'Mercy Street' Recap: Women at War

Daniel Hautzinger
Chaplain Hopkins and Emma Green brave a battlefield to rescue wounded soldiers. (Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila)
Chaplain Hopkins and Emma Green brave a battlefield to rescue wounded soldiers. (Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila)

Mercy Street airs Sundays at 7:00 pm, and previous episodes are available to stream here.

Which reads as a bigger problem to you: the number of peaches in a tart, or some twenty soldiers lying wounded on an active battlefield with no one to tend them? Major McBurney would seem to believe the former. Two tarts have come from the Mansion House kitchen with a terrible disparity in the amount of peaches, and he is furious. So furious that he demands to see Nurse Hastings at once and then barks an order at her to fix this problem…today!

No matter that a smooth-cheeked young soldier has appeared at the hospital with an unconscious friend and news of more injured men stranded in the thick of war, waiting for help. When Chaplain Hopkins requests wagons in order to rescue the soldiers, McBurney refuses – declaring that it’s not the chaplain’s job. So Hopkins determines to go on his own. Emma, who has been spending increasingly more time with Hopkins since he stood up to a Confederate priest, offers money to rent the wagons, on the condition that she can accompany him.

A young soldier has arrived with a wounded friend, and pleads for someone to save the rest of the soldiers on a battlefield. (Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila)A young soldier has arrived with a wounded friend, and pleads for someone to save the rest of the soldiers on a battlefield. (Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila) While Emma sets off to help Union soldiers, the rest of the Green family works to support the Confederacy. James is in Richmond, with Alice and Belinda, to propose a business partnership to the secretary of the Confederacy. At the same time as this plan is being denied because of his family’s perceived Union sympathies, Alice is retrieving a covert resistance message from a seedy tavern. James eventually convinces the secretary of his loyalty and the brilliance of his “cotton diplomacy” plan, redeeming the Green name.

Jimmy has his own secretive scheme to aid the South. He has begun to smuggle weapons under cover of his furniture business. But when he reveals this to a couple of hard-bitten Confederates, two of his African American workers accidentally discover the stash of contraband weapons. Despite Jimmy’s trust in the laborers, the Confederates order him to kill them, or they will.

The hospital has its share of problems, too. Hale is struggling to make his preparation for the upcoming medical exam stick, even with Samuel’s tutorship. Realizing that he is a visual learner, he proposes to Samuel a guided dissection of a man dead from an unknown cause. The two discover that a bullet lodged in the man shattered, sending a wayward fragment away from the entry wound to cause sepsis and kill him.

This is a new medical finding, and Hale plans to publish it. Since Samuel is the one who discovered the fragmented bullet, he’ll even credit him on the paper as Dr. Samuel Diggs… so that no one will suspect Samuel was African American, a realization that would tarnish Hale’s reputation. Such a slight is especially pointed for Samuel, who had earlier revealed his ambition to become a doctor in order to inspire a classroom of Contrabands, upon Charlotte’s urging.

Charlotte has urged Samuel to reveal his ambitions to a classroom of Contrabands. (Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila)Charlotte has urged Samuel to reveal his ambitions to a classroom of Contrabands. (Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila) Matron Brannan’s son Declan has arrived at Mansion House to finagle a medical deferment from the Union army out of fear of manning the front lines. But the upright matron blanches at asking one of the nurses to falsify papers. Demonstrating an admirably selfless mindset, she tells Declan that if it’s not him killed in a battle, it will be some other mother’s son.

Brannan would know: there are plenty of those sons dying right in the hospital. For instance, the unconscious soldier brought from battle by his friend. Jed can’t discern his ailment, so he breaks out his new-fangled microscope to analyze some sputum. With Mary taken away to convalesce, he is aided in this lab work by a new, knowledgeable partner, who is actually an old acquaintance: Lisette. Turns out that the two were lovers back in Paris, but Lisette’s polyamorous ways sent Jed running. The erstwhile couple’s barbed exchanges are a pleasure to watch, especially since Lisette is so self-assured and easygoing, while Jed is flustered and over-serious.

Lisette's presence flusters her former lover Jed, but she is knowledgeable and competent. (Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila)Lisette's presence flusters her former lover Jed, but she is knowledgeable and competent. (Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila) The microscope reveals an “infestation” in the soldier’s lungs. But while medicine is acting on it, a fight breaks out in the ward when the soldier’s friend kisses him and other patients accuse the two of “buggery.” Jed already suspected the two were “deviants,” and expels the friend from the hospital, but Lisette interferes. Having observed the two while sketching them, she has realized a secret: the healthy soldier is a woman, who disguised herself in order to gain admittance to the Army, and has fallen in love with her injured friend. Lisette advises her to reveal her true identity to her friend, but when she does, he rejects her, and devastated, she leaves the hospital. No matter their strength and skill, there is no way for women to win in this war.

Women can occasionally use gender to their advantage, however. At the battlefield full of wounded soldiers, Emma saves Hopkins from death by standing in the way of enemy fire while the chaplain rushes to retrieve a soldier. The Confederates stop shooting when they see Emma, and she further demonstrates her usefulness by improvising a tourniquet. That evening, she and Hopkins share a kiss by a river. Their battle-born romance is quickly stalled when a Confederate shoots at them and Hopkins, overcome by adrenaline, drowns him in the river, to the horror of both Emma and himself.

The other Green sister also utilizes her femininity for gain. While crossing the border with her father on their journey home from Richmond, a Union soldier demands to search her handbag. She waves him off on account of certain embarrassing hygienic products inside, thus protecting her secret message from discovery. But James is onto her, and demands to see the paper once they are safely home. It’s a list of collaborators, and Jimmy is on it.

In her work on behalf of the South, Alice has nearly named her brother as a collaborator. (Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila)In her work on behalf of the South, Alice has nearly named her brother as a collaborator. (Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila) Despite his weapon-smuggling scheme, Jimmy has just given the Confederates more reason to question his loyalty. When he attempts to murder the two laborers who saw the guns, he chokes. He throws them papers and implores them to run away to the North and safety. This war makes it dangerous to be a decent person.

Instead, it rewards the deceitful. Failing to get a deferment from his mother, Declan works his charms upon Hastings, who has been suffering from a cricked neck due to McBurney’s ridiculous demands. The two go to bed together, thus curing Hastings’s tension and procuring forged papers for Declan. All’s fair in love and war, apparently.

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