Cancellations are a complicated beast.
Regardless of the sweet nothings the Era of Peak Television whispers about what may come in a cancellation’s stead, it is never easy to see a favorite disappear when its world is still vibrant and full of compelling stories. That said, there is a certain serenity to be found in the knowledge that a series you’re coming to late doesn’t have to be devoured in a race against next season’s clock, and can instead be savored.
Such is the case with PBS’ nuanced, compassionate, visually stunning Civil War drama, “Mercy Street,” which was cancelled the week after its second season finale, but deserves to grow its audience all the same — especially in the specific cultural and political moment we find ourselves in right now.
You can see for yourself in this PBS catchup video for Season 1 — but before we dive into all the many reasons you should add “Mercy Street” to your “To Be Savored” pile, we want to talk about 2016.
Specifically, a single scene from Ben H. Winters’ disturbingly credible 2016 novel, “Underground Airlines,” which too-seamlessly imagines a modern America in which the Civil War never happened and slavery was never completely abolished.
In Winter’s world, the most recent military conflict is a modern shadow of our Civil War, fought in the Mexican Gulf between the slave-condoning Union, and a Texas grappling for the moral right to secede. It is this conflict that the novel’s protagonist — a black man working undercover for the US Marshals to track and return slaves to the eternally slave-owning Southern states they escaped from — invokes, when he has to wrest information from a pair of Northern, pro-slavery rednecks:
“You military, Slim?”
“Were you in the Army?”
“You see action?”
“Yes. In the Gulf. In Texas.”
“Oh, yeah? What side?”
He stopped talking. He stared at me. “America. Our side.”
“So what were you fighting for?”
His eyes went down to the gun, then back to my face; my face was set and cruel. He knew where I was going. So did I. I couldn’t stop. “I said, what were you fighting for, Slim?”
This scene, this moment when the protagonist backs his opponent into a corner of stark self-reflection, is haunting — but not just for the fact that it plays like a dream scenario so many of us today wish we could play out with our ideological opponents (“Just open your eyes and SEE WHAT YOU ARE DOING, Gronathan!”).
It is haunting because, while the racist Northerner who killed other human beings in order to preserve the institution of slavery is clearly the villain, it is the protagonist — who has already been honest with himself about what is right and what is wrong – who’s still employed by that same slave-holding government, still actively perpetuating the slave economy, and thus, the degradation and death of ever more human beings. He is a victim of the system, but he is also complicit.
Set in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia in the first half of the Civil War, “Mercy Street” uses the historic Mansion House Hospital as its lantern in illuminating the complexities of domestic life during the real internecine battle for our nation’s soul.
But while the setting is geographically limited, the cast of characters is sprawling, encompassing an equal number of figures from every possible social and ideological side: Union abolitionists, Union ambivalents, Confederate-friendly capitalists, Confederate extremists, free-born Northern Black laborers, newly-free escaped slaves (known as “contraband”), wounded soldiers from both sides, representatives of multiple religious viewpoints, and one very bloodthirsty British Lordling (“Teen Wolf’s” own Daniel Sharman)…
It is not just the cast of characters that is formidable, but the cast of actors, too. At the helm are Mary Elizabeth Winstead (“BrainDead,” “Scott Pilgrim”) as head nurse and “noisy abolitionist” Mary Phinney; Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) as civilian surgeon and ambivalent plantation heir, Dr. Jedediah Foster; McKinley Belcher III (“Show Me A Hero”) as Samuel Diggs, a free-born laborer with secret physician’s training; and AnnaSophia Robb (“The Carrie Diaries”) and newcomer Hannah James as Alice and Emma Green, respectively, daughters of the prominent Confederate-friendly family whose grand hotel has been requisitioned for the hospital: The latter ends up apprentice to Mary Phinney, the former joins a secret society of Confederate extremists bent on assassinating Lincoln.
This clutch is joined by Jack Falahee (“How To Get Away With Murder”) as Frank Stringfellow, Confederate spy and saboteur; Gary Cole (“Veep”) and Donna Murphy (“Center Stage”) as the Greens’ patriarch and matriarch; L. Scott Caldwell (“Lost”) as Belinda, the Green’s devoted family servant (and former slave), Jack MacFarlane (“Killjoys”) as the hospital’s Union chaplain; Tara Summers (“Boston Legal”) and Norbert Leo Butz (“Bloodline”) as comedic foils Nurse Anne Hastings and Dr. Byron Hale; Shalita Grant (“NCIS: New Orleans”) as a contraband woman suffering an abusive steward to bring her son out of slavery; Patina Miller (“Madame Secretary”) as a Black abolitionist come down from Boston to oversee the contraband camp, Brían F. O’Byrne (“Aquarius”) as Allan Pinkerton (yes, THAT Pinkerton), Lyne Renee (“Split”) as a French artist and anatomist, and Cameron Monaghan (“Shameless,” “Gotham”) as Alice Green’s childhood sweetheart, a Confederate soldier with severe PTSD.
In short: “Mercy Street” has the chops. But PBS isn’t trying to claim “prestige” status by cast alone. In spite of the limitations such a sprawling, IMDb-rabbit hole ensemble might present, “Mercy Street” manages to give each actor ample opportunity to do very good work, and to give each character space to not just breathe, but grow.
This goes for the one-off characters, too — especially the soldiers in the Mansion House Hospital tasked, usually within a single episode, with providing insight into deeply significant social and/or medical aspects of the Civil War that the show doesn’t have time to examine at greater length. Two particular standouts in this arena are Carolyn Braver, who in “Southern Mercy” plays a Union soldier who turns out to be a young woman in disguise (a common occurrence throughout the war), and real-life vet Kyle Moser, who in “One Equal Temper” plays a double amputee dying of sepsis, a side effect of surgery that modern medicine has made significantly less fatal.
These “wounded of the week” arcs could so easily slip into pedantry on the part of PBS’ historians — but the performances of Braver, Moser and the rest keep them all firmly grounded in reality. And in both these small arcs and the longer arcs of the main figures, the profundity of every character’s humanity, of their internal convictions and conflict, is stated plainly in even the slightest shift of expression. To watch these actors work is to empathize on the most basic level with their characters — an achievement which isn’t just artistically impressive but crucial, given the wide range of the characters’ motivations and philosophies.
With half of the cast, this means we empathize with the well-meaning, if privilege-blinded, white abolitionists (Mary Phinney lead among them), and the with the well-meaning, if circumstance-limited, free and contraband black laborers. To imagine life in these characters’ bodies is challenging, but rewarding.
With the other half of the cast, though, the show’s success in wrenching profoundly recognizable humanity from each and every one of them means we are empathizing with the active, and frequently violent, support of slavery:
This is, and should be, haunting. It’s not merely the freshman-dorm emotional what-ifs of “High Castle’s” crying Nazis, but a true-to-life and -current events portrait of how easily a complex person can compartmentalize, within a given status quo.
Still, we don’t confuse empathy with sympathy: “Mercy Street” knows the difference, and succeeds at creating a world in which “gotta hear both sides” means that the flawed humanity each “side’s” ideology is rooted in is crystal clear, without ever implying that the arguments have anything like equal legitimacy: A necessary step in understanding civil dignity, and one increasingly forgetten.
As viewers we both empathize with and have sympathy for the black victims of slavery and white supremacy, and for their efforts to heal and build new families and careers for themselves, and we both empathize with and have sympathy for the white abolitionists and medical staff supporting the Union cause… But obviously, “Mercy Street” doesn’t ask the same for its Confederates, whether militant or simply complacent in their supremacy.
In showing Emma Green fighting her own moral compass as she spends more time in the Union hospital with Mary and the Chaplain and less with her family; or her mother, Jane, finally seeing the truth of her loyal former slave’s miserable life; or Frank Stringfellow (Jack Falahee) doing the mental calculus of leaving non-violent Amish witnesses to his escape from Alexandria alive, “Mercy Street” does ask that we consider the fact that for the most part, Confederates were not irredeemable monsters: They were, like so many of us today, flawed human beings who were (deeply) wrong about something that was (and is) evil, gripping so tightly to their willful blindness and a dying way of life that they were choking over it.
And in the current world and climate, the most dangerous thing of all would be to minimize this complexity, this humanity: Just like Whoopi Goldberg’s famous “rape-rape” or letting white-hooded Klansmen embody all racism, we do our society and each other the disservice of providing a fig leaf for less virulent (yet more powerful) forms of hatred and violence. “I’m not a racist, but” is the classic refrain of a racist — but what they are picturing is the irredeemable monster who lives entirely in their imagination — and entirely for the purpose of projection.
Emma, Jane, Frank — all are still eminently, recognizably human. And they grow, even if at different rates of speed, or at different provocations, which while small, is still a promising thought for those of us losing faith in the humanity of the democratic experiment today.
This promise doesn’t let any beneficiaries of white supremacy off the hook: America’s original Civil War may be over, but that alternate history in “Underground Airlines” imagines a present far too close to reality for any of us to be comfortable.
Watching the beautiful, cancelled “Mercy Street” won’t fix anything, let alone everything. But consuming stories does make us better people — and right now, the stories “Mercy Street” tells, and the way it tells them, are a powerful place to start.
Now, as you’ll have noticed if you’ve even just been hovering over the links throughout, “Mercy Street” also benefits from the thorough (and thoroughly nerdy) academic oomph behind the scenes at PBS, sporting one of the most consistent and well-sourced official show blogs of any series we’ve seen.
Each episode’s page includes not just full videos and clips, but an official GIF recap, an HD photo gallery, and several engaging and informing background blog posts from experts, both of history and of technical production. This trove of bonus content alone would warrant a slow watch of the series, if you’re not already sitting with the moral or philosophical questions that might come up between episodes.
“Mercy Street” is available to stream at PBS.org, and on the PBS app.