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Series / Mercy Street

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Blood isn't Blue or Grey

Mercy Street was an American period medical drama television series that premiered on PBS on January 17th, 2016. It ran for two seasons before being cancelled the following year.

The series tells the story of two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the height of The American Civil War. It stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Phinney, Hannah James as Emma Green, Josh Radnor as Dr. Jed Foster and AnnaSophia Robb as Alice Green.


This show features the following tropes:

  • Act of True Love: In the first season finale Frank Stringfellow aborts the plan to blow up the hospital and assassinate Lincoln rather than risk that the explosion will also kill Emma.
  • Afraid of Needles: Emma and Tom are scared out of their minds when Dr. Foster produces a syringe to administer him with some morphine. All the more because syringes are a recent invention.
  • Age Lift: The historical Baroness Von Olnhausen was 44 years old in 1862, but Mary Elizabeth Winstead turned 31 while shooting the 1st season.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Amputation is the go-to treatment for pretty much any wound in the hospital. The second thing Mary sees about the hospital is amputated limbs been carried off by the cartload.
  • Apron Matron: Mrs. Brannan the formidable Irish matron who technically is in charge of the housekeeping but in fact keeps the whole hospital from falling apart and the staff off each others' throats.
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  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: The loathsome Silas Bullen ends up being nearly killed by the fanatic Confederate terrorists when he stumbles on the preparations to blow up the hospital to assassinate president Lincoln.
  • Berserk Button: Never, ever suggest to Chaplain Hopkins that slavery is morally justified. In "One Equal Temper," he angrily interrupts a Confederate chaplain's pro-slavery eulogy for a deceased rebel soldier to wax about the evils of slavery.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Nobody in this series is portrayed as being entirely in the right morally, but while on the one side you have the Union authorities being very callous and abusive towards Confederate sympathizers, on the other you have the Confederacy that fights for the preservation of slavery, and is represented on screen by an unquestionably evil secret society dedicated to the continuation and expansion of slavery and is willing to blow up a hospital to assassinate one man.
  • Composite Character: Some of the historical characters get additional attributes borrowed from other historical figures of the period:
    • Mary Phinney is a close approximation of the real Baroness Von Olnhausen, but gets her personality, New England roots and abolitionist and feminist views from Louisa May Alcott, who was also a nurse during the Civil War.
    • The real Emma Green never volunteered at Mansion House Hospital and her personality is drawn from the accounts written by other Confederate nurses.
  • Corrupt Quartermaster: Silas Bullen, the hospital's quartermaster is a villainous crook, who has veritable banquets down in the kitchens while the patients spend days without food.
  • Driven by Envy: Nurse Hastings and Dr. Hale both deeply resent and envy Nurse Mary and Dr. Foster respectively, one for her position and the other because he realizes Foster's superior skill as a physician.
  • Driven to Suicide: After escaping the hospital, Tom decides that he would rather die than return to the front lines, so he shoots himself in the head.
  • Enemy Eats Your Lunch: The Union officers quartered in the Green house regularly eat all the best food, much to the girls’ annoyance.
  • Godzilla Threshold: All the Green siblings cross it in "The Diabolical Plot" in their attempts to free their father, each in her own way...
    • Emma appeals to president Abraham Lincoln, the greatest enemy of everything her family believes in.
    • Alice Green pledges her allegiance to the Knights of the Golden Circle, a terrorist organization.
    • James Jr. signs the Union oath of allegiance.
  • Good Shepherd: Henry Hopkins, the hospital’s chaplain, takes a keen interest in the wellbeing of the patients.
  • Historical Domain Character: Many of the main characters are based upon historical figures, directly or indirectly.
    • Mary Phinney, Baroness Von Olnhausen, whose memoir provided the setting for the series and the description upon which many of the fictional characters are based.
    • Emma Green and her family are historical characters.
    • Anne Hastings is based on Anne Reading, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.
    • Frank Stringfellow was a real Confederate spy and Emma Green's fiance.
    • John Wilkes Booth himself makes an appearance, plotting to blow up the hospital to assassinate Lincoln.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • The historical Frank Stringfellow was indeed a Confederate spy in Alexandria who posed as a dentist's assistant. However, he didn’t go around murdering people left and right in the course of his spying.
    • The Knights of the Golden Circle were every bit as loathsome as the show portrays them, but there's no evidence that they ever attempted to blow up a hospital with hundreds of people in it just to try to assassinate Lincoln.
  • Hollywood Nuns: Sister Isabella and her peers walk around the hospital in full "penguin suit" habit, with Sister Isabella herself being of the "young and naive" variety.
  • Home by Christmas: The series starts in May of 1862 and almost every character on both sides is convinced that the war will be over a matter of months. In reality, the war still had almost three whole more years to go.
  • Hospital Hottie: Even in their Civil-War-era garb, it’s hard to hide how attractive some of the doctors and nurses are.
  • Hurricane of Euphemisms: Dr. Summers resorts to one of this to ask Mary about a bunch of women being attended on the hospital, but Mary doesn't understand a single one of them.
    Dr. Summers: Are they fancy girls, Miss Phinney... fast tricks, Dutch gals?
    Nurse Phinney: I don't know what those things are, sir. These women are prostitutes.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Dr. McBurney is adamant about capturing and punishing a quack peddling a magical cure with electromagnets... while at the same time being a devotee of phrenology, a pseudoscience that had already been discredited in the 1840s as quackery.
  • Insufferable Genius:
    • Anne Hastings served as nurse in The Crimean War under Florence Nightingale herself, a fact that she will keep reminding you of at every opportunity.
    • Doctor Foster is the best physician at the hospital, but he has a tendency to talk down to colleagues and nurses like they were barely-functioning imbeciles.
  • Irony: Alice's Face–Heel Turn at the end of "The Diabolical Plot" is juxtaposed with James Jr. signing the Union oath of allegiance, after much costly dithering.
  • Jerkass: Dr. Summers, the Army doctor in charge of the hospital, is a dick to Mary from the minute she walks into the hospital.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: Dr. Summers deeply resents the fact that Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Union Army Nurses has the authority to appoint the head nurse at his hospital without consulting him.
  • Kick the Dog: The Union Army seems thoroughly intent on punishing the Green family in every way possible for just the slightest sympathies to the Confederate side. They sink to their lowest in "The Dead Room" when they take control of the cemetery where Tom was supposed to be buried and parade his body like a trophy simply to make an example of him ("This is what happens to traitors!").
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: Not a single tear is shed when Frank Stringfellow stabs Silas Bullen in the kidneys and leaves him to slowly and painfully bleed to dead in a storage closet.
  • Lethal Chef: Alice's cooking will leave you in desperate need of a dentist.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Over a dozen named characters are introduced in the pilot alone.
  • Make It Look Like a Struggle: Frank insists that Alice beat the crap out of him with with a piece of wood in order to make it look like he was not involved in the use of the dental office to try to blow up the hospital.
  • Morality Kitchen Sink: The characters all run the gamut of morality, there hardly being any who are all good or all bad. On the one end, you have the compassionate nurse caring for the wounded while on the other you have Silas Bullen, the hospital's corrupt quartermaster and utter villain and the cartoonishly evil Knights of the Golden Circle.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Mr. Green's loyalty towards the Confederate cause gains this dimension once it's shown that he has no particular love for slavery.
  • Nailed to the Wagon: Nurse Mary practically confines Doctor Foster to his room in order to force him to go cold turkey about his morphine addiction.
  • New Meat: Mary has no experience dealing with battlefield injuries when she's assigned to be head nurse of the hospital.
  • No Respect Guy: Sister Isabella, the young Catholic nun volunteer who is always getting yelled at.
  • Open Secret:
    • Most of the hospital knows and delicately refuses to comment on the fact that Dr. Hale and Nurse Hastings are sleeping together.
    • Everybody in the hospital knows that Nurse Hastings carries a flask of booze at all times.
  • Playing Both Sides: James Green Sr. and his family are loyal to the Confederate cause, but that doesn't stop him from doing business and trying to profit from the occupying Union Army.
  • Passed-Over Promotion:
    • Nurse Anne Hastings doesn't even bother to hide her anger at the fact that someone with no experience has been appointed Head Nurse of Mansion House Hospital.
    • Dr. Hale deeply resents the fact that Dr. Foster gets more respect and joined the Army directly at the rank of Captain because of his medical prowess.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Our introduction to Emma Green is observing the sheer amount of work it takes to get her into her elaborate Southern Belle dress.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Some viewers complained about the subplot of Mary not having a place to sleep being a forced plot device. But the situation is taken directly from the real Baroness Von Olnhausen's account.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Mary's illness in season 2 was written into the plot to accommodate Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who had to film a role in the third season of Fargo around the same time. Sadly, Winstead's commitments ended up being at least part of the reason why the series ultimately ended after two seasons.
  • Running Gag: Mary is the widow of a German baron, but when she arrives at the hospital everyone keeps calling her “Duchess”.
  • Samus Is a Girl: After Second Bull Run, a Confederate veteran named Ames brings his sick companion to Mansion House for treatment. When Dr. Foster witnesses the two soldiers kissing, he suspects they are homosexual lovers and tries to expel them from the hospital. Turns out Ames is a woman, and her companion is her husband - she couldn't bear to be away from him, so she disguised herself as a man and joined the Army.
  • Secret Circle of Secrets: The Knights of the Golden Circle, a real-life group devoted to the preservation and expansion of slavery, they serve as the Bigger Bad for the show.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Allan Pinkerton expects everyone to know who he is by virtue of his name alone. Nobody at the hospital has a clue about who he is.
  • Southern Belle: The Green sisters embody this trope to a ridiculous degree, to the point that they keep wearing an extravagant Pimped-Out Dress for breakfast, even in the middle of an occupation and with Union officers quartered in their house.
  • These Hands Have Killed: Chaplain Henry Hopkins became a clergyman to atone for his dark past, which included accidentally killing a man. He vowed he would never take another man's life. He's forced to break that vow when he and Emma are ambushed by a Confederate soldier, and he wrestles with and drowns the Confederate soldier in the river.
  • Unfit for Greatness: Dr. Summers was promoted to Major and put in charge of the hospital because of his age and seniority, not his skills as an administrator.
  • Vorpal Pillow: Frank smothers a Union officer with a pillow and steals some plans from his room in "The Uniform."
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • In the first episode, Nurse Mary is called out by both Emma and Dr. Foster for her clear neglect of the Confederate soldiers, both pointing out that regardless of her opinions of them or the crimes they may have committed, they're still her patients.
    • In "Unknown Soldier", when Belinda abandons the Greens following a major blowup and argument, she calls them on their tendency to get into trouble by themselves despite all her best efforts to keep them out of it.
  • Worst Aid: The conditions in the hospital are absolutely appalling; with many of the patients wallowing in the same filth they had when they were brought in from the battlefield.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: The Knights of the Golden Circle are dedicated to liberating the South from the Union by the same force they believe the North to be oppressing them with.


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