As Mercy Street, a new drama airing on PBS, opens, the year is 1862 and everyone is reasonably certain that the American Civil War can’t last much longer. Recently claimed by the Union, the city of Alexandria, Virginia is now home to Union soldiers who take every victory as a sign that the Confederacy is on the verge of crumbling and Confederates who believe they just need to wait out the invasion for their lives to resume much as they were before the outbreak of fighting. But as the bodies pile up, such delusions do no one any good. Gangrene doesn’t care about causes. Disease doesn’t care about uniforms.
Medical professionals, on the other hand, do, and one of the richest elements of the series comes from the way political and personal allegiances play into treatment. In the first scene of the show’s first episode, “The New Nurse,” protagonist Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is dubbed, approvingly, “another noisy abolitionist” by the fearsome Nurse Dix (Cherry Jones) and assigned as the head nurse of an Alexandria hotel-turned-makeshift-hospital that serves as the series’ central setting. Once there, she’s dropped into a facility in which meager resources and criss-crossed loyalties do little to help the patients.
One of the smartest moves series creators Lisa Q. Wolfzinger and David Zabel (the latter a veteran of E.R.) make is to give Mary her own internal conflicts. The New England-born widow of a German nobleman, she comes to Alexandria with little interest in tending to the wounds of those on the side of the Confederacy. “Blood is not gray or blue, madame,” she’s corrected by Dr. Jed Foster (How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor, tough-to-recognize behind a beard). But Jed’s got shortcomings of his own. His loyalties are to the Union, but that doesn’t mean he’s not perfectly comfortable expressing racist beliefs and suggesting that he doesn’t care all that much about ending slavery. It’s a world filled with characters who entertain noble ideals next to reprehensible beliefs.
Winstead’s especially good when called upon to process all those contradictions. Mary quickly realizes she’s in over her head — a realization that later episodes will only confirm — but she’s determined to figure out how to survive in her new environment. This means navigating a cast of characters who don’t necessarily wish her well, most vociferously Anne Hastings (Tara Summers, biting and fun), an experienced nurse who studied under Florence Nightingale and is quick to point out that Mary, well, didn’t. Also on hand: Emma Green (Hannah James), a young, plantation-raised woman (and fan of hoop-skirts) who finds herself compelled to help the hospital’s wounded Confederates. (As the series opens, she’s a just a “fiddle-dee-dee” away from Scarlett O’Hara. It should be interesting to see where the show takes her.) And, at the other end of the social spectrum, Samuel Diggs (McKinely Belcher), a black man who’s quick to point out he was never a slave. Raised in a doctor’s home, he’s picked up quite a bit of medical knowledge over the years, but he can’t even officially serve as an orderly, even in a facility controlled by the Union. (The expansive cast also includes Gary Cole as a plantation owner and other familiar faces.)
Diggs’ situation echoes that of Andre Holland’s character on The Knick: He’s gifted in ways the times aren’t prepared to recognize because of his race. That’s not the only similarity, either. It’s not as gory as The Knick — what is? — but Mercy Street doesn’t skimp on the medical grotesquerie. It also doesn’t skimp on the historical irony. Jed champions morphine as a miracle drug and, in one eyeroll-inducing scene, talks to a syringe about all the lives it will save as a vial of laudanum is visible in the background. The performances are often subtle. The situations and dialogue are not.
For all its Knick echoes, the show, whose first season consists of six episodes, ultimately bears a closer resemblance to Downton Abbey. With that series now in its valedictory season, that’s probably no coincidence. Produced by Ridley Scott and David W. Zucker, also partners on The Good Wife, it’s shot handsomely, if not all that distinctively, and filled with potentially soapy situations. The first two episodes show promise — the cast helps a lot — but also the potential to descend into mess in which too many characters bounce between too many overheated situations. Then again, that worked out pretty well for the Downton crew. And the residents of Mercy Street have a lot of war ahead of them in which to play out all those dramas, even if they don’t know it yet.
Mercy Street premieres this Sunday on PBS at 10 p.m. ET.