'Mercy Street' Exec Producers Preview "More Ambitious" Second Season

Mercy Street Still - H 2015
Courtesy of PBS

Mercy Street Still - H 2015

PBS' Mercy Street is changing things up a bit when it returns in early 2017 for its second season.

"It feels much more ambitious," executive producer Lisa Q. Wolfinger told reporters Friday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour.

Season two of the Civil War drama will expand outside of the Mansion House hospital where much of the six-episode first season took place to include more battles and a deeper look into the contraband world, as well as more outdoor scenes. "[These] were things we felt we hadn't quite delivered in season one and we could deliver in season two," said executive producer David Zabel. "There was an element of it that was a little bit too contained."

The result is six new episodes that have "more scope and expanse," Zabel continued. It's "opening up the show."

The new season begins in June 1862 at the conclusion of the Peninsula Campaign during which the Union was turned away by the Confederate forces in Richmond, the show's real-life setting. The six episodes run through September 1862 and the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam — largely regarded as the bloodiest day of the war.

"It's still relatively early in the war," said Mercy Street star Josh Radnor. "No one saw a four-year war coming, so there is a feeling of slight dread in the second season. … This war's only get to worse before it gets better."

For the battle scenes, the production tapped Civil War reenactors as well as more stuntmen to make the scenes feel as authentic as possible. "We didn’t have 200 extras but we managed to shoot something that was quite effective and powerful," said Wolfinger. "It made production a little more challenging, but much more exciting."

However, there will still be plenty of time in the hospital. Season two of Mercy Street will delve more into women's health, reproductive health, smallpox, typhoid and will even include an autopsy. "[These are] real and intense medical issues that come from this history," said Zabel. Added Norbert Leo Butz, who plays Dr. Byron Hale: "While we're helping the wounded, we're trying to learn about science with this plethora of human species."

There also will be more romance in season two, as Radnor previewed a love triangle between his character, Dr. Jedediah Foster, Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and "another love interest from the past" who pops up in season two.

"In this season, he swaps one addiction for another," Radnor said of his character's feelings for Mary. "He has a shell around him, and Mary somehow really starts to chip away at that. … He doesn’t have a needle in his arm very much this season, but it's no less dramatic."

Season two also brings several new faces into the mix, including Patina Miller (Madam Secretary) as Charlotte Jenkins, a runway slave who fled to the North 10 years ago but returns to become a abolitionist and an activist. "She wants to empower others," Miller said.

Another is Brian F. O'Byrne, who plays Alex Pinkerton, the head of Union Intelligence who is a "thorn in the side of the Green family," according to Zabel, who also teased a "brief appearance" by President Abraham Lincoln.

Although many of the show's stars have other full-time gigs — BrainDead's Winstead, How to Get Away With Murder's Jack Falahee, Veep's Gary Cole and Bloodline's Butz, just to name a few — nearly the entire ensemble will return for season two.

"It's sort of a very bespoke organization that we put together and customize each season," said executive producer David W. Zucker, who explained that the cast are approached per individual season rather than signing anyone to long-term contracts that are standard on network television. "I think we're doing it contrary to how this business usually operates. … We're hoping to bring everyone together each season as best we can."

He added, "We have seasons and seasons of story to tell."

Mercy Street is set to return in January on PBS.