The pilot episode of Underground opens with a black man running frantically through Georgia underbrush at night. A white man is in hot pursuit, wielding a bloodhound’s leash in one hand and a gun in the other. It is 1857, but Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” scores the scene. After a few rhythmic breaths and jump cuts, the black man — our central enslaved protagonist, Noah (Aldis Hodge) — is caught, knocked out cold by the slave catcher’s rifle.
The contemporary score and stylized cinematography is supposed to signal that Underground isn’t your mama’s slave narrative. It’s an action-packed drama about daring escapes. But if you’ve watched Roots or read Beloved, “The Macon 7 ” will seem familiar to you.
The next scene pans slave women and girls, picking cotton and plaiting each other’s hair in the fields of the Macon family plantation. Cato (Alano Miller), a menacing black overseer, paces the field. A few yards off, in the garden outside the big house, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is picking flowers for the master’s table. A frantic field hand runs up and asks for help. Rosalee tells him to fetch her mama. She breaks into a run, lifting her fancy skirts as a drum-laden score carries her down to the slave quarters; the action is meant to parallel Noah’s running in the cold open. It’s the first of many moments that suggest these two kids are gonna be in cahoots.
In the slave quarters, Rosalee finds a howling woman named Seraphina (Devyn A. Tyler) is in labor with a breech baby. When Rosalee’s mother, Ernestine (Amirah Vann), arrives, she gets elbows-deep in uterus, much to the chagrin of Zeke (Theodus Crane), the expectant father. Almost too quickly, Rosalee emerges from the quarters with a large, completely dried-off newborn. She places him into his Zeke’s hands with awe.
We then cut to a white man dragging a podium up some courthouse steps, set to a Southern rock song. We’re in Washington, D.C., “My name is John Hawkes and I stand before you today because the future of our country is being decided inside this courtroom. Dred Scott, by law, is not allowed a legal defense,” he proclaims. Hawkes is pro-abolition, but if the well-to-do white passersby are any indicator, no one else in downtown D.C. is — except for a well-dressed black onlooker in the distance.
Cut to a post office, where August Pullman (Meloni) asks the postman to write a letter to someone named Charlotte at Washington Hospital. Charlotte seems to suffer from mental illness. The postman notes that the hospital has asked for more money for Charlotte’s care three times. The camera lingers on a “Wanted” poster for runaway slaves, including a woman. August tells the postman to be sure to tell Charlotte that her family misses her.
Later, August encounters the slave catchers who are transporting Noah and other captured men in the woods. As he stares off at a bit of brush, the catchers note that a woman is still missing.
Back on the plantation, Rosalee and Ernestine prepare to serve lunch to the Macon family. “You should know there’s trouble with one of the field hands; got the white folks on edge,” Ernestine warns Rosalee. At the table, we learn that the master, Tom Macon (Reed Diamond), is running for Senate. They’ve chosen to use the birthday of his teenage daughter, Mary (Mary Katherine Duhon), as a political fundraiser. She’s none too thrilled, though her younger brother, T.R. (Toby Nichols), is content to stick string beans up his nose and ignore the family banter. He’s already my favorite Macon.
In D.C., Hawkes is dragging his lowly podium back to his wagon. The free black onlooker introduces himself as William Still (Chris Chalk). I know it’s un-P.C. to comment on how articulate a brother is, but Chalk’s diction really is pristine. Still asks Hawkes to offer his house — which is apparently “along the Ohio River” — as a hiding place for slaves. John says he wishes he were a better man, then takes a swig from his flask and declines.
August heads back to that brush he eyed in the woods, where he finds a runaway slave woman. He treats her kindly and hides her in his wagon as slave catchers approach. When they insist on checking his wagon, he knifes one and trains his guns on both until they let him (and his hidden cargo) pass. Noah witnesses it all.
Hawkes returns home to find his wife, Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw) taking a sledgehammer to their walls. She says “the baby” will need light, but a couple of quick flashbacks inform us that she’s infertile. Hawkes tries to be supportive. He tells her the Dred Scott case isn’t going well.
In a one-room shack, Noah encounters a fellow captured slave who’s near death; the man tells him he’s carved out “the road to freedom” on the wall, then he dies. Noah rips a sleeve from his shirt, traces the wall with blood from his own bleeding leg, and presses the fabric to the wall to copy the words.
We meet Rosalee’s two brothers: Sam (Johnny Ray Gill), who’s around her age — late teens, early 20s — and James (Maceo Smedley), who’s about six. While visiting Sam in the field, Rosalee sees a slave being roughed up for intel on Noah’s wheareabouts. And then, on her way back to the house, Rosalee decides to visit Seraphina and the newborn. Seraphina’s standing outside, insisting her child is now free. Rosalee goes into the hut; in the pilot’s biggest nod to Beloved, the baby is drowned.
Tom Macon interrogates Noah upon his return. Noah insists he wasn’t running, but that the dogs were sicced on him before he could show his travel pass. Macon then delivers a flurry of evil exposition: He’s been the master of the plantation for 20 years, no one’s ever successfully escaped, and it’s 600 miles to freedom. He orders Noah to be lashed five times.
August stops his wagon and offers the woman water from his own canteen. She asks why he’s helping her. He says he’s doing this for his son, Ben (Brady Permenter), and Ben’s future.
Rosalee is sent to tend to Noah’s lashes. She realizes that he’s been faking his leg injury. “Why is you’s pretendin’?” she asks. “Oh, we all pretendin’ in some way.” They’re definitely gonna court when they get to a free state.
We’re abruptly dropped into a scene where Hawkes and Elizabeth have the most awkward mid-coital conversation ever, as he asks her to consider hiding runaway slaves in their home. She refuses, and reminds him they have to look out for their family. “What family?” he scoffs. Hawkes is in the doghouse now.
At the big house, Ernestine does Mary’s hair for her birthday. The mistress, jealous about her daughter’s effusive thanks, threatens to sell Ernestine’s youngest son, James (Maceo Smedley). We see T.R. playing with James, and they upset a cart in the road in front of the house. The mistress pointedly sends Rosalee to call her son back to the porch, leaving James to bear the brunt of the white cart-driver’s rage. Rosalee takes the lashes intended for James.
Plot twist! We learn plantation owner Tom Macon and pro-abolition John Hawkes are brothers when Hawkes and his wife arrive at the plantation for Mary’s party.
In the field, the slaves hold a funeral for Seraphina’s baby. They sing a spiritual. (One of the slaves — the song leader — is played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s husband, recording artist Josiah Bell. Keep it in the family.)
Noah confronts plantation preacher Moses (Mykelti Williamson), who he believes is literate, and asks him to read his fabric. Moses later takes the fabric to his wife, Pearly Mae (Adina Porter) who’s actually the reader in the family. She says it’s a song her mother used to sing, but the words have been changed.
While Tom asks Hawkes to be his campaign manager, Suzanna and her Southern belle friends are real bitches to Elizabeth, but she’s too distracted to notice. She can’t pry her eyes from the ceiling. Elizabeth then tries to hold her own by pointedly asking if Suzanna baked the cake herself. Suzanna then mocks Elizabeth’s infertility before walking away with her minions. The camera cuts back to the ceiling and we learn that James has been sitting in a small swing up there, fanning Elizabeth with a giant blue feather. It’s the most unnerving and best-executed moment in the whole hour, and it ultimately compels Elizabeth to change her mind about making their home an abolition safe house.
In the next scene, two slave catchers try to collect rewards on the slaves they’ve turned in, insisting that the missing runaway woman fell off a cliff. The payer exposes their lie; the woman was already brought in without a scratch by … August?! How could you, sir?!
In the show’s final moments, Noah is summoned to the big house. When he gets there, Cato is waiting to blackmail him. They clearly detest each each other. He says he wants in on the escape plan or he’ll tell the master that Noah didn’t get lost on his travel errand, but was, in fact, scouting his escape route. Noah grudgingly agrees. This can’t be good.