Season Wrap Up: Mercy Street Season One

mercy-streetMy watch schedule is starting to get away from me again. I’d had things so under control and now it’s starting to spiral. If I buckled down I could probably get it together again pretty quick, but I’ve gotten very caught up in my Grey’s Anatomy re-watch/catch-up. I accidentally quit way back in Season Eight and I’m finally making my way through what I haven’t seen. And when I got to the new stuff (well, new to me) I just got hooked in a way I haven’t been with a binge watch in awhile. And so last weekend I pretty much stayed in my pjs the whole time and from Friday night to Monday morning made it through the back half of Season Eight, the entirety of Season Nine, and a good ways into Season Ten. And now a week later I just started Season Eleven. I’m actually going to catch up before Season Twelve ends!

Anyway, so…that’s why this wrap up of Mercy Street is just so late in getting posted.

The Good

Black Freedom

I’m probably going to say this more than once during this wrap-up, but one of the things that I really latched onto with this show was the depth of complexity and nuance that went into their discussion and depiction of tough topics of the time. And freedom for black Americans – what that really meant, what that looked like, what were the pros and cons – was no exception. Freedom for slaves wasn’t shown as this simple, glorious, pie in the sky fix to life. Instead, it came with its own set of troubles.

What was best about this depiction of the tenuous start to black freedom in America was that white people had very little to do with it. Freedom wasn’t ever given to someone. It wasn’t a gift we ever saw a white person bestow on a black slave. Freedom, and all it entailed, came from within the black characters. It was something discussed among themselves, suggested and encouraged to each other. There as no benevolent white man handing out hope to sad black slaves. Black characters took their freedom, like Miles running off with the free boys he saw playing in the streets. They made their freedom, like Belinda standing up to the Greens and demanding wages for her service. They helped each other understand and acquire their freedom. It came from within.

I just thought this was so, so important. Too often in stories like this a black character has to wait around for a saintly white character to help them along, but these characters could do for themselves. It wasn’t Nurse Phinny’s urging and arguing that started changing Dr. Foster’s mind about black people, for example, it was Samuel himself. It was Samuel’s talents and abilities as a doctor. No white man (and certainly not that nasty steward) reunited Aurelia with Gabriel. She worked long and hard to make that happen, and it was Samuel again who helped her take those final steps.

Because the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves was such a monumental moment in the history of Black America, I could certainly do with more black characters and more focus on their stories, but I certainly appreciated the respect and nuance given to those we had.

North vs. South

Because of just how reprehensible slavery is, it’s easy to paint the Civil War and those involved in it in broad, simple strokes: the North is good, the South is evil. And when you look at the issue in a big, generalized way, that’s true. Slavery is wrong. Period. But the Civil War was about a lot more than just slavery. In fact, for many people the war wasn’t able slavery at all. So much of the war came from the compromises made during the ratification of the Constitution way back in 1789. The war was far more about a crisis of democracy – a fight between states rights and federal rights. So yes, the issue at the crux of that crisis was slavery, but for many people is was a politically divisive issue – one affecting representation in the federal government and the preservation of the union – rather than a moral one over the rights of black Americans. The reasoning behind these politics of the war weren’t too explicitly discussed in these six short episodes, but they were clearly in the minds of the writers and helped color and flesh out these characters.

All that was really to say, I appreciated that people were people in this. Union soldiers could be racist and violent, confederate nurses could be compassionate and determined. Slavery as an institution is decidedly wrong and anyone who supports or propagates such an institution is decidedly in the wrong – but doing a terrible thing or having a terrible belief doesn’t necessary make someone a terrible person. So the Green family, for example, or the girl’s beaux Tom and Frank, are all fully realized people – they’re more than just their Confederate cause. And they have the opportunity to become better – to change their terrible beliefs, like we see with James. By the end of the season, after spending time in jail, he begins to question his convictions. Maybe he’ll eventually overturn them. Similarly, Dr. Foster isn’t some progressive supporter of the rights of black Americans, even though he serves in the Union Army. He’s a man who was raised in a slave-owning household and has kept hold of the racist and oppressive views of black men and women that he has always known.

It’s complicated and in some cases down right uncomfortable to appreciate and empathize and root for some of these characters. But in my opinion, that’s a good thing.

Civil War Era Medicine

This was actually one of the things that put this show on my radar to begin with. I remember going to the Civil War Medicine Museum when I was a kid and just being enthralled.

I didn’t think they showed anything too graphic (though occasionally I got a little affected by some of the screaming), but what was shown was incredibly interesting to me. Amputations and pain management and abortions and gangrene and anything else imaginable. It could be almost frightening to witness the intensity and brutality of some medical practiced from the era – the casual feelings towards anesthetics for one. But it’s equally fascinating to see the innovation – seeing the experimenting, the knowledge people were working towards.

A House Divided

Maybe this is just me, but it’s a Civil War story. You gotta have at least one family in it with brothers fighting on either side. So yep, I’m all for Dr. Foster coming from a slave-holding family with a brother fighting for the Confederacy, defying his mother’s wishes and joining the Union Army as a doctor. More of that please!

The Not so Good

My only real complaint was that the season…seemed a little light on plot? I’m sure some of that came from being a season of only six hour-long episodes with a wide bench of characters, but I really didn’t feel like much was happening until about halfway through. Then things started to pick up, but there wasn’t much time to go anywhere. We know for sure there’s going to be a second season, so I’m hoping the writers really make some clear decisions on where they want this story to go.

Hopes for Next Season

  1. Like I said, a more focused plot would be good – we’ve established who all our characters are now, so it’s time to really let them do things.
  2. Continue Emma and James’ respective Union dabblings – her relationship with Chaplain Hopkins, his revelations in prison – and position them in contrast to Alice and Frank’s activities with the Knights of the Golden Circle. Even if they never truly leave behind their Confederate convictions (and seeing as Emma was a real person who did indeed marry Frank Stringfellow, she probably didn’t) the different directions the family is divided between will be interesting.
  3. Frank Stringfellow was a real person and real spy for the Confederacy, so more of him. More of what he really actually did as a spy. I know the focus of the series is the hospital, but he’s a character that could truly be fascinating.
  4. I’m always a sucker for merging history with fiction. Emma and Mary and Frank were real, but none of them (maybe Frank) were what we think of historical figures. We got teased in that last episode. Teased with Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. Don’t just tease me. Let’s make Booth a character.

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