I feel like WGN America’s Underground is a show more people should be watching. Are a lot of people watching it? I don’t know; I’ve only seen two people post about it in my facebook newsfeed so based on that unscientific barometer, I’m going to say people may be watching but not enough people are talking about the John Legend executive produced series. Granted nothing has the social media buzz of the Shondaland shows and Empire but I’m going to do my little bit here at the blog to tell you why I think more people should be watching Underground.
I wrote about the show initially after watching episode 5. Then episode 6 came along with that final potentially iconic image of Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee coming to the rescue of her fellow runaways while looking like a cross between Black Widow, Lara Croft, and Pocahontas i.e. a bad ass Amerindian warrior woman, and it occurred to me how oddly feminist this show is because of visually striking moments like that yes but also in the complexity with which it writes its female protagonists and the initiative/the agency it allows them as they ‘manipulate’ their way within their admittedly confining circumstances. In this same episode, we see Elizabeth (played by Jessica de Gouw), wife to a white lawyer with abolitionist leanings, counsel and aide her husband as they jointly avert suspicion of their activities in a way that underscores that she is the backbone of that particular pairing. It was inspired on the writers’ part to let her voice be the one of reason and to let her be the one responsible for the telling – via a letter to another character but really to us, the viewer. And yet, these women are not superwoman – Rosalee, like her fellow runaways, not all of whom she can be sure mean her no harm, is afraid but keeps moving forward; and Rosalee’s mother (Ernestine, played by Amirah Vann) grapples with the guilt of her actions in episode 5, drowning her sorrows in drink, but only when it’s safe to let her guard down for a minute. There are very few such minutes in the life of a house slave as she monologues in episode 6.
These women have me thinking of Harriet Tubman, the woman most associated with the Underground Railroad – the path to freedom for African Americans during the time of their enslavement, and how we see her as this fierce and determined woman willing herself and her fellow escapees to freedom, and going back for more…several times. Think she wasn’t scared? I venture to say she must’ve been but she felt the fear and did it anyway. And that’s the measure of courage isn’t it – not not feeling fear but pushing through it to do what must be done, daring in spite of fear not in the absence of it.
That daring can lead to questionable actions. Consider the episode (episode 5) that prompted me to write about this show in the first place, and particularly the moment in that episode that had me sitting there with my mouth open. It really shouldn’t have. Ernestine had already proven time and again that she would do anything to protect her children even given the limited maneuvering room she has working in the big house on the Macon plantation in the slavery-era-South. She is a slave, every child she has, including the ones with her ‘owner’, is a slave; and a running theme through this series about the Underground railroad from the beginning has been what wouldn’t a mother do to protect her child. What, indeed.
For one woman – in episode one – it meant killing her new born; for another – Pearly Mae played by Adina Porter, it meant putting herself between the slave catcher’s bullet and her fleeing husband and child; and for Ernestine, it meant poisoning Pearly Mae when she seemed poised to take the mistress’ deal of freedom papers for her and her daughter in exchange for the runaways’ whereabouts. With Ernestine’s daughter, Rosalee, among the runaways, she couldn’t have that. While it is not the path she necessarily planned for her daughter who is, as her master, also her daughter’s daddy, said, “delicately made”, now that she’s on the run, Ernestine’s going to do everything she can to ensure she doesn’t return – even if it means she, Ernestine, doesn’t get to see Rosalee again.
In an episode, episode 5, in which one Hulk-sized male runaway fuelled by adrenaline and desperation killed three slave catchers after taking several bullets and a hatchet to the back before being felled by blood loss, it is the iron will of the women, their courage under pressure, that most impressed.
Other reasons I’m watching? It’s educational on a visceral level. A part of me watches looking for clues to human nature – not the nature of the ones on the extremes necessarily but the ones in the middle (the ones who could be us) who live in a world of normalized horror, not oblivious to but accepting of it. A part of me watches, fascinated at the ways oppressed people make life when even their life is not their own – the episode with the cotillion, for example, which illuminates the roots of a ritual that’s still part of the modern black American experience in some circles. A part of me, I remember, watched one of my nephews’ reactions as we watched the first episode, the reality of enslaved people he’d read about coming alive (he watched like it was a horror show – because horrific it was). It proved to be a teachable moment.
Underground – a slave narrative with modern music, paced like an action film – is, also, proving to be quite invigorating and entertaining television. Before it aired, I saw some complain on social media that they were tired of slave narratives and wouldn’t be watching. And while I understand where that is coming from – the story of downtrodden black hope is one Hollywood loves to tell – I think they’d be surprised. These Enslaved are the opposite of downtrodden and even at their most desperate, the opposite of hopeless.
From episode one when we meet Aldis Hodge’s Noah, re-captured and returned to the plantation he’d run away from – I wager it was not a real runaway attempt but a reconnaissance mission – we see in his eyes and in the way he carries himself that (though he’s beaten, and he is, literally) his humanity has not been beaten out of him. That he is a calculating man, a man with a dream and with the charisma to recruit others to his cause. He realizes early on that to make it he can’t go it alone. All but one of his fellow runaways take some convincing – and one buckles when the time comes. I can’t judge them for that – we still get in our own way and we have more agency over our lives than enslaved people for whom getting up had real consequences. They plot and prepare – deciphering a written song, song being one of the ways enslaved people passed on messages, devising a way across the bridge, testing them etc. But when time comes to improvise – i.e. after Rosalee, also Noah’s love interest, deathly injures the overseer during an attempted rape, forcing her and Noah to break with the plan and run – they do. But, once they’re clear-ish, in one of the show’s sweeter moments, precursor to Noah and Rosalee’s first kiss, Noah, a man of his word and a believer in strength in unity, explains that he has to return for his crew. Thankfully, he didn’t have to go all the way back as his crew showed some initiative, all but one (as mentioned) getting themselves free – albeit with a snake in the midst.
It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out – do they discover the former slave driver’s betrayal, how he pulled a Shane (remember when Shane shot Otis in the leg on The Walking Dead to buy himself some time), or does he, through association with them, become someone with the courage to sacrifice for others.
Hot on their tail is for me so far the show’s most infuriating character – infuriating not because he’s unrelenting evil, he isn’t.
He is an honest man doing an honest day’s work – it just so happens that that work is slave catching and he is both competent and persistent. Played by Christopher Meloni, he is a charmer, sweet talking the runaways he catches into the back of his wagon under the guise of helping them, almost snagging Rosalee at one point. And though he’s morally conflicted, as he passes on the knowledge of tracking runaways to his son, he’s the biggest threat to our heroes. At the start of episode 5, there are shades of his Law & Order SVU Elliot Stabler character as he reads the evidence, profiles the runaways, and gets too damn close to foiling their plan.
Up to this point, they are still ahead of the slave catchers, intrigue is afoot back on the plantation, and if you’re like me, you can’t wait to see what happens next. And after the death of one of the escapees and the poisoning of Pearly Mae by Ernestine, the audience now knows that anything can happen, that not even our heroes are safe.
Underground is an intriguing insight into a part of the slave narrative that’s been undertold – the ways the enslaved people claimed their humanity, through the life and rituals they made on the plantation and through the ways they plotted their freedom. I say plotted because it wasn’t all instinct. It was brain and nerve and ingenuity and, yes, instinct; and it is an exciting – and oddly liberating – thing to witness, all to the tune of hip hop fuelled soundtrack.
Aldis Hodge (who I first saw on Supernatural) and Christopher Meloni (who I first watched on Oz) are two of the reasons this show caught my eye. Even given the milieu, they remain eye catching, no?