I watched the first 2 episodes, but wasn’t hooked, and so never returned to complete the season; but those of you who stuck with it long enough to call yourselves fans, will be happy to know that PBS has announced a season 2 greenlight for “Mercy Street,” the network’s first original drama series in more than a decade. The first season, executive produced by Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, Lisa Q. Wolfinger and David Zabel, drew a 3.85 rating (Nielsen Live + 7) for the January 17 premiere, reaching more than 5.7 million viewers. The series’ six episodes have streamed 2 million times (from January 14-February 28) across all platforms.
Set on the Civil War home front of Virginia in the spring of 1862, “Mercy Street” follows the lives of two volunteer nurses on opposite sides of the conflict; Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a staunch New England abolitionist, and Emma Green (Hannah James), a naive young Confederate belle. Ruled under martial law, Alexandria was the central melting pot of the region, filled with civilians, female volunteers, doctors, wounded soldiers from both sides, free blacks, enslaved and contraband (escaped slaves living behind Union lines) African Americans, prostitutes, speculators and spies. Political persuasions open a window into a world where the unprecedented medical demands create a chaotic atmosphere and challenge doctors, nurses and patients in unimaginable ways, while the pressure of Union occupation threatens to tear apart the Confederate family.
Season two will pick up directly from the dramatic events at the end of the season one finale, continuing to explore the growing chaos within Alexandria, the complicated interpersonal dynamics of Dr. Foster, Nurse Mary and the Mansion House staff, the increasingly precarious position of the Green family and the changing predicament of the burgeoning black population. The season will introduce a number of new elements, taking us closer to the fight and into the halls of Confederate power, all set against the intensifying war, starting with the Seven Days’ Battle and culminating with Antietam.
In terms of black actors who appear in the first season of the series (it is a Civil War drama after all), Shalita Grant, L. Scott Caldwell and McKinley Belcher III all are series regulars, and are expected to return, possibly joined by a few new black actors.
From the PBS press release on each character:
Belcher plays Sam Diggs – a free black laborer in the employ of Dr. Summers. He harbors a secret knowledge of and ability in medicine, which he learned as a young servant in an enlightened northern doctor’s household. Sam is qualified to do much more than anyone would allow at this point. A black man with education and talent, he is caught between two worlds and two modes of thinking about the future. He is drawn to Aurelia. Despite her reserve and prickly facade, he gradually earns her trust. When she finally shares her secrets, he feels compelled to help her, no matter the cost.
Grant plays Aurelia Johnson – a young “contraband” (escaped slave) employed as a laundress at the hospital that’s at the center of the series. She has seen and endured things as a house slave on a southern plantation that she tries to bury deep within. Her life here is not much better than the one she fled. There is an undeniable romantic pull between her and Sam Diggs, although it is complicated by her involvement with the steward, Silas Bullen. Aurelia is single-mindedly focused on a goal that she believes can only be accomplished with the help of Silas and his many shady connections and illicit activities.
And L. Scott Caldwell plays Belinda Gibson – a house slave on the plantation of the Green family. The war has turned her world upside down and yet, despite he owner’s offer of freedom and the lure of new opportunities, she chooses to stay put out of loyalty, love and a practical realization that freedom may not be all it’s cracked up to be. At least here in the Green home she has respect, three square meals a day and a roof over her head. The main drawback, now that many of the servants have left, is that Belinda must fulfill a multiplicity of duties: lady’s maid, seamstress, cook, laundress and housekeeper. Sometimes, she wonders if she has made the right choice, and continues privately to ponder her options.
“We are thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive response to ‘Mercy Street’ and the return of high-quality American drama on PBS stations,” said Beth Hoppe, Chief Programming Officer and General Manager, General Audience Programming, PBS. “We’re looking forward to a second season offering more fascinating stories inspired by historical events. The effort from everyone involved, including the producers, directors, historical consultants, actors and PBS stations, resulted in an extraordinary series that exemplifies PBS’ world-class programming.”
To ensure historical accuracy of the first season, the producers engaged a team of advisors headed by noted historian Dr. James M. “Jim” McPherson and including leading experts on Civil War medicine, military history, African American history, women in the Civil War era and more. The team will return for season two along with Shauna Devine (“Learning From the Wounded, the Civil War and the Rise of Medical Science”), Jane Schultz (“Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America”), Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, and Anya Jabour (“Scarlett’s Sisters, Young Women in the Old South”). New additions include James Downs, (“Sick from Freedom: African American illness and suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction”) an Andrew Mellon New Directions Fellow at Harvard University; Dr. Anthony Tizzano, a member of the clinical faculty of obstetrics and gynecology at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner College of Medicine; Walton Owen, ex-curator of the Fort Ward museum in Alexandria, VA; Dr. Gordon Dammann, founder of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine; and Jay Sexton, (“Debtor Diplomacy; Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War era”) director of the Rothermere American Institute.
Amazon Prime Video is the exclusive premium subscription streaming home for “Mercy Street,” with each episode available to Prime members in the U.S. seven days after its broadcast on PBS stations.