IT'S SET IN THE US CIVIL WAR
Mercy Street is set during the most violent, tempestuous time in the history of the United States: the Civil War. The conflict, which raged in the 1860s, would claim more American lives than both the First and Second World Wars combined, and Mercy Street throws us right into the thick of the action, as the two sides battle to control the destiny of the nation. On one side is the Union, led by Abraham Lincoln. On the other is the Confederacy, a collection of states seeking to break away from the US.
At the very core of the conflict is the question of slavery, with the Confederacy bitterly opposed to ending the hideous practice. It's not just about morality, but also economics, and the very identity of the South. These are the questions faced by almost all the characters in Mercy Street, who are caught in the crossfire - sometimes literally.
IT'S A GUTSY MEDICAL DRAMA
So the time is the American Civil War, but where is the place? Mercy Street is largely set within Mansion House Hospital, in the city of Alexandria, Virginia. Once a stately home, it has been commandeered by Union forces and turned into a makeshift medical stronghold where soldiers from both sides can be treated. And that's the fascinating thing about the setting. The hospital, and Alexandria in general, is a kind of neutral oasis of (relative) calm, where enemies can mingle, along with escaped slaves, secret agents, wily entrepreneurs and medical pioneers.
The man who owns the building, James Green Sr, is a staunch Southerner who loathes the Union, and this contempt is shared by other Confederates who are forced to live and work side by side with Northerners. And if this sounds like a rather too-convenient set-up for a period drama, you may be surprised to learn...
IT'S BASED ON TRUE EVENTS
Mercy Street cleaves very close to the real history of the Civil War. Alexandria really was an unusual melting pot where people from both sides of the divide came together. Not only that, but the hospital itself existed, and the backstory involving a Southerner being forced to provide his property for medical use is completely true. A number of the main characters are directly based on real people who were there at the time, including nurses, a cunning Confederate spy, and the wealthy aristocrats whose lives are turned upside down by war.
IT HAS STORY ARCS GALORE
A good period drama should have plenty of sub-plots to get stuck into, and Mercy Street doesn't disappoint. During the course of the series we'll meet numerous characters with their own agendas, including nurses with political passions, a noble and innovative doctor who clashes with his more pedantic and old-fashioned rival, and a Southern belle who finds unexpected reserves of strength as she starts working amid the wounded men of the hospital.
We also see this world through the eyes of black Americans, whose stories were often eradicated from history. This is a series that packs in everything from morphine addiction to devious political machinations, while there are love stories that dangerously cross social and racial divides.
IT FOCUSES ON TWO STRONG WOMEN
While there's practically a city's worth of characters to meet, Mercy Street is notable for its very strong female characters such as Mary Phinney, who is an idealistic nurse vehemently opposed to slavery. Her noble moral code is tested by the everyday rough and tumble of life in Alexandria, however - especially when she starts developing feelings for a Southern gentleman who's not quite as enlightened as she is. Another woman to keep your eye on in Emma Green, who hails from the South and has led a life of pampered privilege, but is about to be utterly transformed by the storm of war.