Street continues to be good Civil War drama, as the second season gets stronger and stronger. Could it emerge as the most powerful and beneficial pop cultural lesson we have on the Civil War?

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