Mercy Street: The Best Historical Drama You’ve Never Heard Of

Mercy Street’s Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Dr. Foster (Josh Radnor), courtesy PBS.org

It isn’t fantasy, except in the sense that all historical fiction is: an excursion to a time and place that’s outside the world we live in. But I’ve just been watching the PBS original series Mercy Street, and I’m hooked by the tight storytelling and unflinching exploration of the conflicts, both on and off the battlefield, surrounding the American Civil War.

Set in a hotel turned military hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, in the spring of 1862, Mercy Street tells the story of a new head nurse facing opposition from staff and doctors as she struggles to make sure that the wounded “boys” get the care they need. Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a recent widow with a mysterious backstory: her late husband was a German baron, and she gained nursing experience caring for him. She’s forced to deal with dismissive doctors, a conniving nurse who resents her presence, and the daily horrors wrought by war.

The show’s interwoven story lines bring together doctors, soldiers, slaves, former slaves and the townspeople of Alexandria, all struggling to survive in an extraordinary time. Tensions run high on Mercy Street, and the show doesn’t flinch from showing how those stresses affect the various characters who pass through the hospital’s doors.
 
 Mercy Street
has an impressive pedigree. The first season, which premiered on January 17, 2016, was produced by Ridley Scott (The Martian, Gladiator, Thelma and Louise) David Zucker of The Good Wife and David Zabel of ER. The premiere drew over 5.7 million viewers and trended nationally on Twitter for more than two hours that night. It joins the ranks of quality period shows like Downton Abbey and Outlander, with the same kind of devoted following.

As readers of my historical fantasy — sorta steampunk stories know, events in the world of Sorrows Hill take place in about the same time frame as Mercy Street. The Sorrows Hill stories play out in the haunted mountains of what is today southern West Virginia, and later in Washington DC — but the tragedy of war colors the lives of characters like war widow Annabet Guinn, Union Army captain Perry Jones and the gentlemen (and ladies) of President Lincoln’s clandestine Office of Extraordinary Phenomena — that era’s answer to the X-Files.

That’s one reason I was interested to see Mercy Street. But what keeps me watching are the stories themselves — tightly focused, rich with complex characters grappling with difficult questions raised by the war and their own actions. Nobody’s perfect, and nobody is a cardboard cutout villain, and the show makes sure we care about these people. Mercy Street doesn’t bother with stereotypical battle scenes. The action takes place largely within the confines of the converted hotel and a few other locations. It’s not a war story — it’s a story about how war affects people.

Mercy Street is also backed up by some heavy duty historical research from established authorities, which creates its authentic feel. But there’s more. The show’s website has the usual behind the scenes bits and story synopses — but it also works hard to connect viewers to the show’s actual historical context with a variety of interactive activities. You can even create a Civil War style tintype photograph of yourself.

We’ll never visit Alexandria in the spring of 1862, just as we’ll never visit Westeros or Ringworld or Hogwarts. But Mercy Street’s showrunners have succeeded in creating another perfectly detailed world that never actually was — but could have been. And like those other overtly fantastical realms, it’s a world to visit again and again.

Mercy Street has just been renewed for Season 2, airing in 2017. You can catch Season 1 episodes on a variety of devices from PBS, (I streamed it via Amazon Prime), with DVD options coming soon.

Learn more about the Sorrows Hill series and the urban fantasy world of the Moon Road at JeanMcKinney.com. And for exclusive new fiction, art and reviews of fantasy film, tv and books, subscribe to Dark Star Review (coming mid-June 2016)

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