Mercy Street “The New Nurse” Review (Season 1, Episode 1) [DEBUT]

Mercy Street

The debut episode of the new PBS mini-series Mercy Street – that some are saying will be the “new Downton Abbey” (for which I personally have my doubts, but I’ll go with that statement for now, I guess?!) aired on Sunday night.

Rather than the finery of affluent life in an elaborate English castle, ‘Mercy Street’ offers a look inside a deplorable hospital (that previously was a lavish hotel for the rich and elite) in Alexandria, Virginia at the mid-way point (1862 to be a bit more specific) of the Civil War.

The hotel, owned by the rich Green family, who – conveniently life only a block away – was taken over by the Union Army, who now solidly occupy the entire town that is filled with wounded soldiers from both sides of the war as well as former slaves, who are being treated as if they are still enslaved.

The main focus of the mini-series is shone on Mary Phinney, a seemingly headstrong New England widow who is new to the world of nursing, which is also a new “profession” thanks in great part to the efforts of Florence Nighingale (who is referenced several times in the debut episode, I might add). In fact, in one particularly important scene, Mary states something along the lines that blood makes her uneasy. I would say nursing is the wrong profession to tackle if she can’t stand the sight of blood. It also doesn’t help that her late husband was a German Baron, making her the butt of jokes by pompous Dr. Byron Hale, whose specialty is amputations. [Thankfully, the actual surgeries are not shown on screen albeit one scene near the beginning of the episode where Mary witnessing amputated limbs being thrown out a window to an awaiting cart on the dirt street – gross is all I can say!]

Mary quickly realizes that she may be in over her head, but she seemed determined enough to stick it out especially after the death of a young Union solider (who was barely 16 years of age), the feeble assistance she provided free-born laborer Samuel, who was raised in a physician’s home and has a vast knowledge of medicine – which he put to the test in saving a young Yankee soldier and for which Mary took credit in saving – and meeting forward-thinking Dr. Jedediah Foster.

On the opposite side of the story (after all this is not just a story based on actual events but also about the war between and the blue and grey) is the Green family: the wealthy owners of the Mansion House Hotel now the Mansion House Hospital where Rebs and Yanks are both treated. After all, Dr. Foster said, they are there to only see one soldier: “the wounded”. I highly doubt, though, that Dr. Hale nor Dr. Summers, the blustery Chief Surgeon, who does not want Mary in the hospital in the first place, will agree with that sentiment. But I digress…back to the Green family.

James Green, Sr. is the epitome of southern wealth and his wife Jane is the image of a genteel southern wife. They have three grown children: James, Jr., who has been turned down for service in the war due to a clubfoot. James wishes to serve rather than be seen as cowardly, but is “forced” to work side-by-side with his father to save their family fortune, which is quickly being depleted by the war and the Union occupation. Then there are the southern belles: Emma, older sister to Alice. Both girls have “beaus” fighting in the war – Emma has Frank Stringfellow and Alice has Tom Fairfax. Because of this fact, Emma goes to the hospital hoping to find out any details on either of the young men, only to discover Tom lying in a cot with several other Confederate soldiers, who are being overlooked by the understaffed (and quite frankly less than caring Union doctors).

The scenes with Emma help, of course, to establish a “relationship” of sorts between Mary and Emma and more importantly open Emma’s eyes to the fact that she – simply put – needs to put her childish manners and Southern belle life aside in order to see the new reality of her world: the war is just outside her front door and firmly planted all over her family’s once grand hotel. It remains to be seen what will happen with younger sister Alice, however, since she was only seen in a few short scenes.

Then there is stuck-up British Nurse Anne Hastings who worked alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimea (for which she nor Dr. Hale can stop mentioning it would seem), who does not like Mary from the outset. Anne is clearly taken aback when Mary announces that she has been assigned as Head Nurse by Dorothea Dix, the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses, not only because Dix and her nurses are looked down upon by the Union doctors at the hotel turned hospital but also because Anne clearly sees herself in that “leading role” because of her experience during the Crimean War.

Lastly, there is “contraband” (i.e. escaped slave) Aurelia, free born laborer Samuel and Green family servant Belinda all of whom will, assuredly, play important roles throughout the mini-series’ run. Samuel is the only one who really had a focal point during the debut episode because of his aforementioned skill at saving a very-panicked Yankee solider. His medical skill saved the young man’s life and “allowed” Mary to seem more capable at her job – at least briefly in the eyes of Dr. Foster.

Did you watch the first episode of ‘Mercy Street’ on Sunday night? What are your thoughts on the mini-series? Please share them below.

The next episode of the first season of ‘Mercy Street’ will air on PBS on Sunday, January 24 at 10/9c.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Phinney
Josh Radnor as Dr. Jed Foster
Gary Cole as James Green, Sr.
Hannah James as Emma Green
Norbert Leo Butz as Dr. Byron Hale
Tara Summer as Nurse Anne Hastings
McKinley Belcher III as Samuel Diggs
Shalita Grant as Aurelia Johnson
Peter Gerety as Chief Surgeon Alfred Summers
AnnaSophia Robb as Alice Green
Cameron Monaghan as Tom Fairfax
Donna Murphy as Jane Greene
Brad Koed as James Green, Jr.
L. Scott Caldwell as Belinda Gibson
Wade Williams as Silas Bullen
Luke Macfarlane as Chaplain Henry Hopkins
Suzanne Bertish as Hospital Matron Brannan
Jake Falahee as Frank Stringfellow [does not appear in debut episode]