Mercy Street, season 2, episode 4 review: Love and sex are in the air, but so too are some missed opportunities.

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This week, Emma and the Chaplain see some action. In more ways than one!

This week’s episode was a perfect lead-in for Valentine’s Day, given that it featured a romantic first kiss between budding lovers, some scandalous sex, a forbidden love, and a line that was clearly an homage to Casablanca. It also featured scenes that took us farther away from the hospital than ever before and apparently leaped forward a few weeks in time without exploring how an important piece of legislation would have just impacted the lives of the African Americans living in the contraband camps. This was the weakest episode so far this season, but still satisfying.

The forbidden love came in the form of two soldiers fresh from the battles associated with the Second Manassas Campaign (which moves us about a month ahead in time from episode three). One is close to death and is helped into the hospital by a young soldier that seems to have lied about his age in order to enlist. Once again Dr. Foster does some cutting edge research to save the soldier’s life, and is helped by an attractive medical/anatomical sketch artist (who arrived in the previous episode, but somehow is only just now running into Foster) that obviously has a romantic past with Foster. When he first talks to her, he delivers the homage to Casablanca. “This great big war,” he says, “and all these hospitals, and you show up in this one.” (Their previous affair took place in Paris, so the only thing missing is a black musician playing their favorite tune). The artist is named Lisette, and her character is no doubt meant to complicate the Foster/Phinney love story if and when Phinney returns. Anyway, the younger soldier is spotted kissing the other one while he was unconscious, and it sets Foster and others in the hospital off on a tirade against deviancy and “buggery.” Lisette suspects the younger soldier is actually a women in disguise, and is proven correct. This all ends rather melodramatically, with the young lady confessing her deception and love for the soldier, he’s rejection of her, and her returning to the front-lines disguised again as a soldier. Lest we think this is all hokum, there are indeed many well documented cases of women disguising as men in order to enlist.

But the scandalous sex involves Nurse Hastings and the son of hospital Matron Brannan. This handsome, but clearly rakish dude shows up to see his mother in order to avoid the impending Battle of Antietam. He needs a doctor’s note for a feigned medical condition so that he can get a safe job behind the lines (which brings to mind research like that of Lesley Gordon or Kathryn S. Meier on Civil War “shirkers.”) His mother is reluctant and unable to help him, but he quickly seduces Hastings, as she is in need of some relief from the stress of keeping Major McBurney happy. The odd leader is clearly OCD (as I diagnosed him after his first appearance), insisting the hospital’s desserts must have the exact number of peaches in every tart (a problem that literally gives Hastings a pain in the neck and that she solves thanks to the timely arrival of Mrs Green who brings in some pastries for the suffering soldiers). After a satisfying carnal romp with Brannan’s son, Hastings is happy to provide the paperwork he needs with the agreement that he’ll come around more often. Saucy stuff (and though not directly related, reminds me that you should all know about a new book just out from UNC Press, Judith Giesberg’s Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality).

Mrs. Green’s main purpose in showing up was to look for Emma, who hasn’t been home in a while (for reasons we will explore below), but she is not the only family member missing from the roost. Jimmy is in the middle of a plan to use the family business to clandestinely import and distribute guns to the Confederacy (the shortage of which has always been greatly exaggerated by the Lost Cause, as Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas  proved remarkably adept at keeping southern armies well supplied with munitions). His plan has been discovered by two slaves, but rather than murder them as he is encouraged to do, he gives them money and instructions to flee to northern lines. What a guy.  Meanwhile, his father is doing his part for the Confederacy, traveling to Richmond (strangely they take a horse and buggy for the 90 mile trip instead of the train) to meet with Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin in the Virginia state house, which at this point was the rebel capitol. These scenes were filmed in the actual location (using some CGI to remove the modern Richmond city-scape). The beautiful rotunda and statue of George Washington make an appearance (as they also did in Spielberg’s Lincoln), as Green explains “cotton diplomacy” to Benjamin. It is a bit ridiculous for the writers to present this as Green’s original idea, as this policy was already in effect by this point and proving a failure. Yet there is a twist, Green has put together a “collective of cotton growers” who will sell to the British at cheap rates in return for their help in the war. (The actual policy was to NOT sell, thus driving up the price and causing a cotton shortage damaging to the British textile industry. This had been somewhat successful early in the war, but by late 1862 the British were already finding ways to mitigate and solve the problem).

More intriguingly, Alice is along for the trip and takes the time to pick up a document her spy ring has instructed her to retrieve. The family’s most trusted slave, Belinda, disdainfully watches as Alice lies to her father, meets with a shady character in a seedy Richmond tavern, and sees her lie to Federal picket guards to avoid having her handbag searched (the lie involves her menstrual cycle, prompting this interesting blog post from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Ever wonder how 19th century women dealt with that time of month?). Thus, I am growing ever more hopeful that Belinda will share all she knows with Pinkerton. As I have discussed before, slaves were a source of information that he frequently utilized, and if the show goes down this path it would be a valuable history lesson about slave “loyalty.” Unfortunately, as we learn from Green Jr., Pinkerton has left town by this point and is back at McClellan’s side in the field (accurate). Will he return later this season to continue the investigation? In the meantime, we learn that the document Alice brought back is a list of people that are allegedly working for the Union and thus whom rebel spies should eliminate. Much to Alice’s shock, her brother’s name is on the list. Oh goodness.

Meanwhile, Emma is out of town because she and the Chaplain learn that about 20 wounded Union soldiers are pinned down on the battlefield (apparently Chantilly) and need rescue. The Chaplain is determined to get them, and Emma helps by stealing money from her father to pay for wagons and teamsters to accompany them to the site. Once they get there, the Chaplain himself gets pinned down by rebels, requiring Emma to bravely expose herself to gunfire (knowing that chivalry would cause the Confederates to stop shooting upon the site of a lady), and bravely escort the Chaplain out of danger. All the excitement and adrenaline from their adventure reaches a boiling point later that night, as Emma and the Chaplain finally share a kiss. The moment is interrupted, however, when a rebel takes a pot shot at the embracing couple (I guess he wasn’t too chivalrous), which unleashes a rage in the good reverend that leads him to fight and kill the would-be assassin. Surely this will cause the Chaplain to have a crisis of conscience, but it’s a pretty weak development and story-line. The better one is Emma’s evolution, as she becomes increasingly confident, bold, and decisive. Mrs. Green notices the change too, especially while seeing Emma in action when they return to town with the wounded soldiers. She looks upon her daughter with what is probably a mix of pride in her developing strength, but anger and disgust that it is being used to help Union soldiers. Stay with this story-line writers, please.

So what about the contraband camp and the black characters? Sadly, they get short-shrift in the episode, although there is one scene of Charlotte Jenkins educating the slaves about clock time so that they can manage their own time once they become free laborers. Further, she points out that Samuel is studying to become a doctor, which amazes the black children, but he nicely informs them that he would not be the first African American doctor (true). Meanwhile, Samuel’s lessons with Dr. Hale continue, as they perform an autopsy as a learning experiment and wind up making a medical breakthrough when they discover what really killed the soldier. Samuel’s excitement is dampened somewhat when Hale wants to write the case up for medical journals with both their names on it as attending physicians, but only because people won’t suspect that Samuel is black if he uses “Dr. Samuel Diggs” in the report. This little bit is all we get from the African American story-lines in this episode, and that is a shame.

This disappointment is compounded by the fact that at the time the episode takes place, news of the Second Confiscation Act would have now spread, meaning that runaways in camp that had fled rebel masters were now legally free (but not those with loyal masters, which presumably would include the Green family slaves, since Jr. signed the loyalty oath). Further, a new Militia Act was concurrently passed which called for the recruitment of black men into paid military service (though not yet as soldiers). Surely, this could have led to some interesting story-lines within the camp that would be more compelling than Hastings’s dalliance with the matron’s son, the contrivance of Green’s explaining cotton diplomacy to Judah Benjamin, and even the Chaplain’s killing of a rebel soldier. It would also show that emancipationist federal policies evolved and did not start with the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s a much more complex and interesting story.

This episode again demonstrates that Mercy Street is committed to telling some very nontraditional Civil War stories (women soldiers, shirkers, etc.), but I hope they begin to focus more intently on their African American characters and emancipation. They’re missing some great opportunities. I suspect that with the Emancipation Proclamation around the corner, they will do so, but sadly in a way that will only reinforce the popular perception that the military event we should most connect to emancipation is Antietam.

Perhaps I should have sent a copy of my book to the writers. 🙂

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