Written by Dylan Brandsema
Mercy Street appears as a show that finds its footing almost instantly. From the very beginning, we’re treated to wonderfully framed cinematography that can pass as paintings in a text book, convincing period piece sets, and costuming and wardrobe that all work together to create a clear-cut, definitive sense of place. The setting of Mercy Street, which is Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War (1862, specifically) feels just as credible and important to the story, and to this pilot episode, as anything involving the characters or story progression. We believe that these characters have been here a long time. They feel their environment and so do we – it’s plausible.
Entering this environment for the first time, though, is Duchess and nurse Mary Phinney, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is sent by a higher-up known only as Mrs. Dix to work as a nurse at “Mansion House”, a Union hospital where both Union and Confederate soldiers are sent to recover from their battle wounds. As one would expect, this sends her, along with the other employees and executives she comes into cross-hairs with into a spiraling moral debate about of who to care for first, who deserves more attention, and who should be allowed to attend to the soldiers of each side, if at all, all while trying to find her place as an outside in her new work setting, or in this case, home.
Exploring the morals of ethics of working in a dual-sided hospital during war time is endlessly fascinating, and watching our characters as they unfold unto one another during all this makes for not only great dialouge, but an interesting, multi-faced mental debate. And luckily, the chemistry between actors is immediate. Our three protagonists of sort: Dr. Jed Foster (played by Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother fame), a dedicated, but conflicted and morally crooked doctor trying to keep everything under control, Emma Green (Hannah James), a resident of the property trying to find her lost lover among the wounded warriors, and of course Winstead’s Mary Phinney, all blend together extremely well with each other and those around them in a way that makes the show’s overall narrative flow like river water around rocks.
The narrative isn’t singular. The show shuffles many characters, both major and minor, and many plots. A troublesome design surely for any television pilot, but Mercy Street handles it so effortlessly that, in the best possible way, we feel as if we’ve been here for a long time. Instead of a direct, but potentially jumbled story arc about these three individuals taking place within the cramped and confined walls of Mansion House, it becomes a neutral, observatory glance at the struggles faced by people who are tasked with detrimental responsibilities under outrageous and shady circumstances. Every main character is given just enough screen time for them to understood, sympathized with and cared about, yet we have no choice but to question and worry about their actions, their motives, motivations and morals. This a character study if I ever saw one. What must it have been like for the nurses and caretakers in this situation? How does one handle their mental and physical well-being while scrambling so haphazardly to ensure the lives of others? According to the series creators, Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel, the series is based on memoirs and letters of real doctors, nurses, and surgeons, who worked at the actual Mansion House Hospital during this time. It’s true that so much of what we love about television and film entertainment is but unexpected and perhaps unknown portraits of our past.
“The New Nurse” is an absolutely rock solid premiere of what promises to be an interesting, if not, at the very least, thought-provoking, great series. Many who are tired of television period dramas while shrug it off as just another layer on a stale, overeaten cake. To those people I offer a new flavor of icing. Mercy Street has a lot to offer.
Mercy Street OVERALL RATING: 9/10
Dylan Brandsema is a staff writer for Pop-Break specializing in film and television. When he isn’t writing reviews or spending too much analyzing the medium, he’s writing and directing his own independent films as well as drinking way too much soda. Currently at full-time film major at Full Sail University, Dylan eats, sleeps, and breathes everything related to the cinema. You can follow him on Twitter @SneakyOstrich69.