Underground Recap: Baptism


Troubled Water
Season 1 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating *****
Alano Miller as Cato, Aldis Hodge as Noah. Photo: WGN

Underground is a series about people who must save themselves, so it’s unsurprising that a preacher’s arrival on the Macon plantation doesn’t lead to redemption for all. In fact, Tom is terribly inconvenienced by the presence of the uptight Reverend Willowset (Wayne Pére). When you’re an alcoholic adulterer, it turns out a man of the cloth can really cramp your style. But Tom knows that sacrifices must be made in pursuit of a Senate seat, so he’s hoping to charm Willowset by promising that everyone on the plantation will be baptized in a nearby river.

Meanwhile, John and Elizabeth Hawkes are back — and despite the tragic end of Jussie Smollett, they’ve doubled down on aiding runaways. They’ve converted the nursery they were building into a hidden passage for those on the run. The only problem? The sheriff may be on to them. He suspects someone must be aiding escaped slaves, so he deputizes John and other nearby residents to help with search and capture. The Hawkes agree that they have to play along or risk being discovered.

On the run and uncertain of where to go, the remaining members of the Macon 7 — Noah, Rosalee, Cato, and Henry — try to find food. Henry nearly blows their cover by asking a white man for a meal. “We haven’t eaten in weeks,” he says, giving us a sense of how much time has passed since their escape. Eventually, they spot a party boat on the river. The group overrules Rosalee’s lone voice of dissent and hijacks the boat, forcing white revelers overboard. It’s another tough choice made of desperation, and Rosalee is starting to wonder if Noah, who first proposed the hijacking idea, is hardening under the rigors of fugitive life.

Though they succeed in forcing the passengers off the boat, August and Ben catch up to them and begin shooting before they can unmoor it. August takes out the rudder, so even as the boat floats off, it can’t be steered. He hops aboard, a fight ensues, and he manages to grab Rosalee, knocking them both into the water. Cato urges Noah to shoot at August, even though Rosalee is still entwined in his arms. Noah hesitates only because he thinks Rosalee can’t swim.

Surprise! She can. Once August is shot between the shoulder blades, he lets go of Rosalee and she swims right back to the boat. It’s a fascinating development, given everything else it reveals. We learn that Tom taught her to swim, a luxury not extended to other slaves. When she recalls to Henry what it was like to learn, her expression turns briefly wistful. It’s our first hint that she and Tom ever had anything that approached a father-daughter relationship. It’s also our first hint that she may miss him — or at least be capable of recalling him without hatred.

However, Rosalee’s swimming ability evokes dueling responses in Noah and Cato. Noah realizes she may be more of an asset than he knew, while Cato thinks that her value to Tom is a liability. “Daddy want his little girl back,” he taunts. “You gon’ sink us, house girl.” It’s surprising that Cato totally doesn’t care about the many ways Rosalee has proven herself adept. Let’s not forget that she also murdered the overseer and poisoned those dogs. Face it, Cato — Rosalee can hold her own.

While August regroups in the woods after the gunshot wound, one of the party girls from the hijacked boat approaches, pleading for help. She’s heard that Native Americans live in the woods; she’s also heard they’re dangerous. Ben, instantly smitten, begs August to bring her along.

This is an especially bad idea. August hires her as an “escort” for Ben — something Ben clearly wasn’t interested in or ready for; he’s only 11, if you’ll recall — so she seduces August instead. The morning after, Ben’s pretty disgusted with his dad. Again.

Back at the Macon plantation, Ernestine is really struggling. First, she’s sneaking nips of Tom’s brandy to cope with the stress and guilt of killing Pearly Mae. Then, when Tom tries to grope her in his office and she invokes her domme commands — she’s the one who chooses when and where they get it in — he pulls rank, telling her he can do what he wants in his house. Her façade of power instantly disappears, and even after Tom apologizes, blaming his aggression on the reverend’s presence, she’s rightfully unnerved. He asks if, just once, they can “let go” together and drop the rules. She relents for a second, kissing him, but ultimately decides to leave. Unbeknownst to her, Reverend Willowset watches her quiet exit.

Ernestine’s torment leads to a drunken kitchen confession, which Amirah Vann delivers masterfully. She’s still stealing all of her scenes. She talks to a silent butler, Herman (Jeffrey Poitier), admitting everything about her jealousy of Pearly Mae. It stemmed not just from her literacy, but because of the relative freedom afforded to field slaves at night. “We never get to let go,” Ernestine says, considering life as a house slave. She even confesses to murdering Pearly Mae. “I did it for my babies,” she says. “God have to forgive every sin for that, don’t he?” Herman doesn’t answer.

Underground constantly toys with how faith functions for the enslaved. Last week, Pearly Mae confided in Ernestine that she didn’t believe in God, but she believed in Moses. This week, Ernestine chooses to confess to Herman, rather than seeking out the preacher. Even the Negro spiritual Noah and Co. are deciphering turns religion on its ear. The song was initially written as act of worship to God, and now it’s been repurposed as an assertive anthem: God helps those who help themselves.

Sober by the light of morning, Ernestine joins a line of Macon slaves, all dressed in white, for their baptisms down by the river. Now that she’s confessed to someone, she’s ready to be cleansed. She nods, feeling comforted when Willowset intones, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” When he asks if she is ready to accept the one true God, the relief on her face is palpable. She’s ready to be saved. Moments before Willowset submerges her in the water, though, he whispers, “I have seen you, Jezebel.” As he holds her underwater way too long, we’re left to realize the truth: There’s no religious salvation to be found for Ernestine.

Back on the boat, Rosalee has disappeared. Cato taunts Noah, claiming Rosalee has lost faith in Noah and his plan. While August waits for them on other side of the shore, he’s approached by a large band of bounty hunters, led by a man named Jeremiah Johnson (Christopher Backus). He proposes that his team and August split the money for the runaways.

Not so fast. As the boat comes into sight and our escapees begin to lose hope, gunshots fire off behind August and Jeremiah’s team. After they scatter, figures emerge from behind the brush. It’s the Native Americans everyone has been referencing, here to save the day — and Rosalee is standing beside them.

Noah is so, so smitten right now.

Other Notes:

  • It’s interesting that Elizabeth, not John, is the one who writes letters to William Still. There’s double meaning hidden within the letters, as the nursery and the Hawkes’s unborn children stand in for their hideaway and the runaways. Has Elizabeth ever been as candid about those lingering hopes for children? Certainly not with John.  
  • Marc Blucas and Chris Meloni sure do appear shirtless a lot, huh?
  • August’s wife is missing from the mental hospital. In a show already packed with plot, that detail is certain to further complicate things. But how?
  • Though Noah is Henry’s self-professed mentor, Cato is the one who teaches him how to fight with a knife. Cato’s advice: “Always follow the hands, not the eyes. The eyes can lie.” I’ve got a feeling that’ll come back to bite Cato — or that Henry will prove himself a quick study in a fight with an adversary.
  • Cato’s ruthless streak continues: When the crew finds a stowaway on the boat and spares him in exchange for his supposed knowledge about “Indians willing to help them” to freedom, Cato kicks him out into the water, hands still tied, before they can find out if he was bluffing. Cold-blooded.

Underground Recap: Baptism