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Both Sides Still Bleed in Season 2 of PBS's 'Mercy Street'
January 22, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Josh Radnor describes his Dr. Jed Foster character in the Civil War drama Mercy Street as an “optimistic cynic.”

“Optimistic about the future of medicine,” says Radnor. “Cynical about human nature.”

Jed Foster is in the right place to test both those theses in Mercy Street, whose second season premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.

It will pick up where it left off, at Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Va., during the early days of the Civil War. Mansion House Hospital is a Southern estate that has been commandeered by the Union as a medical center, and because it’s a Union facility in a Confederate state, civilians and wounded soldiers from both sides mingle.

That makes it fertile ground for drama that focuses less on battlefields than on what the Civil War did to all the non-soldiers, from nurses and ideologues to bystanders and black folks slave and free.

The constant is that the war produced a growing flow of injured soldiers.

“The Civil War was really the birthplace of modern Western medicine,” says Radnor, largely because it had to be. The sheer carnage, the unprecedented number of wounded soldiers, forced medical personnel to find more efficient and effective ways to care for them.

“Doctors always have the sense they’re on the brink of some fantastic discovery that will save lives,” says Radnor. “At this point, they were.

“They’re still about 10 years from realizing what will cut down on diseases from infection. But they’re figuring out anesthesia. In the first episode of the series we pulled off a blood transfusion, which no one thought could work. It’s an exciting time to be on the cutting edge of medicine.”

Not everyone trusts the view from the edge, of course, including Jed’s first boss Dr. Byron Hale (Norbert Lee Butz, right).

Hale prefers sticking with the procedures that have been standard practice for decades, which is exactly the kind of attitude that fuels Foster’s cynicism.

“Jed has no patience,” says Radnor, “for people who are backward-thinking, like Dr. Hale.”

Truth is, Jed has little patience for a lot of people. He’s blunt enough that even though he’s one of the two or three pivotal characters in the hospital and on the show, he often came off in the first season as rather unpleasant.

Radnor says not to worry, that’s part of Jed’s deal.

“I lean into his prickly side,” says Radnor. “I let him be short with people. It’s a trap to always be asking for love from the audience.”

On the love front, the audience might be more wondering whether Jed will eventually bond with Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, with Radnor, right), an abolitionist nurse.

While they clearly formed a connection in the first season, they both also mostly busied themselves with other matters.

“He’s a man of great feelings,” says Radnor. “But he keeps them closely controlled. He has a surgeon’s armor around him.

“He’s arrogant, no question. He’s trying to save lives. He’s like a surgeon in the ER, because essentially this is an ER. No one had any idea the war would last as long as did.”

That realization in turn stirs Jed’s own feelings about the war. 

“He wasn’t a fan,” says Radnor. “In some ways, he was very opposed to it, seeing it as a kind of hell we make for ourselves.”

But as it keeps expanding, he understands the stakes reach far beyond battlefields.

“It was a war that, ideologically, is still raging today,” Radnor says. “The underlying issues are still being fought now.

“The war presented great opportunities for [President Abraham] Lincoln and for the Emancipation movement. But what lay beneath those actions are things we’re still dealing with in so many ways.”

Radnor notes that Lincoln himself changed his views on slavery as the war went on, and the characters in Mercy Street engage in similar reflection. 

“I don’t know that anyone could be unchanged by the Civil War,” he says. “Especially characters who see the level of human suffering.”

Radnor says viewers will notice changes in the second season, and not just in the action itself.

“I look back on the first season and I would have played it a little differently,” he says. “Jed is very cool. He conserves his energy. I feel he may get a little more active.”

Second seasons tend to be different from first seasons anyhow, he adds, explaining that “the first season, they’re writing characters without actors. The second season, you’re writing with your group in your head. It’s a little more tailor-made. It becomes more of a symbiotic relationship.”

As for where the whole show is going, Radnor pleads ignorance. 

“You never know how it’s going to develop,” he says. “In many ways, it’s a leap of faith. But I love being here.”

He adds that when he took the role, he had a slight sense of déjà vu, because he had played a doctor in an L.A. theater production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

“So it’s pretty amazing now,” he says, “to play a doctor who can reference Chekhov.”

Just so he doesn’t get bored, Radnor is also writing a play and a book. What he doesn’t do is wonder what happened to his best-known TV character, Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother.

“I get asked,” he says with a laugh. “And I say look, he was a fictional character. So who knows?”

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