I wish I was a U.S. Civil War historian or at least a Civil War reenactor so I could get really riled up and angry about PBS Masterpiece’s latest historical costume drama Mercy Street (2016). But as more of a generalist, and this production being not horrible, yet not by any means great, the most I can work up is a big fat MEH. The costumes are overall accurately done, and it appears that some money was thrown at the miniseries. We don’t see egregious errors of hair, makeup, materials, or silhouette that will quickly date it as so very 2010s. What shows its age is a script that’s riddled with modern cliches, melodrama, and an amazingly squishy bending-over-backwards attempt to show everyone involved in the Civil War as nuanced and complicated and principled that results in no one character in the show being at all interesting or believable.
Let’s being with the
- Mary Phinney — the wealthy, widowed, volunteer nurse, who’s also an New England abolitionist (that’s at least 3 cliches).
- Dr. Jedediah Foster — the unhappily married, drug-addicted doctor who knows cutting-edge medical techniques and considers all wounded men equal, Union or Confederate, but is just fine with slavery (5 cliches)
- Anne Hastings — bossy know-it-all nurse who worked with Florence Nightingale and thinks Phinney is useless amateur, and Hastings is shagging the second doctor (3 cliches)
- Samuel Diggs — the free black laborer at the hospital who was trained in medicine by his former employer and is in love with a female escaped slave who works in the hospital laundry and is getting raped by a sadistic white man (3+ cliches)
- Emma Green — the Southern Belle daughter of the family who owns the hotel that’s turned into the Union hospital, she beings nursing the wounded (2 cliches, but I’m sure she’ll pile on more as the story proceeds)
- James Green, Sr. — the Southern patriarch whose property is being used by Union soldiers, while he’s also making back-handed deals to the Yankees, plus his woodworking factory employs free black men, not slaves, because he’s just that enlightened (3 cliches)
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The subordinate characters are just as much stock figures, nothing original or new, and their storylines are awfully predictable. Now, I’ve watched The Crimson Field and ANZAC Girls recently, and both of those miniseries about WWI nurses had some of the typical ‘women in wartime’ storylines such as the experienced nurse vs. the inexperienced one, class issues between women, and, of course, romance. But those two serials primarily had women as the protagonists, which I found more interesting (that’s how we roll around here), and neither of those shows felt like they were forcing a politically correct angle down my throat.
See, one problem with American Civil War dramas is that everyone wants to rewrite history for their own biases. That always happens with history, but we’re still pretty prickly about that little war between the states, what with slavery and entrenched racism and all (go look up #BlackLivesMatter if you think the issues started back with the secession aren’t lingering in the U.S. now). As a born Southerner who’s lived most of her life in the ultra-liberal San Francisco Bay Area, I have a deep understanding of white liberal guilt, and that’s what I sense oozing out of every scene of Mercy Street. The main two female characters are the least interesting because they solely exist as PC spokespeople. Mary Phinney is the Lefty who stridently tries to make everything better but has a thing or two to learn about how the Real World Works. Meanwhile, naive Emma Green is the nice little Conservative who pipes up with the voice of reason, even though she’s otherwise ineffectual and actually gets in the way. Tedious. I can’t work up enough interest in or empathy for these characters because they’re not real people — they’re just props to hang a Trite Yet Very Important Lesson on.
That said, Mercy Street passes the Bechdel test more easily than Crimson Field and ANZAC, since Finney, Green, and Hastings have pretty much no conversations about men and romance. Well, they do talk about men, but it’s just wounded soldiers, so I don’t think that counts. So yay for women who are more than mere sex objects, but boo for self-actualized AND non-boring women characters.
The Costumes in Mercy Street
Designer has been on the costume and wardrobe staff for historical productions such as Lincoln (2012), John Adams (2008), and Cold Mountain (2003). A selection of her costume sketches, sometimes with historical inspirations and fabric swatches, are featured on the PBS website. The overall look is generally right for the 1860s. This isn’t the 1930s with princess-seams and pointy boobs or some cheapo poly-baroque satin deal. Corsets and crinolines appear to be worn where appropriate, and there’s no shortage of hairpins on the ladies here.
The issues with Mercy Street‘s costumes are more subtle. Color choice and use are a little bit off for the era, and trims aren’t always quite right. Thankfully, this is most apparent in characters we see least of: the upper-class Southern ladies, matriarch Jane Green and youngest daughter Alice Green. They get the most ostentatious outfits, and when you go big, that’s when you have the most opportunity to go wrong. It’s just the risk you take. For comparison, Frock Flicks reader Sarah Wagner posted her very helpful Pinterest board of 1860s women’s day dresses full of museum extant gowns and period photos.
Some of the things worn by Emma’s impetuous younger sister, Alice, have caused a bit of controversy online.
I’m not saying the critiques are wrong, but women did wear a big ol’ lacey collars / berthas / capes in this period. The one in Mercy Street may not be the best recreation, but the floral lace is reminiscent of patterns in Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was the most popular magazine for American women in the 19th century.
Emma Green’s costumes are to a higher standard overall, which is good since she gets more screen time. As the wide-eyed innocent, she starts out in a frothy white gown, then turns to more practical calicos.
Mary Phinney and Anne Hastings get mostly practical clothes, and that works. These two are almost always in the hospital, so they don’t wear crinolines, just petticoats. Phinney re-wears the same gown a lot — I guess because she just arrived with one little carpetbag — and Hastings has several very tailored and crisp gowns — probably because she’s English and supposed to be oh-so-proper and uptight.
There’s a grand ball scene later in the series where everybody dresses up, however, and I fear that’s going to turn out the fugly. The advance stills make me question the taste level.
For comparison, here’s some historical images … similar or no?
I wish Mercy Street had more fully-realized characters and less pat storylines. I’d be less tempted to nitpick the costumes if I gave a shit about these people and what happened to them. But halfway in, watching feels like a chore (one I’m doing to write this blog post, frankly), and I don’t know that I’ll do more than TiVo and fast-forward through the rest on bored night. It’s not even bad enough to hate-watch and snark. Meh, I say, meh.
Do you have more or less mercy for Mercy Street?