Underground Recap: Ambushed

Aldis Hodge as Noah, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee. Photo: WGN
Episode Title
Editor’s Rating

This week, Underground is all about the kids. "Cradle" turns the focus to James, Boo, Ben, Henry, and T.R., as they all face major crossroads. We get our first hint that they'll be taking center stage during the cold open, which features a pair of hands rolling, cutting, and wrapping Necco wafers as a children's chorus plays as the score. The candy is a recurring visual motif throughout the episode — each time we see it, it's accompanied by a bittersweet development.

James in the Field
Despite Ernestine's best efforts to keep James away from hard labor — and a promise elicited from Tom Macon — he's reassigned to work in the cotton fields. Ernestine and Sam try to give him a crash course in cotton-picking, but his day is predictably disastrous: His little hands are bloodied, he refuses to drink the filthy water from the communal bucket, and he's threatened with punishment if he doesn't make weight of 300 pounds of cotton by day's end. As the pickers wait for their bags to be weighed, Sam switches with James so he won't have to face the lash. Sam takes his lashes instead, but Ernestine warns against any further protection, so as not to "keep James soft." James overhears this and works hard the next day, taking frequent water breaks and making weight. Sam is impressed, and so am I — especially when James later empties the false bottom he's sewn into his bag. He padded his numbers by adding dirt to the bottom.

Ernestine's entire family is clearly brilliant, thanks to her careful tutelage. But as the weeks wear on with Rosalee and the others still at large, Ernestine's "power," as it were, seems to be diminishing. She has less and less control over what happens to her children, so they'll need to rely on the survival skills she's given them. With James now working in the field, all three of Ernestine's children have been forced to adapt to enslavement in distinct ways. It's a marvel that they've mostly succeeded.

Boo on the Run
When Boo first appears in "Cradle," she's hiding inside a bunch of bushes. What happened? Where's Moses? Elizabeth spots her while walking by, then tries to coax her out, until the patrollers call out asking if she has seen a black child. After she steers them away from Boo's hiding place, she takes her inside. Tom is out of town, so it looks like Elizabeth is flying solo on this abolition mission.

We learn through flashbacks that Moses was killed in some sort of ambush; he took a few flaming arrows in the back, then fell mere feet from Boo while she was hiding. She's been fending for herself ever since. Elizabeth draws a bath for her, but she's too traumatized to get in. After a long day's silence, she begins answering some of Elizabeth's questions, revealing that she fled from the Macon plantation. Elizabeth looks ill at that news.

The sheriff — who is also Elizabeth's ex-fiancé, as you may remember — pays a visit to look for Boo. He quickly finds her hiding under the floorboards, then subtly propositions Elizabeth. Seeing no other way to keep their secret, she tells Boo to wait for her in the parlor. Day passes into night as Boo sits there, eating the occasional Necco wafer. Like James, she's learned to be silent and unsmiling. But in this moment, her face also looks far more at peace than we've seen before. Eating that candy is the first age-appropriate thing she's done in weeks. Eventually, she wanders from the parlor toward the bathroom, where she finds Elizabeth soaking in misery. Boo kneels and washes her, with what seems to be empathy and tenderness.

Ben and His Mother
When Ben and August arrive at the mental hospital, they learn Charlotte has gone missing. Ben overhears the doctor say that she's been lobotomized, and decides to track her down by using the skills August has taught him. After a quick look at the song lyrics she's scrawled onto the walls of her room, he finds his mother in the woods, singing a single bar of a hymn. August joins in, extending the song, and Charlotte is briefly coherent. She remembers her husband, but not her son. She and Ben have a sweet, sad conversation in which he asks if she recalls Jay and his story about the good and bad wolves. When she says she does, he asks which one August is. Charlotte looks worried. It's worth noting that Ben's voice has deepened. He's not quite as doe-eyed as he was when he left home. Nevertheless, he's still so innocent and impressionable; it's heartbreaking to watch August strip him of that.

Henry's Tragic Sacrifice
We catch up with the Macon escapees while they're still hiding in Indian territory. Henry's feeling left out because Noah is spending so much time with Rosalee, and befriends an abolitionist who shows him four crosses deep in the woods. The crosses signal how many caskets will be built to transport the Macon crew to the next safe station. He also shows him a hut filled with gunpowder.

Cato taunts Henry for not having Noah's full attention anymore, but Noah redeems himself by tattooing Henry and telling him they'll take on the same last name when they're free: Hampton. This means the world to Henry who, we learn, has never known any of his family. Tragically, the newly minted Hamptons will never to get to live out their brotherhood together. Their camp is ambushed, and while Henry is sitting with Rosalee, bonding over what could be their shared future as in-laws, he gets shot in the shoulder. The crew is surrounded. Henry tells Noah about the gunpowder hut, but when Noah charges toward it and gets shot, Henry takes the torch from him, running toward open fire to ignite the gunpowder hut. He succeeds, giving the others a chance to escape, and presumably dies in the explosion. It's a heroic end to a sweet character. Henry never had Cato's ruthless sense of self-preservation, and he wasn't as full of rage and flint as Noah, so it's not entirely surprising that he didn't make it.

T.R. Macon's Future
Inside the Macon household, T.R faces a much lighter coming-of-age story. He skips around with a toy, pestering the kitchen staff until Ernestine bribes him away with Necco wafers. We've seen this work for her in the past; candy is an easy currency for controlling T.R.'s behavior. But then, the boy bumps into the reverend, who says he's too old for toys. After teaching him how to mount a horse and break wild steer, Tom decides it's time for T.R. to learn the ways of plantation ownership. He tells him one day he'll own everything, including the slaves.

He gets his first lesson in handling slaves when Sam comes into the study to talk to Tom. As T.R. looks on, Sam petitions to buy James's freedom. He's saved every penny he's ever made on carpentry — nearly $100 — and presents it Tom. Tom says no, and T.R. looks uncomfortable. Later that night, as he goes to James's new home in the field quarters, he spots Sam running. T.R. tells James that he plans to make things better when he's in charge, but it may take a while. James asks how long and T.R. says, "Ten years, maybe longer." In that moment, James makes a crucial decision: He can't trust that T.R. will grow up to be kinder than the overseers and their own father. He'll inherit their cruelty. When T.R. then offers James half of the Necco wafers that Ernestine gave him, he rejects the candy outright. T.R. is so insulted that he marches right back to his dad's office to snitch on Sam. That change-of-tune didn't take long.

Other Notes:

  • Maceo Smedley had hard, heartbreaking work to do in "Cradle" and he really rose to the occasion. His performance as James is a highlight this week.
  • Bathing seems to have significance, doesn't it? The last time we saw a bath drawn, it was for Pearly Mae. Confessions were exchanged; secrets were kept. In this episode, Boo declines her own bath, but goes to Elizabeth while she bathes and silently pledges to keep her secrets.
  • Elizabeth uses sex to secure freedom, just as Ernestine attempted the same with Tom on James's behalf. We've seen how poorly that turned out. Is Boo still in trouble?
  • And once John finds out, how will he react to what Elizabeth has done?
  • Sam tells James what his father once told him: "Just 'cause you got to play dumb, don't you ever let them think you really is." It's clear that Sam, as skilled and careful as he is, took that to heart. We learn that his decision not to run wasn't cowardice — it was commitment to Ernestine and James, who need him more in the others' absence.
  • Cato is hiding something in the animal skin. Henry saw it, but I didn't. Any sharp-eyed viewers spot the object?
  • A correction: It was unclear to me last week, but Herman isn't a member of the Macon staff. He's actually the reverend's manservant. Are Ernestine's secrets safe with him?