It’s a searing image: a bullet piercing John Hawkes’s temple, moments after declaring himself a judicial nominee. Blood sprays in all directions as John’s body tumbles lifelessly down the steps, his eyes finally, tragically wide open to what Rosalee had been saying all along. “Rules don’t apply to black folk.”
Earlier in the season premiere of Underground, Rosalee admonished her abolitionist host, and herself, for their putting faith in the system. John was still shell-shocked that a federal judge foiled their plan to rescue Noah between jail and his return to Georgia by deeming him guilty of murder and due for hanging. John had implored the judge not to ignore law of the land, to which the presiding official merely replied, “I just did.”
The exchange is one of several allusions to our current political climate, one which — depending on where you stand — has seen men in positions of power flout constitutional freedoms in favor of restoring privilege to citizens with very particular heritage. The most profound parallels are explored amid our introduction to a clandestine, racially integrated “sewing circle” of educated women armed with pistols, intellect, purpose, and absolutely no fear. Elizabeth is their newest member, and she is in awe of Georgia, Abigail, Emily, and Sally from the start. They are beautiful, witty, and willing to rally “all forms of disruption,” as Georgia makes plain. Their circle believes in emancipation through knowledge and — when necessary — through brute tactics. It’s why Georgia reminds Elizabeth that the “best literature has its way of forcing itself into a stranger’s skin.” It’s also why she takes her out back for some target-shooting practice.
While Elizabeth warms up to her new allies and John battles institutional bias, Noah reckons with the consequences of hope and faith. He’s been imprisoned for nearly five months. His beard has grown long and untamed, but as a doctor confirms after a degrading inspection, his senses and faculties are razor-sharp. That’s apparent when Noah intervenes in his fellow inmates’ half-assed escape plan and pleads with them to follow his lead to freedom. But that’s also before John loses his case, sending Noah and his new recruits to the public gallows. In one of Underground’s characteristic concessions to its classification as a dramatic thriller, Rosalee and John create an explosive diversion and spare Noah from his fate, whisking him away on a horse-drawn wagon. A high-speed steed chase ensues and ends violently, with John taking a bounty hunter’s life and Noah being tossed over and directly into the hands of new captors. But nevertheless, he rewarded the trust of those men who stood beside him at the gallows, and they are now one step closer to freedom with Rosalee.
The question is whether Rosalee will be willing to carry on north without knowing what hell awaits Noah next. Harriet Tubman, a mentor and matron in Ernestine’s absence, worries that Rosalee will risk it all to reunite with Noah and rescue her kin. Harriet flashes her mettle as she bargains at gunpoint with bounty hunters looking to corral a hobbled refugee slave. But she also possesses some of Cato’s stoicism, and realizes Rosalee has her own lessons to learn.
If only Rosalee knew the unlikelihood that her journey will ever again be a family affair. Sam is gone, James’s location is unclear, and Ernestine is adrift in junkie delirium on a marshy plantation in South Carolina. She’s stalked by hallucinations of Pearly Mae (score for Adina Porter fans), who spells out the guilt, grief, and trauma that’s got her mixed up and all but begging an abusive new boyfriend to leave her for dead. The horrific cycle of enslavement is distilled to its essence among the weeds of Master Roe’s fields, where abuse begets abuse and late-night tribal rituals are all anyone can do to hang on to some semblance of who they are.
And yet, the most intriguing development of this very busy episode surfaces right at the start, when we meet Daniel, a skilled artisan and slave on the Fellow Plantation in Louisville who’s teaching himself to read and piece together details on what’s happening underground. Bokeem Woodbine — fresh off a career-resurgent role in Fargo — is charismatic from the get-go, his Einstein-ian hair itself a statement of independence. It’s no coincidence that Daniel comes into the picture around the same time Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and Cassius Marcellus’s names are invoked. “Contrabrand” zooms out to show us the literal landscape of slavery and path to freedom, but also to start telling the stories of those who fought and survived and contributed indelibly to who we all are today, despite those who tried to claim ownership of their lives and bodies. More than 150 years on, we’re at another kind of historic crossroads in America’s identity, and Underground has evidently embraced its opportunity to be timelier than ever.
Apart From All That
• Director Anthony Hemingway helmed several episodes of American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson between Underground seasons, and is clearly on his game here.
• Definitely eager to see Ernestine get her mojo back.
• John: “The system was built with the best of intentions, but those in power have found a way to corrupt it.” Yep, that about sums it up.
• Now that we’re two seasons in, do we agree that the contemporary soundtrack works?
• Can’t be too far from John Legend’s appearance as Douglass.
• They’re doing their mighty best to conceal Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s pregnancy. (She gave birth last November, and filming started in August.)
• August is somewhere out there, and he’s pissed. (Ditto Suzanna and T.R.)
• Of course Elizabeth finally hit the spoon.
• Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar, John Legend, and on and on … season two is breaking out the heavy music artillery right off the bat.